Remember the boisterous contingent who wanted Austin Romine to start over Gary Sanchez in the playoffs? Yeah, me too. Funny how that notion has vanished this season. The Kraken has been fantastic, hence the lack of uproar for a replacement behind the dish. Meanwhile, Romine has been a black hole in the lineup whenever he’s played.
A backup catcher is never required to be a proficient hitter, but he does need to be tolerable. Last year, Romine’s 91 wRC+ was perfectly fine for the role (although a huge May propped that up). This year, a 28 wRC+ in 85 plate appearances is testing everyone’s patience. It’s easy for an armchair general manager to say it’s time to cut bait. Alas, there’s a lot more that goes into Romine’s role on this club.
Romine has been with the organization since 2007. With over a decade in the ranks, there’s undoubtedly familiarity and trust in Romine. There have been opportunities to go in other directions, but the team has kept him around even though it took Romine until 2016 to entrench himself with the big league club. So, it’s easy to envision ruffled feathers if Romine was let go.
Even if clubhouse chemistry and trust wasn’t a concern, there’s no telling whether or not the transition to a new reserve backstop would be smooth. Sure, Kyle Higashioka is an internal option who has experience with the pitching staff, but are we certain that he’s any better than Romine? Granted, Higgy’s Triple-A statistics look great this year, but he was also pretty terrible at that level in 2018. Further, keep in mind that it’s not all about offense in this role. Rather, defense and rapport means more. Romine certainly gets the nod in the relationship department. Maybe Higgy is better than Romine defensively, but there’s no crystal clear evidence of that.Embed from Getty Images
If not Higashioka, then who else? Teams don’t just part ways with catching depth. Not only would a trade be difficult, but the time to onboard and acclimate someone new could prove challenging. That hypothetical catcher would be thrown right into the fire, rather than having a full spring training to learn the ins and outs of his battery mates. If a move has to be made, it seems like it’s Higashioka or bust.
Although replacing Romine looks doubtful midseason, all bets are off once winter rolls around. Romine will have accrued enough service time by then to become a free agent, and though he won’t require much of a financial commitment, Higashioka (or someone else) could save the team some cash. Plus, it’s the perfect time to transition to someone new. Instead of ripping the band aid off during the season, a fresh start awaits come spring training.
With Romine in tow, there is one thing that Aaron Boone should do to make things more palpable: don’t shoehorn Sanchez into the lineup as a DH to get him extra playing time. I know that sounds weird, but Romine’s presence almost certainly outweighs any benefit of stealing some extra at bats for Sanchez. Since Gary returned from the injured list on April 24, Sanchez has been the DH three times and Romine has started ten games. In that time, Romine has been dreadful: .186/.186/.209 (-3 wRC+) in 43 plate appearances. As great as Gary is, I’m not sure that getting him a few extra chances to DH is all that beneficial when it means Romine plays more too.
So Romine is here to stay in 2019. And really, it’s fine. Sure, there will be the usual annoyance every time his name is on the lineup card, but it won’t make or break this team. The odds of finding a marginal upgrade immediately seem unlikely, other teams are reluctant to shed catching depth, and there’s no guarantee that Higashioka would be any better. Rather, the solution for now is to play Romine the bare minimum. Day games after night games, spelling Sanchez in long stretches without a day off, doubleheaders, etc. Nothing more, nothing less.