The backup catcher competition was one of the major position battles of spring training for the Yankees. It seems like with the 23-year-old Gary Sanchez being sent to Triple-A late last week that the 27-year-old Austin Romine will start the season in the Bronx.
Sanchez, who only had one hit in 21 at-bats in 13 spring training games before being sent to minor league camp, was likely putting too much pressure on himself. He has been in the Yankees minor league system since he was drafted when he was 17 out of the Dominican Republic and is thought of as being the next Yankees starting catcher after Brian McCann‘s contract is finished after the 2018 season.
Sanchez played well at Triple-A and in the Arizona Fall League (AZFL). He had a .295 (132 at-bats) average with six homers, 17 runs scored, 26 RBI and a .500 slugging percentage in 35 games with Triple-A Scranton to end last season. Also, as one of the team’s top prospects, he played in the AZFL, and he had a .295 average (88 at-bats) with seven homers, six doubles, four steals, 21 RBI and a .625 slugging percentage in 22 games for the Surprise Saguaros. He hit the most homers on his AZFL team and his RBI total was tied for the team lead.
However, even though he performed well offensively with Scranton and in Arizona, it makes sense that he will be starting the 2016 season with Triple-A. His weakness is his defense and Sanchez will be able to better improve his mechanics behind the plate by playing everyday with the RailRiders than once a week with the Yankees.
Another factor that has caused his development to take longer is that in the 2014 season the Double-A Trenton Thunder manager Tony Franklin benched him multiple times to discipline him because of his behavior.
“That benching was the low point of his career, it was his rock-bottom,” a team executive told Pinstriped Prospects. “He has come a long way in the last year and a half, his attitude has seen a drastic improvement and it has allowed him to grow as a player and a person.” It is a plus that his attitude has drastically improve but it can only help for him to continue to improve his leadership abilities as a catcher at Triple-A.
Sanchez has greatly improved defensively in the last few years but there is still some room to grow. He allowed a very high career-worst 26 passed balls in 2011 for Single-A Charleston, but with determination he was able to bring that number down to only two in 2015.
Sanchez, who is 6-2 and 230 pounds, allowed fewer errors last season than he did in 2014, proving his defense is getting better, but his skills behind the plate still need some more refining. He had 17 for Double-A Trenton in 2014, but with Double-A and Triple-A combined in 2015 he had 10 errors. In comparison, John Ryan Murphy, who was the Yankees backup catcher last season, only had three errors in 2015 and in 46 starts for Triple-A in 2014, he only had two errors.
Another benefit of Sanchez beginning the season at the Triple-A level is that 35 days in the minors this season will delay Sanchez’s free agency by another year. That is significant because five weeks with the RailRiders could equal control of Sanchez’s age 29 season in 2022.
Romine, on the other hand, performed better in spring training than Sanchez did. Romine had seven hits in 27 at-bats (.259) with five RBI and four doubles. He had two and 13 at-bats respectively the last two seasons, but in 2013, Romine had a .207 average in 135 at-bats with only one homer, 10 RBI and a .296 slugging percentage. He had 37 strikeouts and eight walks.
However, the California native who was drafted by the Yankees in 2007 is more known for his defense and if he can hit about .240 or .250 then he can be serviceable as the backup catcher. He has experience being the backup from his 60 games in 2013 and will be a catcher that most of the pitchers have experience with. Romine was out of options and couldn’t be sent to Triple-A out of spring training, which means that the team’s depth at the catcher position would have been hurt if Sanchez had opened the year in the Bronx.
Sanchez will likely serve an important role at some point this season once his defense improves. His bat is likely already ready and when the Yankees feel that his skills behind the plate are on par he could be able to win some games with his offense, and there are not many backup catchers who are potent offensively as he is. Sanchez slugged 25 homers in 119 minor league games last season, which proves how much power he has.