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Catchers: Sánchez seeks rebound, Higashioka’s second look, prospects, and more [2021 Season Preview]

With spring training now in full swing and a new season upon us, it’s time to bring back our season preview series. This year, we’re doing things a little bit differently. Instead of writing up each and every individual player, we’re doing top-to-bottom organizational previews by position. Not only will this provide a set up for the 2021 MLB season’s storylines, but it’ll also give us a look at what’s in store with the minor leagues returning this summer. Lastly, at the bottom of each post, we will have a depth chart by playing level.

Today, we start at catcher. A fitting place to begin given that catchers have been in camp for a few days already now. Let’s dive in.

Pressure on Gary Sánchez

Gary Sánchez, much to many fans’ chagrin, is the incumbent starting catcher. We’ve gotten a reprieve from the Sánchez discourse for the past few months, but things have kicked back into gear now that spring training has begun. And understandably so given how 2020 ended for the 28 year-old backstop.

2021 feels like a make-or-break season for Sánchez. He’s two years from free agency and has been on a roller coaster since 2018. A hot start would do wonders, wouldn’t it? Sure, there’s always a magnifying glass on his performance, but never quite like this. After all, last year was pretty embarrassing for Sánchez. He didn’t hit during the regular season (.147/.253/.365, 68 wRC+) and was a mess defensively. By season’s end, he was no longer paired with team ace Gerrit Cole and started just two of the team’s seven postseason games. So yeah, a torrid start to 2021 would go a long way for Gary.

One thing to watch for in the early going: adjustments Sánchez made over the winter. Offensively, he worked with hitting coach Marcus Thames to shorten his swing and keep weight on his left leg to let pitches travel more. Perhaps that will help him cut down on his strikeout rate. Gary has also been working with catching instructor Tanner Swanson on the one knee down stance, which seemingly gave Sánchez trouble blocking pitches last season. As one might expect in the first days of spring training, Sánchez feels good about the tweaks he’s made:

“It’s a little early right now to really give you a true answer, but I definitely feel good with the adjustments I’ve made,” Sánchez said through an interpreter. “I think they’re going to be key. They’re going to make a difference. I feel great and I definitely think this year is going to be different.”

Gary Sánchez

I know “hope springs eternal”, but we can’t forget how talented Sánchez is. Can he be incredibly frustrating to watch? Yes. But it’s not like he wasn’t good in his last full and normal season (2019, when he hit 34 homers and had a 116 wRC+ in 446 PA and just 7 passed balls). And in spite of ugly numbers in 2018 and 2020, Gary still projects to be one of the league’s better hitting catchers this season.

SystemPAHRAVG/OBP/SLG (+)DefWAR
PECOTA48127.220/.305/.453 (103 DRC+)-1.5+1.8
ZiPS44828.212/.299/.460 (97 wRC+)-0.8+1.3
Steamer36322.223/.311/.477 (104 wRC+)+1.9+1.5

Those projections certainly aren’t of the Gary we saw in 2016, 2017, or 2019, but would you sign up for it today? I think so. Catchers hit .229/.310/.385 last year, for reference. In other words, Sánchez should offer league-average on-base ability with well above-average power.

Of course, it’s not all about offense for him. Will he finally be able to strike a balance between blocking pitches and framing? He more or less see-saws between being good at one and bad at the other each year. I should also note that the systems varied on Sánchez’s defensive abilities, with Steamer the lone system anticipating above-average work behind the plate.

Ultimately, it’s not the defense that will be the end-all-be-all for Sánchez in 2021. Rediscovering his stroke will be priority number one. If he can do that, his subpar pitch blocking won’t be as big of a concern.

A solid backup catcher in Higashioka

Remember how last year was supposed to be Higashioka’s first full 162 games as the team’s backup? So much for that. 2021 will be the 31 year-old backstop’s first chance to be on a big league roster for a full regular season. And if it’s anything like his sporadic playing time last year, the Yankees will have one of the better backup catchers in the league on their hands.

Of course, having a solid backup behind a volatile Sánchez will make for an interesting storyline early in 2021. If, say, Sánchez goes 1-for-20 with 10 strikeouts to start the season, calls for his replacement will be hot and heavy once again. Especially after some of the flashes that Higgy showed last season. Higashioka may not walk much, if ever (none in the majors since 2018!), but he’s got power (10 homers in 204 plate appearances). It’s sort of a Sánchez-lite batting profile, just without the expectations that everyone has for Gary.

Higashioka’s biggest strengths come while wearing the tools of ignorance. His defensive reputation has been rock solid within the organization for years, and he clearly has a good rapport with his battery mates. Good enough to become the personal catcher for the team’s ace last year, in fact. That’s not something in the cards for 2021 (at least not yet), but it’ll be another thing to watch for depending on how Cole and Gary perform out of the gate. Now, I like Higashioka a good deal, but it wouldn’t be ideal to tie him to Cole once again. Not if Gary rebounds.

Projections on Higgy’s performance vary. PECOTA is clearly the high-system on him, with ZiPS and Steamer both pretty well aligned.

SystemPAHRAVG/OBP/SLG (+)DefWAR
PECOTA20611.230/.289/.458 (97 DRC+)+9.0+1.6
ZiPS30315.225/.267/.426 (77 wRC+)+4.6+0.6
Steamer1487.219/.274/.410 (76 wRC+)+5.9+0.6

Overall, even if you’re bearish on Higashioka’s PECOTA projection like I am, this is a pretty good look for the backup catcher. And ideally, it remains just that. Yes, he’s got power, but it’s not hard to imagine him getting exposed with extended playing time. It would really take Sánchez being awful once again to justify Higashioka becoming the starter.

A safety net in Robinson Chirinos

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The Yankees brought in veteran backstop Robinson Chirinos on a minor league deal with an invite to spring training, but there’s a good chance he’s out of the organization before opening day. He can opt-out of his contract before the end of camp, and I think it’s safe to say that he will unless Sánchez or Higashioka get hurt. Odds are another team is going to need an upgrade at catcher by then (Phillies given JT Realmuto’s broken thumb, perhaps).

On the off chance that Chirinos stays put in spite of no path to the Bronx, he’ll ship off to Triple-A and wait for a big league opportunity to arise. He has multiple opt-outs in his deal, so he could wait things out in Scranton if the grass doesn’t look greener by the end of Grapefruit League action.

Even though he may never catch an inning in pinstripes, Chirinos is a pretty good third catcher (offensively speaking) to have entering camp. Although his 2020 numbers are ugly and he’s getting older (36 years-old), he was quite good as recently as 2019, when he hit .238/.347/.443 (114 wRC+) in 437 plate appearances for Houston. He’s an above average hitter for his career, too (102 wRC+ in 2,125 PA).

Chirinos isn’t much of a defender behind the plate. Framing metrics don’t care for his work and he’s not great at controlling the running game. He does a nice job of pitch blocking, though. He’s got just 27 passed balls in over 4,700 innings behind the dish. So from an aesthetic standpoint, he certainly will look the part of a reliable defender. Not to mention that he has plenty of experience handling major league pitchers.

Projection systems are way down on Chirinos after an awful showing in the pandemic-shortened season. He hit .162/.232/.243 (32 wRC+) in 82 PAs in 2020, and doing that as a mid-30s catcher will send future projections spiraling. Take a look:

SystemPAHRAVG/OBP/SLG (+)DefWAR
PECOTA60020.204/.309/.368 (86 DRC+)-13.0-0.2
ZiPS3429.195/.287/.333 (70 wRC+)+7.3+0.4
Steamer1013.206/.306/.369 (80 wRC+)+0.3+0.1

Not sure if that’s fair to Chirinos offensively, particularly after posing wRC+ marks no lower than 102 annually since 2015. Even so, those forecasts make for a nice fallback option is something goes awry for Gary or Higgy.

Prospects

Three of the Yankees’ four best catching prospects are in major league camp in Tampa. Austin Wells, Anthony Seigler, and Josh Breaux all received invites. Antonio Gomez did not, but understandably so. More on him in a moment, but first, let’s touch on those with the big leaguers right now.

Wells, last season’s first round pick, has yet to play in a professional game. He’s a bat-first catcher who swings from the left side. He may not stick behind the dish in the long run, but the Yankees have no reason to give up on that yet. A lot of advanced college bats skip over rookie ball, but I anticipate the Yankees letting him get his feet wet at that level this season. It may not take long for him to prove he’s ready for tougher competition, but it’s also the level he can get plenty of playing time to begin. Seigler and Breaux will likely play everyday at levels above Wells for the time being.

Both Seigler (first round) and Breaux (second round) are 2018 draftees, but Breaux is a bit more advanced at this time. Seigler has missed a lot of time due to injury. Losing the 2020 minor league season to COVID-19 really hurt his chance to get back on track too. He has just 30 games above rookie-ball (all at no longer affiliated Single-A Charleston). With that level now defunct, I anticipate Seigler dropping down to Low-A Tampa once the minor league season begins. Seigler doesn’t need to be added to the 40-man roster until after the 2022 season, so this year isn’t necessarily make-or-break for the switch-hitting backstop. It just would be nice to see him stay healthy and perform, for once.

I think Breaux will open the season at High-A Hudson Valley with an eye on moving up to Double-A Somerset before 2021’s conclusion (it’s going to take some used to writing these new affiliates). He’s Rule 5 eligible this winter, so the Yankees could get him moving up the rungs to determine if he’ll be added to the 40-man roster. Breaux, 23 years-old, has already had a good deal of success offensively (141 wRC+, 13 homers in 216 PA with Charleston in 2019).

Though not on the invite list, Gomez is a pretty notable catching prospect in his own right. It’s not like he was expected to be in major league camp anyway, given that he turned 19 in November and hasn’t played above Rookie ball. That’s probably where he belongs again to start this season. Unlike the other prospects noted here, Gomez is a surefire catcher who’s projected to be a very good defender. It’s the bat that’s more of a question at this time.

PlayerFG (Top 48)BP (Top 10)MLB.com (Top 30)BA (Top 30)
Wells121065
Seigler21NR*1524
Breaux25NR*20NR
Gomez10NR1922
Team rankings by publication. *Listed in BP’s “The Prospects You Meet Outside The Top Ten”.

Minor League Fodder

These are the names you won’t hear much about this year, if at all. A few are in big league camp simply because the Yankees need sufficient catchers to handle all of the pitcher work in February and March (Rob Brantly, Kellin Deglan, and Max McDowell). Others like Donny Sands, Carlos Narvaez, and Saul Torres aren’t really prospects, but remain in the organization to help fill out rosters.

Brantly, 31, has major league experience (mostly with Miami in 2012 and 2013) and figures to spend 2021 in Triple-A. Assuming that the Yankees lose Chirinos at some point, Brantly would be first in line if something happened to Sánchez or Higashioka.

Deglan was a first round pick way back in 2010 for Texas, but has been in the Yankees’ organization since 2018. Figure he’s going to be in Scranton as well.

McDowell was a minor league signing previously in the Brewers’ organization who could split time between Double-A and Triple-A.

Sands was once a midly interesting prospect as the team’s 8th rounder in 2015, but he stalled out in High-A. Now 24, he spent some or all of each of the last three minor league seasons at that level.

Narvaez might actually still be a fringe-prospect as he played well with Staten Island in 2019 and is still just 22 (he got a brief mention in FG’s list, for what it’s worth). It’s just a little hard to see regular playing time for him with Breaux, Seigler, and Wells all around.

Finally, the 22 year-old Torres has been in the organization since 2016 but has never escaped rookie-ball.

Depth Chart

  • MLB: Sanchez*, Higashioka*
  • Triple-A: Chirinos^, Brantly^
  • Double-A: Deglan^, McDowell^
  • High-A: Breaux^, Sands
  • Low-A: Seigler^, Narvaez
  • Rookie: Wells^, Gomez, Torres

*Denotes on 40-man roster, ^ denotes non-roster invitee to major league spring training.

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6 Comments

  1. MikeD

    Team Gary.

  2. DanGer

    Among qualified catchers 2017-2020, Sanchez ranks 6th in wRC+, 1st in HR (by 13!), 5th in fWAR, 2nd in SLG, 16th in OBP, 2nd in RBI, and 3rd in R. And that’s without his monster 2016.

    Weirdly, his underlying numbers aren’t all that different. Only thing that pops out is his K%.

    One thing I’ve noticed is he doesn’t seem to change his approach at all regardless of count. He approaches every pitch like it’s a fresh count. He’s kinda the anti-Torres in that regard.

  3. Mungo

    Higashioka, like Lettuce and the Serial Killer who came before, will be exposed with regular playing time. Nice BUC, not a starter. His last regular season walk was in August 2019. Pitchers seemed comfortable challenging him last year, but I can see them making him go fish this year and he could get exposed quickly. Chirinos is in camp in case one of Gary or Higgy gets injured. Doesn’t seem likely he’ll accept a demotion to AAA. Some team somewhere will need a BUC come Opening Day.

    To do expect a rebound from Gary at the plate. I’ve given up hoping he’ll be what we saw in his rookie year, but I’ll take 2019 with a little tighter defense. The expectations on him were so high, and the fanbase is so low on him now, that a 2019-like rebound will seem like a big success.

  4. Wire Fan

    I wonder how the de-juiced ball is going to impact Gary. While it will impact all hitters, it may be a bigger impact to three true outcome guys like Gary (and Bruce) with low batting averages and who rely primarily on the HR for the offensive production.

    Would like to see the Yankees de-prioritize framing when there is a man on 3rd base. Not all wild pitches and pass balls are created equal, but the ones with a runner on 3rd (especially with 2 out) are killers

    • Dan

      Gary isn’t one of the guys likely to be impacted by the ball. He consistently has above average exit velocities and his homers aren’t cheap.

    • Mungo

      A slightly de-juiced ball will not impact hitters like Gary, Judge or Stanton. His power is real. It was the medium-range guys who benefited from the juiced ball by gaining an extra 3-5 feet. It doesn’t sound like a lot, but it’s significant over the course of a season. If anything, the hitters with legit HR power will benefit as their skill will be in greater demand. Reports indicated they believe the ball will act more like it did in 2017, which was still a good offensive year but nothing crazy like we saw in 2019. As a reminder, Judge hit over 50 HRs in 2017, as did Stanton. Gary slashed .278/.345/.531 with 34 HRs in about 120 starts and hit many monster shots that season. Yeah, we’ll take that.

      Guys on the Yankees who will be potentially impacted the most would include DJLM. He has a lot of balls just clearing the wall in RF. More opposite field HRs than any player in baseball the last two years. Lose three feet and he goes from 25 HRs to 15. Still will be a good hitter, more doubles, balls clanking off the wall, but the HRs will drop. That if indeed, the ball is successfully de-juiced. Until we see it in play we’re not going to know.

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