Poll: The Backup Infielder

Refsnyder. (Presswire)
Refsnyder. (Presswire)

At some point during the road trip the Yankees are expected to welcome Alex Rodriguez back from the DL. He is eligible to be activated tomorrow, though following last night’s game Joe Girardi admitted that won’t happen. A-Rod has yet to test his hamstring by running at full speed. That’s kind of a big deal.

“He is not going to be ready on Thursday. He still has some hurdles to cross and get by, and he is not by them yet. He really hasn’t had a setback. We were hoping for 15 days, but it will be more than that,” said Girardi to George King yesterday. The team does expect to get Alex back “sometime in Oakland” though. He’ll be back soon, just not tomorrow.

Whenever A-Rod comes back, the Yankees will have to clear a roster spot for him, which almost certainly means demoting either Rob Refsnyder or Ronald Torreyes. I suppose the team could cut ties with Dustin Ackley, but that would surprise me. They could use the lefty bench bat and they wouldn’t have a backup first baseman. Refsnyder or Torreyes it is.

It’s easy to assume Refsnyder’s stint with the Yankees will be short-term a la Gary Sanchez last week — the circumstances aren’t quite the same, but you know what I mean — because, after all, Torreyes has been with the team all season and has mostly been fine. I don’t think that is necessarily the case, however. Refsnyder has the better track record offensively and he’s improved his versatility by playing third base and right field this year. He could stick instead.

For now both Refsnyder and Torreyes are on the roster until A-Rod comes back, whenever that may be. We’re not going to learn a whole lot about these two in the coming days, especially if they ride the bench, so we know pretty much all we need to know about them right now. Which one is a better fit for the bench going forward? Let’s look.

The Case For Refsnyder

Here’s a challenge: try to make a case for Refsnyder that doesn’t involve citing minor league stats from a year or two (or three) ago. Refsnyder is now 25 years old and he’s in his third year at Triple-A. His numbers have gotten worse each season (Triple-A wRC+ from 2014-16: 137, 123, 115) and he’s not a good defender at all. Refsnyder is, by all accounts, a great teammate and a hard worker. That matters. But so does everything else.

Refsnyder offers versatility in that he can play second and third bases in addition to right field, though we’ve seen him at second and third, and it’s not pretty. Right field? I’m not so sure. I haven’t seen him out there. He could be a Jason Heyward level defender for all I know. Seems unlikely though. So Refsnyder’s versatility isn’t as valuable as it may seem. Sure, he can play multiple positions, but if he can’t play them even decently, what’s the point?

That said, Refsnyder does have offensive upside, especially compared to Torreyes. He has more power — Torreyes has hit 22 home runs in over 2,600 pro plate appearances — and late last season he also showed the ability to spray the ball around a bit. And, even though his defense is below-average, it’s passable. Refsnyder probably isn’t someone you would be comfortable playing every day, but he can make spot starts here and there no problem.

The case for Refsnyder is built around his offense, and offense has been a problem for the Yankees much of the season. Especially against lefties too. They’ve hit .231/.289/.345 (78 OPS+) as a team against southpaw starters this year. We’ve already seen a few clubs call up lefties to make spot starts against the Yankees for that reason (Blake Snell, Cesar Ramos). Refsnyder’s righty bat would help the lineup whenever a lefty is on the mound. Torreyes has started 12 of 38 games. Start Refsnyder that often and his glove won’t be a huge issue.

The Case For Torreyes

Torreyes and Refsnyder are pretty much opposites. Refsnyder is bat first and glove second. Torreyes is bat second and glove first. Torreyes did get off to a fantastic start offensively, going 6-for-9 in his first three games, but that was never going to last and it hasn’t. He’s gone 4-for-29 (.138) since and is down to .263/.282/.342 (66 wRC+) on the season overall. Ewww.

(Presswire)
Torreyes. (Presswire)

That said, Torreyes does have an elite offensive tool in his contact ability. He’s struck out four times in 39 bats (10.3%) and his swing and miss rate is a measly 7.5%. Torreyes struck out in 6.2% of his minor league plate appearances, so this isn’t small sample noise, this is who he is. Few players in the game can get the bat on the ball as frequently as he can. Put the ball in play and generally good things happen.

In the field is where Torreyes really makes an impact. He’s an above-average gloveman who has already played the three non-first base infield positions this season, plus he’s spent a few innings in right field. Girardi has said he’s comfortable playing Torreyes pretty much anywhere. Offense can be hit or miss with bench players because it’s easy to lose rhythm with sporadic playing time. Defense seems to be more of a constant.

(It’s worth noting that if the Yankees go with Refsnyder or Torreyes, Starlin Castro would have to take over as the backup shortstop.)

Keeping Torreyes would mean prioritizing defense over offense and, frankly, the Yankees could use help in both departments. That he puts the ball in play so much means he’ll occasionally run into a BABIP fueled hot streak, like he did early in the season. Zero power limits his offensive upside though. Torreyes is a classic bench guy who can play almost anywhere and control the bat.

* * *

I’m pretty sure I know how this poll is going to turn out, but I guess I’ll post it anyway. Both Refsnyder and Torreyes have clear strengths and weakness and they are different strengths and weaknesses, which is why this is not an insignificant question. If they had the same skill sets, then who cares? Pick one and move on. They offer different things and the Yankees have to figure out which one fits their needs better.

Who should the Yankees keep with A-Rod returns?

Romine’s hot start allows the Yankees to be patient with Gary Sanchez

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

It’s hard to believe that only a year ago, Austin Romine went unclaimed on waivers and seemed to be nearing the end of his time with the Yankees. Heck, it was only seven months ago that he looked like a candidate to lose his 40-man roster spot whenever the Yankees needed room. Romine’s time in the organization was about to come to an end after nine seasons.

Except it didn’t come to an end. The Yankees managed to hang on to Romine over the winter and he came to Spring Training as a backup catcher candidate. No one seemed to think he would actually win the job after Gary Sanchez‘s monster 2015 season, but the Yankees insisted he was in the mix, and eventually he did indeed win the job. Sanchez struggled in camp, Romine raked, and that was that.

“There was a lot of talk that (Sanchez would) be the backup, and we were encouraged with how he played last year, but it’s probably a guy trying too hard and trying to do too much,” said Joe Girardi last week when asked about Sanchez’s spring. “That happens all the time. The key is that you learn from that — like an Austin Romine did — and that you just go out and relax and be yourself.”

Six weeks into the regular season, it’s hard to think that decision could have worked out any better. The 27-year-old Romine is hitting .303/.324/.424 (104 wRC+) in limited time as Brian McCann‘s backup while Sanchez remains in Triple-A, playing every day to continue his development, especially defensively. Sanchez owns a .297/.345/.550 (163 wRC+) batting line with the RailRiders.

We spent so much time talking about keeping Sanchez down in the minors long enough to delay his free agency. Thirty-five days. That was the magic number. Thirty-five days in the minors in 2016 meant team control of Sanchez’s age 29 season in 2022. That’s a very long way off and no one has any idea what will happen between now and then, but 35 days? It was worth keeping Sanchez in the minors that long this year to gain that extra year of control.

Those 35 days have come and gone, and Romine has not given the Yankees a reason to make a change at backup catcher. On day 33 Romine went 3-for-4 with two doubles against David Price and the Red Sox while leading Nathan Eovaldi through eight innings of two-run ball. A few days later he started at DH because he’s been hitting so well. Romine was going to have to hit to keep his job. He’s credited his success to a change in his mental approach.

“I went home in the offseason and said I’m done not doing the best that I can,” he said to Laura Albanese last week. “You get passed up (for a job) by another catcher … It just makes me step back and realize what I needed to do, and that was hit. It comes down to the same thing. I’ve got to hit. I’ve got to show them I can hit up here, show them I can hit off big league pitchers and continue to show them I can catch.”

Romine has hit well and he has seemed to work well with the pitching staff, so much so that he’s essentially become Eovaldi’s personal catcher. The hitting success very well might be small sample size noise. That stuff happens. But Romine was going to have to hit in Spring Training to win a job and hit early in the regular season to keep that job, and he did just that. This is one of those cases where a small sample means a whole lot.

“Just being able to slow the game (down),” said Romine to Chad Jennings when asked what has made him successful this year. “I’ve been here. I’ve been in this situation before. I know how to prepare for hitting every four, five days. Being the backup catcher you get to play once a series, maybe. Being able to prepare myself to hit, going on a couple days now, it’s a hard thing to do. But it’s just being able to slow the game down.”

So now, with Romine emerging as serviceable backup catcher (if not more) rather than settling in a stopgap, the Yankees have some options. First and foremost, they have the option to remain patient with Sanchez and leave him in Triple-A. Not for service time reasons, but for developmental reasons. Sanchez is still only 23, remember. He’s 23 and still in need of refinement behind the plate. He can play everyday in Triple-A and work on things.

Also, Romine’s combination of strong play, cheap salary ($556,000), and years of team control (through 2019) means he may have some actual trade value. A year ago this guy slipped though waivers unclaimed. Any team could have had him and they all passed. Now, a year later, Romine is a productive big leaguer who seems to have turned a corner with his mental approach and preparation. And it helps that he plays the most premium position of all.

The Yankees have made a habit of trading backup catchers in recent years. They sent Chris Stewart to the Pirates for Kyle Haynes two years ago, Francisco Cervelli to the Pirates for Justin Wilson one year ago, and this past winter John Ryan Murphy went to the Twins for Aaron Hicks. Can Romine bring back a Wilson or a Hicks in a trade? Nah, probably not. Cervelli was an established big league backup catcher and Murphy had a full year as a productive backup to his credit and is three years younger.

Romine for all we know is a guy who just had the six best weeks of his career. He’s appeared in 15 games and has 35 plate appearances. That’s it. I do buy his change in approach because he does look different at the plate. Romine is swinging at way fewer pitches out of the zone this year than he did in 2013 (36.3% to 31.4%), his only other extended trial in MLB, and his hard contact rate is up too (29.4% to 37.0%). For the first time, he looks like someone who knows he belongs.

For now, Romine has performed better than anyone could have reasonably hoped in the early going this season, and that’s great news for the Yankees. I get that people are eager to see Sanchez, I am too, but Romine has given the Yankees no reason to make a change. Two quality backup catchers is better than one, after all. At some point the Yankees will have to pick between the two. Right now they can be patient. There’s no urgency to make a decision because Romine had made himself in an asset.

Aaron Hicks is starting to have an impact now that he’s getting regular playing time

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Over the winter the Yankees and Twins got together for an old school baseball trade. My young player for your young player, my surplus for your surplus. It was pretty cool. John Ryan Murphy went to Minnesota for outfielder Aaron Hicks as the Yankees looked to add athleticism to their outfield and the Twins sought to improve their catching situation.

Early on this season, neither team was getting what they wanted out of the trade. Murphy had a poor Spring Training and struggled so much the first few weeks of the regular season that the Twins shipped him to Triple-A. Hicks, meanwhile, started his Yankees career with two singles and two walks in his first 28 plate appearances. Those 28 plate appearances were spread across 24 games.

Going from playing every single day to playing part-time, as Hicks did this year, can be a really tough adjustment, and it sure seems Hicks had trouble with it. Lately though, he’s been able to play regularly thanks to Alex Rodriguez‘s injury, which allowed the Yankees to slide Carlos Beltran into the DH spot and play Hicks in the outfield. Jacoby Ellsbury‘s recent hip problem has pushed Hicks into his natural center field too.

Since A-Rod‘s injury Hicks has started eight straight games, and during those eight games he’s gone 9-for-25 (.360) with a double, two homers, and two walks. Last night he was one of the few bright spots in the loss to the Royals, going 3-for-4 with a single to right field, a single to left field, and then a single to center. The night before he went 2-for-3 with a homer to right and a double to left, all from the left side of the plate.

“For me, it’s just the opportunity that I’m getting to play every day, and I’ve been able to get consistent at-bats and I’ve been able to just relax, just swing and just play,” said Hicks to Fred Kerber yesterday. He told Chad Jennings, “I feel like the more at-bats I get, the more comfortable I’m going to be. To be able to see the ball more often is definitely helping out, especially when it comes to having a solid approach.”

A-Rod’s disabled list stint doesn’t expire until one week from today, so Hicks has at least another week’s worth of starts coming to him. (Ellsbury is due back this weekend, but he’ll take Ben Gamel‘s playing time, not Hicks’.) That’s more time to get comfortable and more time for Hicks to show the Yankees he deserves to get more than 28 plate appearances every 25 games when the team is at full strength.

No one thinks Hicks is a true talent .360 hitter like he’s hit the last eight games. That .077 average he put up while playing sparingly the first few weeks isn’t him either. We’ve seen that when he is comfortable at the plate, Hicks has power and can spray the ball around a little a bit, and part of keeping him comfortable at the plate is giving him more playing time. And there’s his defense too. He’s an upgrade in the field, especially thanks to him arm.

Once A-Rod and Ellsbury are healthy — knock on wood — the Yankees would be smart to continue giving Hicks regular at-bats to keep him locked in and productive. He can legitimately be a building block going forward as a 26-year-old switch-hitting center field. I mean geez, how do you not make playing time for that guy? It won’t be easy, the at-bat are going to have to come from somewhere, but it’s for the best both this year and the future.

It’s working now, but the Yankees should not make a habit of playing short-handed this season

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Thanks in large part to bench players Dustin Ackley and Aaron Hicks, the Yankees beat the Royals last night and won for the fifth time in seven games. Ackley and Hicks went a combined 3-for-6 with two walks, three runs scored, and three runs driven in. Ackley drove in the game tying run in the seventh and Hicks followed by plating what was temporarily the go-ahead run.

Last night was Ackley’s fourth straight start and fifth in the last six games. Hicks started for the seventh straight game and eighth time in nine games. They’re in the lineup because of injuries, obviously. Alex Rodriguez pulled his hamstring last week, allowing the Yankees to slide Carlos Beltran into the DH spot and play Hicks everyday. Ackley is in there because Jacoby Ellsbury is day-to-day with a hip issue.

Mark Teixeira entered the infirmary yesterday with neck spasms, clearing the way for Ben Gamel to make his first career start. The Teixeira and Ellsbury injuries mean the Yankees had a two-man bench last night: Ronald Torreyes and Austin Romine. It almost came back to bite them when they couldn’t pinch run for Brian McCann in the seventh. Luckily it didn’t matter.

In all likelihood the Yankees will again have a two-man bench tonight. Ellsbury has not yet tested his hip with full sprints and Teixeira is one day into an injury that is expected to require two or three days. This is a messy situation. The veteran players are hurting, but not hurting enough to require a DL stint, so the Yankees are playing short-handed. They have a 23-man roster while their opponent has a full 25-man unit.

“I think Torreyes gives you a ton of options. I can put him almost anywhere. (The bench is) short, but I think we have options that should make it okay,” said Joe Girardi to Chad Jennings yesterday. And he’s right. Torreyes gives them an option pretty much everywhere, so they’re not going to be forced into playing someone out of position. (You could argue Ackley in right field is out of position given his arm.)

That said, thanks to the makeup of that rained out game in Detroit, the Yankees are eight games into a stretch of 40 games in 41 days. Their next off-day is 12 days away and the short bench means they can’t rest people in addition to not pinch-hitting and pinch-running. Girardi’s options are really limited for the time being and it is absolutely a disadvantage.

The Yankees don’t really have a timetable for Ellsbury’s return — “If you’re in a week and you don’t feel he’s going to be ready anytime soon, you might as well backdate (the DL stint),” said Girardi — and let’s face it, he’s not exactly the quickest healer in the world. It’s already been four days and he’s not sprinting yet, so it’s not like Ellsbury will be back in the lineup tonight.

I get why the Yankees are hesitant to put him Ellsbury on the DL, but stuff like this can’t happen all season. They can’t slowly nurse players back to health and play short-handed, especially when multiple players are banged up like Ellsbury and Teixeira right now. The Yankees are playing much better of late but they still have to dig themselves out of this early season hole. That will be tough as it is. Imagine trying to do it short-handed?

Avoiding injuries just isn’t realistic. Players are going to get hurt. That’s baseball. The Yankees should be a little more liberal with their DL usage going forward, especially when it’s a situation like Ellsbury, where he might miss a week anyway before being ready to play again. The Yankees have some depth in the minors. It’s okay to use it. They’re already made things hard enough on themselves this year.

A-Rod and Hicks injuries create some short-term roster headaches for the Yankees

(Elsa/Getty)
(Elsa/Getty)

The just completed nine-game homestand did not go well for the Yankees. Not at all. They lost six times in the nine games, and, over the weekend, they lost both Alex Rodriguez and Aaron Hicks to injury. A-Rod hurt his oblique taking swings in the indoor batting cage between at-bats Sunday, and Hicks jammed his shoulder attempting a diving catch Friday.

The good news is neither A-Rod nor Hicks suffered a serious long-term injury. The MRI on A-Rod’s oblique came back negative, and he did travel with the team to Texas for their upcoming series with the Rangers. Hicks’ MRI showed “traumatic bursitis,” which sounds a lot worse than it really is. He received a cortisone shot and is only expected to miss a few days.

That A-Rod and Hicks only suffered day-to-day injuries is good news. The bad news is the two simultaneous injuries create some roster headaches for the Yankees. They have 23 healthy players on their 25-man roster right now, which means only a two-man bench. Playing short for a few days while one player nurses an injury is one thing. Playing short two position players is very different.

“That would be pretty hard to do … Playing two short would be really difficult,” said Joe Girardi to Daniel Popper following yesterday’s game. The Yankees said they were not going to make an immediate roster move when they announced the results of A-Rod’s MRI last night, but the key word there is immediate. They could still make a move prior to tonight’s game and I expect they will.

What I think will happen and what I think should happen are different things. I think the Yankees will place Hicks on the DL and ride out A-Rod’s injury for a few days. I think the Yankees should place both Hicks and A-Rod on the DL to not only avoid playing short-handed, but also to give the two players as much time as necessary to get healthy. A DL stint means no temptation to bring them back early.

Remember, oblique injuries are very tricky and very easy to re-aggravate. Plus A-Rod is 40 now, and 40-year-olds tend to take longer to heal that 25-year-olds. I can’t help but feel like something the Yankees believe will keep Alex out for, say, four or five days will end up sidelining him for nine or ten days. Same with Hicks to a lesser extent. He won’t be back until the end of the week at the earliest based on the five or six day timetable the team threw out there.

(Mike Stobe/Getty)
(Mike Stobe/Getty)

The Yankees have 40-man roster flexibility — they have one open spot thanks to Aroldis Chapman‘s suspension, plus two 60-day DL candidates (Greg Bird, Bryan Mitchell) and likely a third (Branden Pinder) — and a bunch of call-up options in Triple-A. A right-handed hitter(s) who can play a little outfield would be ideal, though not completely necessary. Here are the main candidates:

1. Nick Swisher. Swisher has raked in his short time with Triple-A Scranton (175 wRC+), which is good to see, but be careful not to read too much into a 12-year veteran mashing Triple-A pitching. He’s healthy and that’s good. Swisher also stunk the last two years and his knees are shot, so he’s basically a first baseman and DH at this point. (He hasn’t played the outfield at all with Scranton.) Also, Swisher can’t be sent back down when Hicks and A-Rod are healthy.

2. Ben Gamel. Gamel is a left-handed hitter and the Yankees already have three of those in the outfield if you include Dustin Ackley. He has hit this year though (118 wRC+), and he’s far better suited to play right field than Ackley. In a perfect world Carlos Beltran will slide into the DH spot full-time while A-Rod is on the shelf. Gamel may be the best option in terms of expected performance on both sides of the ball.

3. Aaron Judge. Well, if the Yankees want a right-handed batter, Judge would fit the bill. He’s played well in the early going (125 wRC+) despite some strikeout issues (30.9%). The Yankees have been going young whenever possible lately, and Judge would be a better fit than Gamel because he is a righty. That said, he’s not on the 40-man roster, and sending him back down when Hicks and A-Rod return would burn his first minor league option year. Also, Judge simply might need more time in Triple-A. That strikeout rate is no bueno. You’d hate to rush a guy this talented before he’s ready.

4. Lane Adams. The Yankees claimed Adams off waivers this winter specifically because he’s a right-handed hitting outfielder, something they lacked at the upper levels. He started the year in Double-A before moving up to Triple-A when Cesar Puello got hurt, and so far he hasn’t stood out with the bat (78 wRC+). Adams is the best defender among the team’s outfield options, which is not nothing. It’s unknown how much any of these guys will contribute with the bat right now. Adams could help the most in the field.

5. Rob Refsnyder? Once upon a time Refsnyder was a right fielder, though he has played only nine games at the position since 2013. The Yankees had him work out exclusively at second and third base in Spring Training and Triple-A. That said, he’s a right-handed hitter, and he did some damage against lefties late last year. The Yankees could use the help against southpaws. Would they stick Refsnyder in right field for a few days until Hicks returns? My guess is no, but it is an option.

Gamel is the easy move because he’s already on the 40-man roster and is playing the best on both sides of the ball right now. Swisher is the “old Yankees” move in that he’s a veteran who would be getting priority over younger players. Adams is the boring option, Judge is the bold option, and Refsnyder is the out of the box option. If the Yankees do stick someone (Hicks) on the DL, I think Gamel would get the call. I’m wrong all the time though.

Neither A-Rod nor Hicks have been hitting all that much in the early going, so it’s possible whoever gets called up will actually improve the team in the short-term. Still, the Yankees want to get those two going, and they’re at their best when those two guys are playing up to their potential. A-Rod and Hicks won’t be able to snap out of their funks while injured. There’s nothing the team can do about that though. They just have to hope they can return soon.

Point is, having A-Rod and Hicks hurt at the same time really creates some problems. The injuries remove two right-handed bats from a team struggling against lefties (74 wRC+) and they could be left playing shorthanded for a few days. These are only day-to-day injuries, but the fact both happened at the same time gives the Yankees little choice but to stick someone on the DL for the time being.

Dustin Ackley is getting the Garrett Jones treatment, and there’s nothing the Yankees can do

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

As part of this ongoing on-the-fly rebuild process, the Yankees have been targeting talented young players who have worn out their welcome for whatever reason. That led them to Dustin Ackley last July. The Yankees picked up Ackley, the second overall pick in the 2009 draft, for two fringe 40-man roster players because he was an upgrade over Garrett Jones with the potential to be much more.

Ackley hit his way into regular at-bats late last season and gave the offense a nice little shot in the arm. So far this year he’s assumed the role Jones filled last summer, meaning the bench player who fits the roster well but rarely plays. Jones gave the Yankees lefty pop and depth at first base, right field, and DH, three positions where the team had injury concerns. Ackley does the same, and adds second base to the mix as well.

So far this season Ackley has started two of the team’s first dozen games: one at first base and one at DH. He also came off the bench to play three innings in the field at the end of a blowout. That’s it. Ackley is 0-for-7 with a walk at the plate in the regular season after putting together a strong Spring Training in which he hit .298/.313/.404 in 48 plate appearances, seventh most on the team.

The Yankees haven’t been able to get Ackley much playing time thus far and it does not appear he will get much in the immediately future either. Not with all those lefties coming up. And here’s the thing: this is the right move. Aaron Hicks has the outfield covered, Starlin Castro‘s production has kept him into the lineup, and it’s hard to sit Mark Teixeira given what he does on both sides of the ball. Where does that leave Ackley?

On the bench, for now. It won’t necessarily stay that way all season. One injury can change everything, and even if everyone stays healthy (fingers crossed), Joe Girardi and the Yankees insist they will rest their regulars more often this season. They had four off-days in the first two weeks of the season. They have two in the next five weeks. Ackley is going to come into more playing time as the regulars rest.

The Yankees have Nick Swisher sitting in Triple-A as a possible alternative should Ackley not get it together at some point — Swisher reportedly has an opt-out in his contract, though I don’t know when it is — and need to be replaced. I’m not sure anyone would be able to produce in the Jones role given the lack of playing time though. Ackley is only 28 and he has talent, and at some point I’d like to see him get a chance to play, but there’s no obvious spot to do it.

The offense has struggled these last six games, and while the natural reaction is to change the lineup, Ackley’s a band-aid more than a solution. Teixeira, Castro, Brett Gardner, and Carlos Beltran are the Yankees’ four best hitters right now, so Girardi can’t take one of them out of the lineup to play Ackley. I supposed he could sit Alex Rodriguez, but getting A-Rod going is more important than getting Ackley at-bats.

The Yankees could really use some kind of a spark at the plate right now. I just don’t think Ackley can provide it. He’s stuck in a very difficult position. The Yankees need him because he plays positions where they have some age and injury concerns, but they also don’t want to sit the guys they have at those positions if at all possible. Perhaps Ackley can figure out a way to thrive in this role. That will be a big challenge, however.

If backup catcher race is between Sanchez and Romine, the choice is obvious for the Yankees

(Presswire)
Sanchez. (Presswire)

Over the years the Yankees have been known to stage Spring Training competitions. Competition is healthy and they try to foster it in camp whenever possible, even if it means saying a job is up for grabs when we all know it really isn’t. The fifth starter competition in 2010 always stands out to me. If it was truly based on spring performance, Sergio Mitre would have gotten the job. Instead, it went to Phil Hughes, who was going to get it all along.

This spring the Yankees do have some true competitions, mostly in the bullpen but also on the bench. That last bench spot is up for grabs and it sounds like it will go to a backup third baseman. The Yankees must also pick a backup catcher from a group that includes top prospect Gary Sanchez, post-hype youngster Austin Romine, and veteran journeyman Carlos Corporan. From the sound of it, the race is between Sanchez and Romine.

“In evaluating Sanchez and Romine you want to give them equal starts and see how they do and how they adapt to the different pitchers … They re going to play,” said Joe Girardi to George King over the weekend. Player usage can be telling during Spring Training, and it’s worth noting Sanchez started Sunday’s game behind the plate with Masahiro Tanaka on the mound. Romine came off the bench to catch the Triple-A guys.

“I think it has shown how much he has grown, that he is getting starts now as opposed to coming in and backing up and (catching) guys he knew from the minor leagues. Now he is getting guys he doesn’t know and you want to see how he adjusts,” said Girardi. Sanchez started and caught Ivan Nova last week, another big league pitcher he’s not too familiar with. Romine’s only start this spring came with Bryan Mitchell on the mound, and those two know each other from Triple-A last season.

Romine is out-hitting Sanchez very early in Grapefruit League play — he’s 4-for-8 with three booming doubles, Sanchez is 0-for-3 with two walks and a hit-by-pitch — and while that doesn’t mean much in the grand scheme of things, it’s not going to hurt Romine’s case. He said it himself the other day. To make the Opening Day roster, he’s going to have to hit all spring. Another .171/.216/.200 showing like last spring won’t cut it. Romine has to force the issue.

The Yankees have been going young whenever possible over the last 16 months or so, and handing the backup catcher reins over the Sanchez is an obvious move. He’s their top catcher prospect, he had success at Double-A and Triple-A last season, and he put an exclamation point on his season in the Arizona Fall League. Sanchez has reportedly matured over the last year and his defense improving. Giving him the job makes sense. At the same time, more time in Triple-A is justifiable.

“I think you have to see where his game is as we go through Spring Training,” said Girardi. “Sometimes you talk about players who have high ceilings and sometimes people say, ‘Let’s finish (his development) off in the minor leagues before we call them up.’ I think Gary does have a high ceiling but he is a guy who might be able to help us a lot, too. If you think he is ready then you have to weigh that. Is he better off playing every day and really finish everything off? Or do you see if he can help you out and make a difference.”

(Presswire)
Romine. (Presswire)

Beyond the on-field development — Sanchez is improving defensively but he’s still not great back there — there’s also roster and service time considerations. Thirty-five days in the minors pushes Sanchez’s free agency back a year. Romine, meanwhile, is out of options and has been outrighted before, which means if the Yankees want to send him to the minors, they have to pass him through waivers. And even if he clears waivers, he can elect free agency thanks to the prior outright.

If the backup catcher competition is truly between Sanchez and Romine — Corporan is a bystander who was brought in as depth, in that case — then the decision seems pretty obvious to me. The Yankees should go with Romine and keep him around a little longer. (I assume he’d elect free agency if outrighted to find a better opportunity.) That allows them to maintain some catcher depth and, more importantly, push Sanchez’s free agency back. That almost feels like the top consideration here, not his on-field development.

Sanchez and Romine are not oblivious to the situation. Sanchez reached the big leagues as a September call-up last year and said over the winter his goal is to make the team for good this year. Romine is basically fighting for his career. I don’t think that’s an exaggeration. This might be his last chance at a big league roster spot. If this doesn’t work out, he’s in danger of becoming a journeyman teams pick up to fill Triple-A roster holes. That’s one hell of a motivator, don’t you think?

“It doesn’t feel different,” said Sanchez to Bryan Hoch when asked about the general belief he is the favorite for the backup catcher’s job. “To me, I’m just focusing on my job. I’ve got to keep working hard every day, call a good game and whatever decision is up to them. It’s exciting to be in the mix. For us, all players, we want to make it to the big leagues. But that’s not my decision.”

Whoever the Yankees pick to be their backup catcher, that player doesn’t figure to actually play much early in the season. Brian McCann is going to start most games, and all the April off-days mean it’ll be easier to keep him in the lineup. That’s another reason to send Sanchez down. He won’t actually start much in April. Going with Romine as the backup catcher is not so much about having Romine on the roster. It’s about trading a handful of games now for an extra season of Sanchez later, and that’s an easy call.