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.
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.