One of the few areas on the New York Yankees’ roster still up in the air as Grapefruit League play begins is backup catcher. When the team traded John Ryan Murphy to the Twins for Aaron Hicks in November, they created an opening behind Brian McCann on the depth chart that hasn’t yet been settled. Earlier in the winter, Yankee general manager Brian Cashman said that one of the biggest reasons he felt comfortable dealing Murphy was because of the breakout season top prospect Gary Sanchez enjoyed in 2015 on both sides of the ball.
Recently named the number-two catching prospect in the game by MLB.com (59th overall), Sanchez compiled a .274/.330/.485 batting line during 400 plate appearances in the upper minors before making his big-league debut in September. The attitude and work ethic concerns that had dogged him for years evaporated as he reportedly showed a new-found commitment to improving his defense. His true coming-out party may have come in the Arizona Fall League however, as he led the league in home runs and RBIs, was ranked as the second-best participating prospect by Baseball America, and took home the same Fall Stars Game MVP award won by Greg Bird in 2014.
Sanchez is the obvious heir to Bird as the most exciting position-player prospect on the roster after it was announced New York’s young first baseman will miss the 2016 season following shoulder surgery. Sanchez has the power to be the same kind of middle of the order force Bird was in 2015 when he batted .261/.343/.529 while filling in for the injured Mark Teixeira down the stretch. In addition, one of the major narratives in New York’s second half was their struggles against left handed pitching. The team’s loss to Dallas Keuchel in the Wild Card game magnified that problem. Platooning Sanchez with McCann would give Joe Girardi another dangerous right-handed bat to pencil in against lefties, along with newcomers Starlin Castro and Aaron Hicks. Girardi ensured that Yankees batters had the platoon advantage in a league-leading 73% of the team’s PAs in 2015, so it seems likely that this is a priority for him.
When looking only at the product on the field, it seems like an easy decision for the Yankees to carry Gary Sanchez as the backup catcher right out of spring training. The argument could be made that more seasoning at Triple-A would be beneficial for his development, with only 35 games at MiLB’s highest level in his career. It certainly wouldn’t hurt him. However, with six years as a professional and the season he put together in 2015, he looks ready to contribute in the Bronx right away. Unfortunately, there are a number of compelling off-the-field reasons to keep Sanchez in Scranton Wilkes-Barre to start the season. First and foremost, if Sanchez remains in the minors for 35 days to start the season, it will delay his service time enough to give New York an extra season of control in 2022. Being able to retain a potential superstar catcher for a prime season (age 29) is a huge deal for a team looking to build from within. We saw the Cubs keep Kris Bryant down two weeks to start last season despite arguably being their best player. Service time considerations play a major role in team decision making at this time of year, with good reason.
Sanchez’s two primary rivals for the backup catcher job are Austin Romine and Carlos Corporan. The 27-year-old Romine’s prospect star has dimmed considerably from the days when he was twice ranked as a top-100 prospect by Baseball America between 2010-2011. He’s failed to establish himself in 183 MLB PAs, batting an abysmal .201/.244/.278 over four seasons of sporadic playing big league time. He was similarly unimpressive in Triple-A last season, with a .260/.311/.379 line in 366 PAs. Injuries have robbed Romine of his once excellent defensive skills. He is still a competent backstop, but not a difference maker behind the plate. Corporan, who the Yankees signed to a MiLB deal in January, is also basically a non-entity on offense. The .178/.244/.299 slash line he compiled with Texas in 2015 is sadly only a slight tick below his career production. Between 2011 and 2014, Corporan played in 198 games as Houston’s primary backup catcher. His one consistent plus skill has been his framing. Baseball Prospectus credits him with 25.7 runs above average during his stint with the Astros.
Neither Romine or Corporan would be particularly exciting as McCann’s backup to start the season, but they also probably wouldn’t do much damage. Another wrinkle in this decision is that New York will likely be unable to retain Romine and/or Corporan for depth if they do not win a big league job out of spring training. Romine is out of options and would have to pass through waivers in order to be sent to Triple-A. The team faced a similar decision at this time last year, and surprisingly, no teams claimed him. However, even if that unlikely scenario played out again, this season Romine could elect to become a free agent if passed through waivers again because it would be his second time being outrighted. At this point, Romine probably feels that he isn’t going to get a fair shot in pinstripes. He is young and competent enough that he still has a good chance of making a career for himself as a backup for another club. Corporan does have a minor league option remaining, but his contract includes an opt-out at the end of March that he can use if he’s not on the 25-man roster to start the season. Losing both catchers before Opening Day would be a major blow to the organization’s depth. Eddy Rodriguez is the only other catcher in the team’s system with any big league experience, a total of two games with the 2012 Padres. Other names in camp this spring include Kyle Higashioka, Sebastian Valle, Francisco Diaz, and Santiago Nessy. That group only has a handful of appearances in the upper-minors between them.
Considering service time and the need to retain a third viable catcher in case Gary Sanchez flops or gets hurt, the best course of action this spring is for the Yankees to make Carlos Corporan their backup catcher. After the required 35 days have passed, the team would have the option to stash Corporan in Scranton Wilkes-Barre and turn the reins over to Sanchez. With all of New York’s off-days in April, Girardi can lean pretty heavily on Brian McCann early in the season anyway. The real need for Sanchez will come when injuries and fatigue begin to take their toll later in the season and Alex Rodriguez, Mark Teixeira, and McCann need more frequent rest. Sanchez would get an extended warm-up in Triple-A and avoid sitting too often early in the year. Everybody wins.