Spring Training Invites: Catchers
As Pitchers and Catchers will report next week, let's spend this week looking at some final Spring Training invitee options:
Catching Needs for 2023:
When I originally looked at the Spotrac free agent tracker for catchers, my eyes lit up with a number of very good options out there. Omar Narvaez was listed...yet he signed a deal with the Mets in December, 2022. Jason Castro, Kurt Suzuki, and Stephen Vogt were all listed, but have all announced their retirements. This greatly narrowed the available pool. By catchers available, there are very few players who will be looking for one more shot at the bigs with a minor league deal/spring training invitation. (I'd imagine this gets rid of Gary Sanchez from the pool, as he's also still a free agent. But, we'll get back to that later.)
For the Yankees, there isn't a huge need for catching at the MLB level for 2023. With Jose Trevino (an elite-level framer) and Kyle Higashioka (an above-average back-up) set to man the duties, there isn't an open roster space. Both of their jobs are pretty safe for going into the 2023 season. I believe the Yankees are going to want to keep Ben Rortvedt in Triple-A to start the season, as he didn't impress there in 2022 (he hit .221 over 42 games) while recovering from injury. Rortvedt instead is likely set to be the 3rd string catcher stashed in Triple-A. I also can't see either of the teams biggest catching prospects crack the team yet with either Austin Wells or Josh Breaux.
Instead, we're mainly looking at players to play with Rortvedt and Breaux at Triple-A as a stashed away emergency catcher. Luckily, the Yankees have a lot of catching depth right now, with (by my count) the depth chart looking to be: Trevino-Higashioka-Rortvedt-Breaux-Wells. So, who is out there who'd be willing to ride the minor league bus in 2023?
2022 MLB Team: Boston Red Sox & Texas Rangers
2022 MLB Stats: 63 Games, .220/.286/.273 (61 OPS+), 37 Hits, 1 HR, 13 RBI's, -1.2 bWAR
Experience: 8 MLB Seasons (2015-2022)
Kevin Plawecki has survived in the MLB for nearly a decade as a former 1st round draft pick and as a back-up catcher. Though he has never played in even half a seasons worth of games (his closest was 79 in 2018) he has totaled 447 in his career, or an average of 55 per season. He's also been a pretty solid hitter in his role over the length of his career, while having 4 seasons with an OPS+ above 90 in limited action. Better yet, two of these seasons came recently in the AL East with the Boston Red Sox in 2020 and 2021. However, as shown by the statistics above, his 2022 season was very poor.
The pros for Plawecki are that he still is an above-average framer (he is 67th percentile by baseballsavant) and he has the recent success at the plate to make him a low-budget risk. However, the cons are apparent based on his negative WAR last season and his never being considered a positive defensive catcher. To me, Kevin Plawecki could stick around the MLB (he's turning 32 this year) if he is okay with bouncing around different teams as their emergency catcher. These types of catchers are always needed around the league and with the recent wave of retirees, that should only help him find a role.
Should the Yankees target him? Unless Kevin Plawecki has an incredible desire to be the 27th player to have been a Met, Red Sox, and Yankee, I can't see him coming to the team with a chance to break camp in the MLB. The best spot for him- in relation to the Yankees minor leagues- is Double-A and he shouldn't be that desperate for a role. I'm never opposed to bringing in anybody with a spring training invitation, as it never hurts to have another warm body for catching drills. He also has the experience as a veteran catcher and the pedigree of being a former 1st round draft pick which could bring some good wisdom to the younger guys in the system. I'd see if he'd want to take a spring training invitation with a player opt-out/clause to become a free agent again if he doesn't break camp with the MLB team. If he doesn't, there isn't a match to be made here.
2022 MLB Team: Baltimore Orioles
2022 MLB Stats: 67 Games, .179/.265/.287 (58 OPS+), 35 Hits, 4 HR, 22 RBI's, +0.1 bWAR
Experience: 11 MLB Seasons (2011; 2013-2022)
The Yankees and Robinson Chirinos have been partnered together in the past, though he has never played an MLB game for the franchise. In 2021, the Yankees brought him in as a free agent on February 13th for spring training, yet an injury he suffered during spring training kept him from breaking camp with the team and he was ultimately released before signing with the Chicago Cubs later that season. That season as the back-up he produced to a 108 OPS+ with 5 home runs and 22 hits in 45 games.
Robinson Chirinos was a long-time Texas Rangers catcher, who has two years of starting experience (2018 with the Rangers; 2019 with the Astros) as well as having a very good bat for a catcher (7 of his 11 seasons he's had an OPS+ above 90). However, the 2022 season saw him all but forget how to hit. This same thing happened in 2020 and he rebounded well. Maybe another spring training with the Yankees is exactly what he needs, though entering his age-39 season, it seems as though his long MLB tenure is soon to be over. Add in 1st percentile framing and sprint speed and you can see why this claim isn't out of line.
Should the Yankees target him? They gave him a chance two years ago and it didn't work out. It's a shame for Chirinos that injuries got in the way, but that's part of the game and profession. Much like Plawecki, there isn't a spot for him nor could I imagine that Chirinos would want to schlep around Double-A. Again, if he's willing to take a Spring Training invitation with a similar structure to what I highlighted for Plawecki, I wouldn't say no. But, I think at this point in his career, Chirinos may be closer to hanging them up than looking to become a free agent again in 2 months time.
2022 MLB Team: Minnesota Twins
2022 MLB Stats: 128 Games, .205/.282/.377 (89 OPS+), 86 Hits, 16 HR, 61 RBI's, +0.9 bWAR
Experience: 8 MLB Seasons (2015-2022)
I have never been a staunch Gary Sanchez supporter. Of course I wanted him to do well and wanted him to be the face of a new wave of catching while he was a Yankee, but that never happened and I lost interest in him quickly. I'm also going to cut this short, and say it now: He's not coming back to the Yankees. He's going to sign on with a major league team.
Instead, I wanted to highlight some pretty key things about Gary Sanchez and how his play style could drastically improve in 2023. (I will not take full credit for this idea, as it was shared amongst a group of our writers- Andy Singer, Lincoln Mitchell, James Vliestra, and Ed Botti, in addition to me and my father- when we got together from this past weekend.)
With a ban of the shift for 2023, Gary Sanchez should see a rise to his overall offensive numbers. Yankees fans are familiar with how pull-happy Gary Sanchez is as a batter, and he was the 9th most shifted on right-handed hitter in the MLB last year (minimum 250 PA's). If you check the fielder positioning chart (here, from baseballsavant), it's clear the shift should help Sanchez as the 2nd baseman was almost always on the left side of the infield.
Gary Sanchez is not going to be a bad defensive catcher. He's a perfectly middle-of-the-pack framer (50th percentile) and he has one of the best 2nd base pop times (79th percentile) and one of the strongest catching arms in the league. Add in the larger bases and how teams will want to steal more, and Gary Sanchez should help steal a few more outs.
Gary Sanchez has an average-to-above-average bat for a catcher in 2020's baseball. He will strikeout a lot. He will not work a ton of walks. That's never going to change. However, he will provide 15-20 home runs and should get near/above 100 hits.
Gary Sanchez does play a lot for a catcher. Since 2020, he's played in 294 games of a total 384. Considering usage around the league, having a starting catcher ready for 75% of your games consistently is a great thing to have.
Gary Sanchez just turned 30 years old on December 2nd. He's still in his peak years.
Should the Yankees target him? Absolutely not...if I ran the team. Others may argue in favor of brining back Gary Sanchez. I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but with the changing rules- aka bigger bases- for 2023, catchers with big arms are going to be more valuable. Extrapolate this further when robot umpires take over (it will happen in a few short years), and this will be even more important. Catchers like Jose Trevino are not like that. Trevino will have value for the next few years with his elite framing. Right now, that's the market to have. In a few years, Trevino will be the wrong catcher for baseball.
Gary Sanchez, had he been born 10 years later, would've seen himself as the face of the next wave of catchers: guys with powerful arms, powerful bats, and a good ability to catch the ball. Why I don't want him now is because he came too soon. His style of catching isn't what the MLB wants just yet.
None of the catchers who are available and interesting are worthwhile to pursue. They're all not quite what the Yankees need, nor would they be willing to sacrifice going after a payday to be willing to take those roles. They're all Triple-A caliber or better and the Yankees need a Double-A veteran guy who sniffed the majors/high minors and just wants to stick around the sport. They'll find a guy for that role, but it surely isn't any of these former major leaguers.
The Yankees will have a good catching duo for 2023 between Jose Trevino and Kyle Higashioka. They also have a good depth option in Ben Rortvedt, and some promising prospects who are closing in on the MLB in Josh Breaux and Austin Wells. The way I see it, if that much depth doesn't hold for the 2023 season, then something has gone horribly wrong and the trade market will be active.
Maybe that could even mean reaching out to whoever ends up signing Gary Sanchez and bringing him back. For now though, there isn't a fit here for the Yankees.