Yankees' Catching Options for 2022
There are definitely ways for the Yankees to add more value at the catching position in 2022 that would be upgrades to the roster.
There are a number of different avenues the Yankees can explore this offseason in hopes of having better production out of the catching position. GM Brian Cashman talked for a few minutes about Gary Sánchez regarding his work ethic and his defensive improvements.
People can take whatever they want from that. I truly believe that Gary Sánchez is a hard-worker and deserves a better end of the stick from fans, but I also don’t believe the organization thinks that he’s the answer at catcher for this team. It more so sounded like Cashman was trying to hype up a trade piece.
So where do the Yankees go from here? There are options on the free-agent market, options on the trade market, and, yes, options internally.
Let’s start with the *potential* free-agent options.
If Mike Zunino gets his $7M club option ($1M buyout) declined by the money-saving Rays, he should be in pinstripes the next day. He posted a 134 wRC+ with 33 homers in just 109 games in 2021, along with 5.3 FRAA (Fielding Runs Above Average).
He slashed .342/.419/.868 in 129 PA against left-handed pitching this season for the Rays. Among players with at least 60 PA against lefties in 2021, Zunino’s 243 wRC+ was the best in baseball. There are a number of lefty aces in the AL East (Sale, Ray if he returns to Toronto, McClanahan), so it wouldn’t hurt to have a lefty masher.
The next two guys are probably strictly platoon options.
Manny Piña is a premier defensive backstop (5.0 FRAA in 2021) that can swing it against left-handed pitching. He had a 127 wRC+ against lefties in 2021, compared to a 69 wRC+ against righties. He also had a 134 wRC+ after the All-Star break.
Tucker Barnhart has a $7.5M club option ($500,000 buyout) with the Reds that has a good chance of getting declined. Barnhart is a good defender, as he posted a 4.3 FRAA in 102 games in 2021, but his bat isn’t great. He’s around a 90 wRC+ against righties and could platoon with a right-handed bat.
Let’s attack the trade market.
My dream trade candidate is Mitch Garver — if the Twins make him available. He has two years of team control remaining, so he’d probably be a tough get, but when he’s healthy, he’s a top-5 catcher in the sport.
The issue has been injuries for Garver. He’s been on the injured list five times since the start of the 2019 season, missing at least a month each time. Lower back tightness, groin contusion, right intercostal strain, right hip tightness, high left ankle sprain, left quad bruise… he’s been through a bunch.
Garver posted a 137 wRC+ in 2021… the third-best mark among MLB catchers with at least 200 PA this season. He had a 155 wRC+ in 2019 (and a 41 wRC+ in a fake 2020 season). He was the league’s 6th-best hitter against righties (168 wRC+) among hitters with at least 130 PA against right-handed pitching in 2021. Garver also gives you passable defense behind the plate (0.5 FRAA in 59 games in 2021).
Then there are more attainable options like Max Stassi, Willson Contreras, and maybe even Curt Casali — all of which have one year of team control remaining.
Stassi is probably my favorite of the group, should the Angels try to move him this winter (probably unlikely). He’s a phenomenal defender, posting 12.2 FRAA in just 86 games in 2021, good for second-most among catchers. If he had played 120 games, that’d prorate to 17.0 FRAA, then leading all catchers.
Stassi has a 114 wRC+ since the start of 2020 and hit righties well in 2021 (115 wRC+), but he struggled against lefties (79 wRC+).
Next is Contreras. He’s an offense-first catcher with a 115 wRC+ since the start of the 2019 season, while posting a 109 wRC+ in 128 games in 2021.
The issue with him is that his defense is less than desirable. He had -3.5 FRAA in 2021 and has -17.4 FRAA in six MLB seasons.
Lastly is Curt Casali. He’s a potential trade candidate should the Giants re-sign Buster Posey and have Joey Bart elevated to the majors. Casali managed the Giants’ pitching staff pretty well in 2021 in 64 games and hit righties at a league-average rate (103 wRC+). He just can’t hit lefties at all (17 wRC+).
There are also THREE (not just two) internal options for the Yankees.
The obvious first internal option for the Yankees is Gary Sánchez, who has one year left of team control, but it seems that his days are limited. He broke out in 2016-17 with a 143 wRC+ but has been nowhere near the same since. He has a 99 wRC+ since the start of 2018 and when the defense is bad, you can’t do that.
He had that hot month-plus during the summer (113 wRC+ in the first half) but ended the season with a 78 wRC+ after the All-Star break.
Cashman said he improved his defense, but the metrics don’t really agree it was that sizable, as he still had -2.1 FRAA in 2021. He has -12.2 FRAA since the start of 2018.
The Yankees could always choose to have Kyle Higashioka as their full-time starter or pair him with a platoon option. Higashioka is one of the game’s best defenders at the catcher position, as he sported a 7.0 FRAA in 66 games in 2021 (ninth-most in MLB among catchers). That’d be 12.7 FRAA over a 120-game season… very good.
He hits lefties at an above-league-average rate (109 wRC+) but can’t hit righties (52 wRC+). His batted ball data seems to suggest there’s a lot to be untapped still with the career minor-leaguer.
He had a 15.6% barrel rate, 21.7-degree launch angle, 48.1% hard-hit rate, and solid expected stats (.482 xSLG, .334 xwOBA, .435 xwOBAcon).
Then, there’s a sneaky sleeper in Donny Sands. Sands will be hitting the open market as a minor-league free-agent and could garner an MLB deal this offseason. He had 18 homers and a .793 OPS in 94 games in Double-A and Triple-A in 2021.
MLB.com had this to say about the Yankees’ No. 28 prospect:
Sands still stands out most with his pure hitting ability, displaying quick hands and a smooth right-handed swing. After his stroke was geared more for line-drive contact in the past, he's now tapping into his strength by driving the ball more consistently in the air. He slammed 10 homers in 52 Double-A games this year and then went deep three times in his first four Triple-A contests.
Sands has the soft hands, solid arm strength and enough quickness to stick at third base. After years of hard work and battling through injuries, he has made himself into a capable receiver whose arm plays as average behind the plate. He projects as an offensive-minded backup and has drawn trade interest from other clubs this summer.
There’s a decent chance the Yankees go into 2022 with Gary Sánchez as their starting catcher and Kyle Higashioka as their backup catcher for the third-straight season. In the previous two seasons, Higashioka has had moments where he’s overtaken Sánchez as the team’s primary catcher — plus multiple pitchers have chosen to pitch to the better defender/receiver in Higashioka over Sánchez.
However, the Yankees do have options. Do they non-tender or trade Sánchez and go after another catching option to pair with Higashioka or take over starting catching duties in the Bronx?
The Yankees have a number of things to take care of this winter with a new starting shortstop at the top of the list. They have to make sure they exhaust all of their options… at a majority of positions.