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Free agent profile: Martín Maldonado

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Well, I can’t say I expected to write this free agent profile this winter. The consensus was that the Yankees would either re-sign Austin Romine or plug in Kyle Higashioka to the backup catcher position. I did imagine a scenario in which the Yankees carry three catchers next year, though that’s unlikely. Now with Gerrit Cole in tow and Romine out, there’s another option who’s come into play: Martín Maldonado.

Feinsand’s tweet more or less tells you everything you need to know about why the Yankees are interested. Let’s dig in a little deeper.

He’s well regarded defensively…

The 33 year-old backstop from Puerto Rico does just about everything well defensively. He’s a good receiver, has a strong arm, and has a good rapport with his battery mates (namely, Cole).

Framing is basically the name of the game for catchers nowadays. The Yankees have emphasized it for a while, and the team’s new catching coach Tanner Swanson only reinforces its importance to the organization. Here’s how Maldonado stacks up:

YearFangraphs (FRM)Baseball Prospectus (Framing Runs)Statcast (Runs Extra Strikes)

All of these metrics are scaled to zero being average, so it’s pretty clear that Maldonado is better than your typical backstop even with a couple of sites having him slightly negative this year.

The pretty clear outlier here is 2017. Couldn’t tell you exactly what went right that season, but even so, that’s probably a once in a lifetime defensive year for him. Statcast doesn’t have framing numbers before 2015, but both Fangraphs and Baseball Prospectus had him right around 10 runs in 2013. So, I think we can assume he’s a very good framer but not in the realm of whatever happened in 2017.

Now, have his framing skills declined? That’s what his ’19 numbers indicate. That said, as the entire league has caught on to the value of a good receiver, the variance in framing ability between teams has shrunk. Perhaps that’s partly why Malonado doesn’t appear quite as good as his counterparts.

Aside from framing, Maldonado is also good at keeping pitches in front of him. He doesn’t allow many passed balls and Baseball Prospectus’s Blocking Runs has had him above average for his career.

Additionally, Maldonado is good at honing in the running game. Per Statcast, his pop time was in the 77th percentile of all catchers in 2019 and his 87.1 MPH average throwing velocity ranked sixth in baseball (Gary Sánchez was fourth).

…but brings little to the lineup

If you didn’t like what Romine brought to the table in the batter’s box, you’d actually be in for worse with Maldonado. Even though Maldo holds a better career triple-slash and wRC+ than Romine, the past two seasons tell a different story. Romine owns a 94 wRC+ since 2018, whereas Maldonado stands at 75.

It doesn’t look like there’s much offensive upside for Maldonado. All of his underlying Statcast numbers — exit velocity, hard hit percentage, expected wOBA, et. al. — are well below average.

Contract estimates

Fangraphs pegs Maldonado for two years and $9 million. Jim Bowden nor MLB Trade Rumors have predictions for Maldonado.

After seeing what Romine (and other backstops) have signed for, Fangraphs’ projection seems a little high. Even though Maldonado is excellent defensively, he’s two years older than Romine and a worse hitter. A bunch of other backup-caliber catchers have signed one year deals in the $3 to $4 million range (Romine, Tyler Flowers, Alex Avila, Stephen Vogt). Maldonado will probably receive something similar.

Does he make sense for the Yankees?

I’d rather give Higashioka a shot than Maldonado, but that doesn’t mean Maldonado doesn’t make sense. More catcher depth is good, especially with major league experience and stellar defensive chops, which is what Maldonado brings to the table. It also brings over a familiar face for Cole, though I have little doubt about his ability to dominate with or without Maldonado.

Report: Austin Romine nearing deal with Tigers

The Yankees will have a new backup catcher next season for the first time in a while. Austin Romine has been the team’s backup catcher since 2016, but now appears to have an opportunity to start in Detroit. The 31 year-old Romine will compete with Jake Rogers and Grayson Greiner, two young backstops who struggled last season.

This means the Yankees will either seek another backstop in free agency or trade to be Gary Sánchez’s caddy or roll with Kyle Higashioka. Higgy seems more than qualified defensively, as Bobby recently wrote. He’s also hit aplenty in the minors, though that hasn’t surfaced in limited big league action. Plus, Higashioka is out of options, so the Yankees would risk losing him should he not be the backup (or go with three catchers).

Romine was much maligned for his lack of offense during his tenure in the Bronx. But in fairness to him, how many backup catchers actually hit well? And really, Romine was sturdy when the Yankees needed him most. He always seemed to put together a nice run whenever Sánchez got hurt.

Happy trails, Austin.

Update, 12:42pm: It’s actually a one year deal, not two.


The Yankees could carry three catchers next season

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Last month, I gave a rundown of MLB’s rule changes coming in 2020 as they relate to the Yankees. In discussing the new 26-man roster, I wrote this about how the bench will fill out:

Things are a little simpler on the bench. Obviously, there will be a backup catcher (potentially Kyle Higashioka). There’ll be a fourth outfielder, likely Mike Tauchman. Tyler Wade or Thairo Estrada could be the reserve infielder. Who would take the fourth spot isn’t certain. Perhaps Mike Ford is the guy.

Today, I want to focus on that fourth bench spot. I’m assuming that the league will not permit teams to carry more than 13 pitchers, which would force all American League clubs to carry four bench players. Remember, the Yankees have frequently ran with three-man benches for extended periods of the last few years.

A three-man bench requires a backup infielder, backup outfielder, and backup catcher. The extra spot in 2020 provides affords some flexibility. It could be a pinch hit extraordinaire, a speedy designated pinch runner, a third catcher, or simply an extra infielder or outfielder. From the Yankees’ perspective, I think a third catcher could be the best use of this spot next season.

Now, the Yankees certainly don’t need a regular pinch hitter. The lineup is too deep one-through-nine to require one. Mike Ford would be great in such a role, but again, it’s just not necessary. Having him start perhaps once a week while gathering dust the rest of the time seems wasteful.

Additionally, there’s no need for a pinch runner type. Tyler Wade, who presumably would be the team’s reserve infielder anyway, is plenty fast (93rd percentile sprint speed) and was seven-for-seven in stolen bases last season. So strike that need off the list for the fourth bench guy.

As for an extra outfielder (i.e. fifth outfielder) or infielder, I’m not sure that’s necessary. Wade can play multiple infield positions, just like many of the Yankees’ starting infielders. DJ LeMahieu and Gleyber Torres can shuffle around the diamond, as you know. Plus, Wade can play the outfield in a pinch if needed. Meanwhile, Mike Tauchman figures to be the fourth outfielder once Brett Gardner presumably re-signs. Tauchman is capable of playing in all three outfield spots.

So by process of elimination, that brings us to the Yankees carrying a third catcher, likely the intriguing Kyle Higashioka. That means the team would need to either bring back Austin Romine or acquire another backstop.

Why carry three catchers? I see a couple of benefits.

One, it affords Gary Sánchez some extra rest. I still want Gary getting the bulk of catching duty, but perhaps 80 to 90 games of catching and another 40 to 50 games as the DH would be better for his health. He’s had a handful of leg muscle injuries that perhaps could be alleviated with less squatting throughout the season. Additionally, it theoretically allows the Yankees to keep his potent bat in the lineup far more often than one’s typical backstop thanks to extra DH opportunities.

Another benefit is late game flexibility for Aaron Boone. Obviously Sánchez is not fleet of foot. With a third catcher, Boone could more comfortably lift him for a pinch runner late in ballgames.

Here’s the rub, though. The Yankees would need to find a catcher they’d be comfortable starting almost half of the time. Romine’s a fine backup, but I wouldn’t feel comfortable handing him a gig like this. Likewise for Higashioka.

Castro. (Keith Allison – CC BY-SA 2.0)

Two free agents that come to mind are Jason Castro and Robinson Chirinos. Now, I suspect either of the two could land a full-time job before winter ends. That said, I think either would be solid fits, particularly the lefty swinging Castro. I’d be very comfortable handing him 70 to 80 starts over the course of 162, especially if it means a healthier Gary.

Of course, this idea isn’t without flaws. Injuries are going to happen and could throw a wrench into this plan. Further, there’s also the mid-season return of Aaron Hicks to account for, which could force the Bombers to carry five outfielders (again, assuming Gardner re-signs). Tauchman is out of options and will need to stay on the roster all season. And with Higashioka out of options as well, the Yankees can’t just send him down once Hicks returns.

In any event, the Yankees could just decide to roster three catchers and still start Sánchez behind the plate 120 times while making Romine/Higashioka/Whoever a true backup. The third guy would be the emergency catcher and hardly play, however. In this situation, is it better to have a rarely used emergency catcher as the 26th-man or someone else who also wouldn’t be used much? Remember, the Yankees don’t have a ton of optionable position players on the 40-man right now, so it’s not as if they can constantly swap guys in-and-out from Scranton throughout the season depending on matchups or to protect a banged up regular who’s day-to-day.

In all likelihood, I don’t anticipate the Yankees bringing three catchers to opening day 2020. It’s a interesting thought, but they have higher priorities this winter than getting a Castro-type backstop to fill my proposed role.

Austin Romine, the very good backup catcher [2019 Season Review]

On one hand, Austin Romine often seems overrated. That feeling comes around whenever Gary Sánchez makes a mistake and the clamors of some parts of the fanbase call for Romine to start. That happened during Gary’s rough postseason, for instance.

But, on the other side of the coin, Romine doesn’t always get enough credit. It’s easy to rag on the backup catcher, especially the one whose talent simply doesn’t compare to Sánchez’s. It’s easy enough for any one of us to cite Romine’s substandard numbers (at least in comparison to Gary) in order to combat the silly argument that “ROMINE SHOULD START IN THE PLAYOFFS!!!”.

Truthfully, Romine is one of best, perhaps the best, at his job. Having a steady backup catcher isn’t easy to find, but the Yankees have had one for a few years running now. Moreover, he’s really stepped up offensively in the last two years which has made him more than palpable when he needs to start.

In just a few days, Romine will file for free agency for the first time in his career. More on that a little later, but I can’t help but wonder if (some) Yankees fans won’t know what they had in Romine until he’s (potentially) gone.

Three everyday catcher stints

Starting catcher Sánchez was hurt a few times this season, though he still managed to appear in 106 games (90 as a catcher). That allowed Romine plenty of opportunities, who caught in at least 70 games for the second straight season. The Kraken was sidelined three times this year, which forced Romine into everyday duty.

Sánchez strained his calf in early April and missed a little more than the required ten day minimum for an injured list stint. Romine wasn’t great in Gary’s stead, but he was passable. In 27 plate appearances before returning to a backup role, Romine hit .280/.308/.320 (68 wRC+). That’s just about no power whatsoever, but at least he wasn’t an automatic out for that near two week job.

A few months later, Sánchez suffered a groin strain. He was placed on the IL on July 24th and returned August 10th. During this stretch, the Yankees didn’t miss a beat from the catcher position. Romine tore it up: in 40 trips to the plate, he raked to the tune of a .333/.375/.750 (184 wRC+) batting line including four dingers. That’s pretty much what Gary does when he’s on a tear of his own, but this time, it was Romine aptly filling his shoes.

A couple of those four homers were incredibly clutch during those two weeks. Here’s one he hit against Chris Sale on July 28th to give the Yankees a 2-0 edge in the 3rd inning (18.1 percent win probability added).

Romine hit an even bigger homer just a few days later. On the 31st, against the Diamondbacks, Romine came up in the 7th inning against Yoshihisa Hirano with the score in Arizona’s favor, 3-2. After this swing, the Yankees took a 4-3 lead and didn’t look back.

That 7th inning dinger increased the Yanks’ win probability by 42 percent, which is a massive swing.

After that brief stretch of regular playing time, Romine reverted to the backup role until mid-September when another opportunity arose. Sánchez got hurt on an ill-advised stolen base attempt that thrust Romine into the starting role until Gary returned for a tune up in the season’s final series against Texas.

From September 12th through the end of the season, Romine didn’t fare quite as well as his midsummer starting gig, but still pretty darn good. He hit .314/.333/.457 (108 wRC+) in 36 plate appearances. Once again, Romine didn’t let Sánchez’s absence be too painful.

In all, Romine did a fantastic job when Gary was down. Summing up the three stints:

Stint 12771106.280.296.320
Stint 240123346.333.375.750
Stint 336111212.314.333.457

Can’t ask for more when the starting catcher is banged up. Kudos to Romine.

An above average backup

Obviously, most of Romine’s time in 2019 was spent as the backup. He hit .258/.285/.371 exclusive of those three stints as an everyday player, which was nothing special. But still, we can’t throw out those periods and say he was an ineffective reserve. He stepped up in a big way when Gary was down, and his numbers as a whole reflect a really strong option for the backup catcher.

In total, Romine recorded 0.9 WAR and a 95 wRC+ in 280 total plate appearances this season. That WAR total ranked him 32nd of all catchers per Fangraphs this year, which isn’t shabby at all. Moreover, if you go back to 2018, Romine looks even better against his peers. He has 2.2 WAR since then, 25th best among catchers during that span. That’s stellar for a backup.

Anytime Romine hits is a plus, as he’s not known for his bat. More important are his defensive chops and rapport with the Yankees’ pitching staff. He excels in the latter, though the former is somewhat unclear. He had poor framing numbers this year after typically above average marks in prior seasons. His throwing arm or blocking have never been things to write home about, either.

Defensive metrics aside, Yankees’ pitchers love throwing to him. He’s been in the organization for over a decade and on the big league club regularly since 2016, so it’s not a shock that he’s a good battery mate. The Yankees would have cast him aside if he wasn’t good at his job by now. Tack that on to a couple of consecutive solid offensive campaigns and the Yankees have had themselves perhaps the league’s best backup for two years running.

What’s next?

Free agency. It’s been a long time coming for Romine, who the Yankees drafted all the way back in 2007. That leaves the Yankees with two options: pay Romine a few million dollars to remain Sánchez’s backup or roll with Kyle Higashioka at near the league minimum next year. Of course, the former might not be an option if Romine is able to obtain a starting job.

Romine joined Ryan Ruocco and CC Sabathia on R2C2 this season, and the subject of wanting to start someday was discussed.

“Anybody would be lying if they said they didn’t want to try and [be a starter]. I would love to start, but my role now is to do the best I can for this team. You can think about that stuff when it comes to it, there could be certain situations where I can make that decision, but a lot of times in life that decision is made for you. I would love to be able to play good enough to make a decision like that.”

Austin Romine

It’s been a while since Romine was an everyday backstop in the minors with the Yankees. Will another team be willing to hand him a starting job from the get go in 2020? Seems daunting, but then again, decent catchers are few and far in between. Per Fangraphs, seven teams had below replacement level catching. Surely, Romine could start for one of those clubs, no? In any event, I kind of expect Romine to depart. The Yankees are likely going to try to save a few bucks here in order to upgrade elsewhere.

The Yankees’ Postseason Roster Picture with Two Weeks to Go

Let’s do it! (MLB Gifs)

The Yankees have just 10 games remaining until they start the postseason, presumably hosting ALDS Game 1 on Oct. 4. That means they have 10 more days to get information on their players and a little over two weeks for injuries to heal. That’s also two weeks for more injuries to pop up, as with Dellin Betances on Tuesday night.

Last week, I went over the potential postseason roster, breaking everything down by locks, locks if healthy, likely and bubble players. This time around, I’m going to go by position and hitting on the key questions at each spot (Note: Despite Aaron Hicks starting a throwing program, I’ve left him off here for now.)

Let’s dive in:

Catchers (2): *Gary Sánchez, Austin Romine (Kyle Higashioka if Sanchez can’t go)

Sánchez has gone from lock to lock if healthy thanks to another groin strain. Still confusing why he tried to steal a base, but what’s done is done.

His previous groin strain kept him out from July 23 to Aug. 10, an 18-day span. If we make the assumption that this injury will take 18 days (not a great assumption, but it’s what we have), that goes from Sept. 12 to Sept. 30. That would preclude him playing more regular season games. However, in that previous IL-stint, he played two rehab games on Aug. 7-8, so he may come back just in time.

I’m going to say something some may consider controversial: If Sánchez is out, though it would be a big blow, the Yankees are in capable hands with Austin Romine. He can’t control the running game, but he’s adequate everywhere else and is now on his second straight season of above-average hitting for a backstop. You want Sánchez back there — He’s a real difference-maker — but Romine is one of the better MLB backups, even if some of his best numbers come against the Orioles.

Infielders (6-7): Luke Voit, DJ LeMahieu, Gleyber Torres, Didi Gregorius, Gio Urshela, *Edwin Encarnación (Tyler Wade, Thairo Estrada, Mike Ford on bubble)

As of today, the Yankees have five spots for their five healthy infielders in Voit, LeMahieu, Torres, Gregorius and Urshela. The best defensive arrangement includes Gregorius and Urshela on the left-side of the infield and Voit/LeMahieu at first base. Maybe DJLM over Torres at second with Gleyber at DH? You can’t go wrong there.

But Encarnación has expressed optimism he’ll be able to overcome his oblique injury to make it back for the end of the regular season. That creates a log jam.

Many people would like to say it’s easy and you put Encarnación at DH, shift everyone over and leave Gregorius out of the lineup. However, Gregorius has good numbers against many of the pitchers they’ll face in October, is arguably the team’s best defender and is, dare I say, clutch. That doesn’t mean he won’t be the one to sit, but I think it’ll be more rotating and matchup-based than simply banishing Didi to the bench.

Ford and Estrada only make the roster if Encarnación is a no-go. Wade is just about a lock if Edwin or Stanton can’t go, and he’s a capable pinch runner. There simply may not be room if the Yankees go with 13 pitchers and a crowded infield, but his speed adds a new element to the roster.

Outfielders (4): *Giancarlo Stanton, Brett Gardner, Aaron Judge, Cameron Maybin

If all goes well with Stanton’s return, the starting outfield on Oct. 4 will be Stanton-Gardner-Judge from left-to-right. That was the Opening Day outfield!

Maybin serves as an OK backup at all three positions and also is the team’s pinch runner if Wade is left off the roster. He’s just 9-for-14 on steals this year. However, I’d trust him more in the outfield than Wade, and he’s a much better hitter this year, so his spot is firm.

If Stanton is unable to return to the outfield, Maybin would start and either Wade or Clint Frazier could claim the fourth outfielder role despite neither having enough experience in center.

“Starting” Pitchers (6): James Paxton, Masahiro Tanaka, *Luis Severino, Domingo Germán, *CC Sabathia, J.A. Happ

The Yankees’ six starting pitchers are all heading for the postseason roster, though their roles are fluid, as Tom Verducci reported Monday. James Paxton will definitely get full length starts and the rest of the pitchers might be used to piggyback off each other and combine to get through the rest of the postseason.

That might mean a mandate to pull pitchers after 18 batters. The Yankees might also just be aggressive with their bullpen, though losing Betances makes the team slightly less able to go full tilt. Having Severino back is huge.

Of those six starters, Sabathia is the least likely to actually start a game. CC and Happ each have strong numbers against lefties, and they can also work a team for a turn through the order.

Relievers (6-7): Tommy Kahnle, Adam Ottavino, Zack Britton, Aroldis Chapman, Chad Green (Luis Cessa, Jonathan Loaisiga, others on bubble)

The Yankees have a clear top five relievers. Their roles have been familiar in the regular season; Kahnle-Ottavino-Britton-Chapman from the sixth inning on, and Chad Green as the multi-inning fireman, or bridge to those relievers. Green has been their best reliever in the second half and can open or come in for a starter at the first sign of trouble and get the team through 2-3 innings.

Betances was the wild card. He could have floated through different roles, but now he’s gone for the season. The team doesn’t have another elite reliever lying around. Losing him means the team is one arm shorter, and that increases the burden on everyone. Will Ottavino or Kahnle have to handle two innings one game? Will someone have to go three straight nights? We’ll see.

The Yankees can get length from their playoff bullpen by using the depth of their six starters. If they want another long reliever, Cessa is a fine option. Loaisiga is a higher-ceiling option, though his control issues could be scary in high leverage. I’m a fan of Cory Gearrin, though he might be lower in the pecking order. Jordan Montgomery, Stephen Tarpley and others have slim chances.

For the bubble spots on the roster, it comes down to the sixth relief spot and then either a seventh reliever, a utility player like Wade or even Higashioka as the third catcher if the team wants to hedge against a Sanchez injury without losing him for multiple rounds. My hunch right now is Loaisiga gets the 24th spot and it comes down to Cessa or Wade for the last one.

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