Spring Competitions: The Backup Catcher & Final Bench Spot [2016 Season Preview]

Romine. (Presswire)
Romine. (Presswire)

Coming into the spring, half of the bench was set. We knew Dustin Ackley and Aaron Hicks would occupy two of the four spots and nothing’s changed. The last two spots were up for grabs. One will go to the backup catcher, and because the plan to play Starlin Castro at third base didn’t work out, the other has to go to a backup third baseman. The Yankees don’t have much of a choice with those last two spots, positionally. Let’s preview those last two bench players, whoever they may be.

The Backup Catcher (For Now)

The Yankees have had some pretty good backup catchers in recent years. At the very least, they were strong defenders. The Yankees place a lot of emphasis on catcher defense. Some of those backups even hit too, like Frankie Cervelli a few years back and John Ryan Murphy last year. Murphy was traded for Hicks over the winter, leaving the backup spot to a spring competition.

The two main competitors: actual prospect Gary Sanchez and former prospect Austin Romine. The Yankees brought in veteran journeyman Carlos Corporan for depth, but Joe Girardi quickly ruled him out of the race, surprisingly. Others like Eddy Rodriguez and Sebastian Valle didn’t get much of a look in camp at all. It was either Sanchez or Romine. Anyone else would be a surprise.

It’s not yet official, but all signs point to Romine getting that backup catcher job to start the regular season. The Yankees optioned Sanchez to Triple-A last night, which effectively takes him out of the running. If he was still being considered for the job, the Yankees would keep Sanchez in big league camp so he could continue working with the big league pitchers. Instead, they sent him to minor league camp for at-bats and regular reps.

Sanchez and Romine are very different players. Sanchez hit 25 home runs in 500 total plate appearances a year ago. Romine hit 25 home runs from 2011-15. Sanchez is an outstanding thrower and an adequate receiver. Romine is an adequate thrower and a very good receiver. They’re pretty close to polar opposites, really. Sanchez was miserable during Grapefruit League play (1-for-21!) though, and Girardi said he felt he was pressing in an effort to make the team.

Sending Sanchez to Triple-A for a few weeks is totally justifiable given his still rough around the edges defense. The service time aspect can’t be ignored either. Thirty-five days in the minors delays Sanchez’s free agency a year. That’s potentially huge. If he turns into the type of player his tools suggest he can become, gaining control of his age 29 season in 2022 would be enormous. It’s a no-brainer, really. How do you not send him down to delay free agency?

The Yankees have gone young at almost every opportunity over the last 18 months, and replacing Murphy with Sanchez seems like the logical move. Remember, Romine was pretty close to out of the organization last year. The team designated him for assignment at the end of Spring Training, he slipped through waivers, and they stashed him in Triple-A. He was added to the 40-man roster and called back up in September only because Sanchez was dealing with a hamstring issue and the Yankees wanted a third catcher when rosters expanded.

So, for now, Romine is in line to be the backup catcher. The key words there are “for now.” There is zero doubt Sanchez is in the club’s long-term catching picture. Ideally, he would spend some time as Brian McCann‘s understudy before taking over the starting job. That apprenticeship is still likely to begin this year, I think. Once his free agency is delayed and once the Yankees are comfortable with his defense, Sanchez will be in the show. Romine is a placeholder more than anything.

Ref Robsnyder. (Presswire)
Ref Robsnyder. (Presswire)

Open Tryouts At Third Base

Eight different players have played third base for the Yankees during Grapefruit League play this spring. Eight! It would have been nine had the team not pulled the plug on the Castro experiment. One of the eight is the starter (Chase Headley) and another is a prospect (Miguel Andujar) who was up from minor league camp for a day to help out during a set of split squad games. The other six: Jonathan Diaz, Pete Kozma, Rob Refsnyder, Deibinson Romero, Donovan Solano, and Ronald Torreyes.

Diaz, Romero, and Solano have all already been assigned to minor league camp, taking them out of the running for the final bench spot. The remaining three candidates hit the bench guy stereotype trifecta:

  • Kozma: Veteran utility man who’s played for some pretty good teams in the past.
  • Refsnyder: Prospect with no clear path to playing time, so he’s trying to improve his versatility.
  • Torreyes: Third tier prospect with just enough tools to potentially force the issue.

Kozma is a known quantity at this point. He’s not going to hit, but he can play some pretty good defense at the three non-first base infield positions. Refsnyder has handled himself quite well at third base this spring despite being thrown into the fire. Give him some props. Learning a new position and trying to make the team at the same time isn’t easy. Torreyes? Well, I learned his name is pronounced “to-reyes” and not “torre-eyes” like I had been saying in my head. That about sums up his spring.

I get the feeling Refsnyder has the inside track for the final bench spot right now, though cases could be made for Kozma and Torreyes. Remember, this is a part-time gig. The Yankees could want Refsnyder playing everyday in Triple-A — and working on his third base defense — rather than sitting on the bench and playing maybe twice a week in the big leagues. Two months (55 days to be exact) in the minors delays his free agency a year. Like Sanchez, is it worth keeping Refsnyder up to play only a handful of times in those two months when he could instead play everyday in Triple-A and push his free agency back? That’s a question worth asking.

Kozma could be buried on the bench for weeks at a time a la Brendan Ryan and no one would care. Torreyes does not have Refsnyder’s offensive upside but he’s a contact machine with some speed and solid defensive chops. He truly may be a better bench option than Refsnyder because he does more things well. Refsnyder’s all bat. Torreyes is more well-rounded and his development isn’t a huge priority. If he sits on the bench and plays once every ten days, so be it.

The Yankees say they want to rest their regulars more often this season, but Girardi also acknowledged Didi Gregorius and Castro don’t need as much rest as everyone else because they’re so young. Whoever gets this last bench spot will be responsible for backing up Headley, first and foremost. Didi and Starlin don’t need as many days on the bench. I think Refsnyder will get the job. I also wouldn’t be surprised if the Yankees go with the “safer” bet in Kozma or the more well-rounded option in Torreyes.

Yankees option Gary Sanchez to Triple-A, clearing the way for Austin Romine to be the backup catcher

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Earlier tonight, the Yankees optioned catcher Gary Sanchez to Triple-A Scranton, the team announced. That clears the way for Austin Romine to open the regular season as the backup catcher. The team hasn’t confirmed the job is Romine’s — there’s still a week and a half in Spring Training and things can change — but right now it’s shaping up that way.

Sanchez, 23, is arguably the best catching prospect in baseball, and he’s coming off a season in which he hit .276/.336/.503 (137 wRC+) with 25 home runs in 119 total minor league games. He’s had a brutal showing in Grapefruit League play (1-for-21), and Joe Girardi recently said he thought Sanchez was pressing.

By sending Sanchez down, he’ll be able to play everyday with Triple-A Scranton and work on his defense. His bat is pretty close to MLB ready. As an added bonus, 35 days in the minors will delay Sanchez’s free agency another year. That’s not insignificant. Five weeks in 2016 equals control of Sanchez’s age 29 season in 2022. Could be huge.

Romine, 27, has been decent in camp, going 6-for-22 (.273) with four doubles. He’s a career .201/.244/.278 (41 wRC+) hitter in 183 big league plate appearances, most coming in 2013. Romine’s a defense first catcher who was designated for assignment last spring. Now he’s in line to make the Opening Day roster. What a world.

Keep in mind that just because Romine figures to be the backup catcher at the start of the season, it doesn’t mean he’ll hold the job all year. Sanchez could force the issue with his bat at some point. In fact, I would be surprised if Sanchez didn’t finish the season as the backup catcher. The Yankees are just holding off on giving him the job.

Romine is out of options, meaning he can’t go to the minors without first passing through waivers. And since he’s already been outrighted off the 40-man roster once before, he’ll be able to elect free agency if he clears waivers. Whenever the time comes to give Sanchez the job, Romine’s stint in the organization will likely come to an end.

Sorting through the 45 players the Yankees still have on their Spring Training roster

Mitchell. (Presswire)
Mitchell. (Presswire)

Two weeks from today, the Yankees will open the 2016 regular season at home against the Astros. There are a 14 exhibition games to be played between now and then, and several roster decisions have to be made as well. The Yankees have made two rounds of roster cuts so far, paring the number of players in big league camp from 70 down to 45. Another 20 still must go.

It goes without saying some of those 45 players have a much better chance to make the Opening Day roster than others. You’d be surprised to see how few have close to no chance to make the team though. The Yankees have only a few open roster spots but an awful lot of candidates to fill them. Let’s look over the 45 players still in big league camp and figure out where they fit going forward.

Definitely Making The Team (20)

These are the easiest calls, so we might as well start here. These 20 players will definitely be on the Opening Day roster:

Coming into the spring I would not have considered Shreve a lock for the bullpen, but it’s pretty safe to say he’s in right now. He’s been phenomenal in camp, he was awesome most of last year, and Joe Girardi is talking about him like one of his regular relievers. Shreve’s going to break camp with the Yankees.

The Yankees insist they are having a true competition for the fifth starter’s spot, though sending Sabathia to the bullpen so Nova can start is one of those “I’ll believe it when I see it” things. Maybe the Yankees will figure out a way to stick Sabathia on the DL rather than send him to the bullpen, though that would surprise me. I’m sticking with what I said last week: I don’t believe Sabathia is truly competing for a rotation spot. He’s in.

Very Likely To Make The Team (2)

In Bryan Mitchell and Rob Refsnyder, the Yankees have two young players who are forcing the issue with their Spring Training performances. Both saw time in the show last year and both came to camp on the roster bubble. Mitchell keeps throwing fire and getting outs while Refsnyder has shown he can actually handle third base, a position he never played prior to this spring.

“(Refsnyder at third base) been better than I expected, to be honest. He’s never been over to that side of the infield. His reactions are really good. His arm’s good,” said Brian Cashman to Meredith Marakovits recently (video link). The Yankees need a backup third baseman now that Castro will stick to second, and Refsnyder has taken to the position quickly. He hit in his limited time last year and he adds some balance as a righty hitter.

As for Mitchell, the Yankees do have three open bullpens, and none of the shuttle relievers have impressed this spring. He’s been by far the best of the team’s bullpen candidates, and Girardi has mentioned him as a potential Adam Warren replacement, meaning a multi-inning reliever. Mitchell pitched pretty well in relief last year before taking that line drive to the nose. I wouldn’t call him or Refsnyder locks for the Opening Day roster, but they sure look like strong candidates right now.

Hurt Or Suspended (3)

Three of the 45 players still in camp will not be on the active 25-man roster when the season begins. Aroldis Chapman has to serve his 30-game suspension, and both Greg Bird and Mason Williams will start the season on the DL following shoulder surgery. Bird’s going to be out for the year. We know that already. Williams is doing pretty much everything — throwing, hitting, etc. — but still needs more time to finish up his rehab.

There are some 40-man roster implications here. Chapman will be on the restricted list and will not count towards the 40-man roster while suspended. Bird can also be placed on the 60-day DL whenever a 40-man spot is needed. The 60-day DL is kinda weird though. Teams can only use it when they need it, meaning another player has to placed on the 40-man right away. Bird will likely start the season on the 15-day DL, then be transferred over whenever a 40-man spot is inevitably needed.

Pazos. (Presswire)
Pazos. (Presswire)

In The Mix For A Roster Spot (7)

This might as well be the shuttle reliever category. Johnny Barbato, Nick Goody, James Pazos, Branden Pinder, and Nick Rumbelow are all still in camp and they’re all on the 40-man roster. All but Barbato pitched in the big leagues last year too. Barbato has pitched the best during Grapefruit League play so far, which won’t hurt his case for the Opening Day roster. Then again, none of these guys have thrown more than seven innings this spring.

Based on everything I have above, five of the seven bullpen spots are claimed: Miller, Betances, Shreve, Mitchell, and Nova (or Sabathia). I honestly have no idea how those last two spots will shake out. I don’t even have an inkling which way the Yankees are leaning. Barbato has pitched well so far, though that doesn’t mean much. He’s got two weeks to make some mistakes. At the same time, the other guys have a chance to step up their game. The best way to describe the bullpen situation right now is: developing.

Austin Romine and Gary Sanchez are also in the mix for a roster spot. They’re competing for the backup catcher’s job, and right now I’d say it’s advantage Romine. Sanchez has not had a good spring (1-for-17) and over the weekend Girardi said he seems to be pressing. There’s also the service time issue (35 days in the minors delays Sanchez’s free agency a year) and the fact that Sanchez probably could use some more Triple-A time to work on his defense.

Out of these seven players, all but Romine will go to Triple-A if they don’t make the team. Romine’s out of options, so if he doesn’t make the Opening Day roster, he’ll go on waivers. And even if he clears, he can elect free agency. The Yankees can’t expect to keep him based on those conditions. That’s probably another reason Romine seems to be the favorite to back up McCann right now.

Oh Gosh, They Might Actually Make The Team (5)

Remember Chris Martin? He was that random offseason pickup no one really paid attention to last year, then bam, he was on the Opening Day roster. The five guys in this group are candidates to be this year’s Chris Martin. Here’s how they can make the team out of camp:

  • Chris Denorfia: Unlike most of the team’s depth outfielders, Denorfia hits right-handed and he has a lot of MLB experience. He strikes me as the top bench candidate should Ellsbury’s wrist injury linger.
  • Pete Kozma: What if the Yankees want to give Refsnyder some more Triple-A time to continue working at third? Kozma, a veteran utility man, is the annoyingly obvious alternative.
  • Tyler Olson: Having a very good spring and could fill one of the open bullpen spots. Olson is a true lefty specialist and Girardi sure does love his matchups.
  • Anthony Swarzak: Swarzak has been solid overall, and he’s another guy with MLB experience. The fact he can throw multiple innings may land him in the bullpen.
  • Kirby Yates: Quietly shoving this spring (4 IP, 2 H, 0 R, 1 BB, 6 K) and he has big league time under his belt. With none of the shuttle guys standing put, Yates could grab a bullpen spot.

Yeah, you don’t have to try real hard to see one or two (or three) of these guys making the team, do you? It’s surprisingly easy, in fact. I swear, these guys just sneak up on you. You overlook them as cast-offs when they’re acquired, and before you know, they’re standing on the foul line and being introduced on Opening Day. Baseball, man.

Long Shots To Make The Team (8)

Never say never, but I am comfortable saying these last eight players are very unlikely to make the Opening Day roster. Catchers Carlos Corporan and Eddy Rodriguez remain in camp, though Girardi has dismissed them as backup catcher candidates. They’re still around so McCann, Romine, and Sanchez don’t have to catch every inning of every spring game. That’s all.

Chris Parmelee was signed to replace Bird as the Triple-A first baseman, so he’s going to Triple-A. The only way he makes the Opening Day roster is if Teixeira gets hurt. (I don’t think he’d make it if A-Rod got hurt. They’d use Beltran at DH in that case.) Ronald Torreyes had gotten a look at third base this spring and he’s been fine overall. At this point I think he’s behind Refsnyder and Kozma on the backup infield depth chart.

Kristen Orfia. (Presswire)
Kristen Orfia. (Presswire)

In addition to Denorfia, Slade Heathcott and Cesar Puello are the last remaining spare outfielders in camp. Heathcott has been brutal during Grapefruit League play (1-for-22!), and while that isn’t everything, I think it puts him behind Denorfia on the depth chart should Ellsbury stay hurt. Puello’s been great in camp, but this is a guy who played one game last season due to a back injury. I can’t see him sticking even if Ellsbury’s wrist problem lingers.

The last two arms in camp are Diego Moreno and Luis Cessa. The Yankees really like Cessa — Cashman in particular has talked him up — and he’s looked pretty good in his limited action. Those are the key words there, limited action. He’s appeared in only three Spring Training games, and if the Yankees were seriously considering Cessa for the roster, he’d get more looks. Pitching two innings once a week suggests he’s on the outside looking in. That’s fine. He could use more Triple-A time anyway.

The Yankees seem to like Moreno more than we realize — he’s been mentioned as a call-up candidate for two or three years now — and I wouldn’t be surprised to see him again this summer. He is not on the 40-man roster right now, and he hasn’t pitched well in camp (six runs in 5.1 innings), so it seems safe to say Diego is way down on the Opening Day bullpen depth chart at the moment. The Yankees have too many other candidates.

* * *

With Opening Day two weeks away, it appears the Yankees have 22 of their 25 roster spots figured out. They need to pick a backup catcher and decide who will hold down the last two bullpen spots on a temporary basis. I assume those will be shuttle spots, with new guys cycling in and out as necessary, especially early in the season. The next round of roster cuts should be coming next weekend, and that may lend some clarity to the bullpen situation.

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.

Position Battles of Note [2016 Spring Training Preview]

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

The long marathon that is the 2016 season will begin Thursday, when Yankees pitchers and catchers report to Tampa for Spring Training. Position players will follow next Wednesday. The first Grapefruit League game will be played March 2nd, two weeks from Wednesday. Real live baseball is coming soon.

This spring the Yankees will not have many position battles to follow. Their nine starting position player spots are set, the five rotation spots are pretty much set, the back-end of the bullpen is set, and two of four bench spots are set. It might even be three of four. You could argue as many as seven roster spots are up for grabs. In reality it’s probably more like four. Here are the three battles to watch.

The Backup Catcher

The Yankees have had some pretty good backup catchers in recent years, from the defensive-minded Jose Molina to the occasionally great Frankie Cervelli to the solid all-around John Ryan Murphy. Murphy is now a Minnesota Twin, meaning the backup job will go to Gary Sanchez, Austin Romine, or non-roster invitee Carlos Corporan. Sebastian Valle, another non-roster player, is the deep sleeper. He’s an outstanding defender and the Yankees value catcher defense highly.

Sanchez had a strong 2015 season in terms of production, development, and maturity, which helped make Murphy expendable. Brian Cashman said he would “like to unleash the Kraken” this year, referring to Sanchez, but there are big picture aspects to consider. Is Sanchez the best backup catcher candidate? The answer is almost certainly yes. Is sending Sanchez to Triple-A for a few weeks a good idea? That answer is almost certainly yes as well.

A total of 35 days in the minors this season will delay Sanchez’s free agency another year. Thirty-five days in 2016 equals control of Sanchez’s age 29 season in 2022. That’s a long time away and who knows whether Sanchez will be worth keeping around in 2022, but 35 days? That’s it? Sending him down for five weeks to gain control of his age 29 season is a no-brainer in my opinion. It’s a little 2016 pain for potentially a lot of 2022 gain.

Sanchez. (Presswire)
Sanchez. (Presswire)

Keep in mind five weeks for a backup catcher equals maybe six or seven starts. The Yankees have a ton of April off-days like they do every year — five in first four weeks! — so keeping Brian McCann in the lineup will be rather easy. Those six or seven starts might actually be more like four or five starts. Is sacrificing four or five Sanchez games in 2016 worth it to gain control of his age 29 season? Hell yes. The system makes this an obvious move.

Romine and Corporan, Sanchez’s two chief competitors, are in different situations. Corporan is on a minor league contract and can be easily stashed in Triple-A for depth this season. Romine is on the 40-man roster and out of options, meaning he can’t go to the minors without being exposed to waivers. That was the case last year, when Romine did slip through waivers unclaimed, but since this would be his second outright assignment, he could elect free agency.

If he doesn’t make the team, Romine in all likelihood would elect free agency and look to join a team that offers a greater big league opportunity. With McCann and Sanchez in tow, it’s hard to see how any upper level catcher gets MLB time in the Bronx without an injury. The position is locked down for at least three more seasons (the duration of McCann’s contract). I see four possible outcomes for the spring backup catcher competition:

  • The Best Team: Sanchez in MLB with Corporan in Triple-A and Romine out of the organization.
  • The Most Depth: Romine in MLB with Sanchez and Corporan in Triple-A.
  • The Eh I Get It Plan: Corporan in MLB with Sanchez in Triple-A and Romine out of the org.
  • The WTF Plan: Valle in MLB with Sanchez and Corporan in Triple-A and Romine out of the org.

As best I can tell Corporan does actually have a minor league option remaining, so the Yankees could carry him as the backup catcher for some period of time, then send him down once Sanchez’s service time is in a good place. They would still presumably lose Romine, but at least they’d keep Corporan.

Now, if Corporan does not have an option left — that’s possible, this stuff can be difficult to pin down — then the Yankees would need to drop him from the 40-man roster when the time comes to promote Sanchez. Going with the Eh I Get It Plan means the team could be faced with the possibility of losing Romine and Corporan once Sanchez is called up.

Maybe that’s no big deal. Romine and Corporan aren’t great by any means, but I do think you need an extra catcher or two in the organization. The Yankees got really lucky with McCann and Murphy last season — those two combined to catch every inning of every game in 2015 — and I wouldn’t count on that kind of health again. It just doesn’t happen at catcher. It’s a brutal position.

Carrying Sanchez as McCann’s backup likely gives the Yankees the best possible team to start the season. The benefit of manipulating his service time — especially since we’re only talking about losing him for a handful of actual starts — means sending him to Triple-A to start the season is the best thing for the organization long-term. Rolling with Romine or Corporan for five weeks is the price to pay for Sanchez’s age 29 season, and that’s not bad at all.

(Presswire)
Lindgren. (Presswire)

At Least Three, Likely Four, Maybe Five Bullpen Spots

At some point soon we’re going to hear something about Aroldis Chapman‘s seemingly inevitable suspension. Rumor has it commissioner Rob Manfred will hand down the suspension before Spring Training, meaning it could be any day now. Chapman will not be charged with a crime stemming from his October domestic dispute incident but that’s irrelevant. The collectively bargained Domestic Violence Policy explicitly says no arrests or charges are necessary for a suspension.

It seems very likely Chapman will be suspended for some length of time. How long? Your guess is as good as mine. (I’ve seen a few reporters suggest a 15-game ban is coming.) Either way, any sort of suspension opens a bullpen spot come Opening Day. Right now the Yankees have Chapman, Andrew Miller, Dellin Betances, and Ivan Nova locked into spots, leaving three open three bullpen spots. Chapman’s suspension would make it four open spots and an injury to a starter would make it five since Nova would have to jump into the rotation.

For the purposes of this post, let’s just assume the rotation stays healthy and Nova is indeed the long man come Opening Day. A reach? Eh, maybe. We’ll deal with the injuries as they come. Regardless of the number of open bullpen spots, the Yankees have no shortage of relief options this year. Check out the list of bullpen candidates coming to camp this spring:

Some of those guys are more likely to land a big league job than others — Kaprielian won’t be breaking camp with the Yankees, for example — but they’ll all be in Spring Training and therefore theoretically capable of winning a roster spot.

The Yankees have relievers of all shapes and sizes. Righties, lefties, strikeout guys, ground ball guys, guys with big league experience, guys who has yet to pitch above Single-A … you name it and the Yankees will have it in camp this year. And here’s the thing: aside from Shreve, who was so excellent the first four and a half months last season, I’m not sure anyone has a leg up on a spot.

It’s great the Yankees have so many bullpen options, because they’re inevitably going to need them. This is a position battle that won’t ever end. The Yankees once again figure to employ a bullpen shuttle this year to ensure Joe Girardi always has a fresh arm or two available, meaning whoever wins a spot on the Opening Day roster may only be there short-term. I can’t imagine that’s comfortable for the players, but that’s life. That’s the way the roster is built.

My guess is Shreve will get one of the open bullpen spots barring a catastrophic showing in camp. The other open spots could be decided by Spring Training performance (as silly as that may be) and roster considerations. The Yankees may not want to free up 40-man space just yet, for example. They open the season against the Astros and could opt to carry an extra lefty (for Colby Rasmus, Luis Valbuena, Jason Castro, etc.) before going with an extra righty for the second series of the season against the Tigers (almost their entire lineup is right-handed). We’ll see.

Spring Training will be an audition for all of those pitchers. Even Kaprielian, who wants to make a strong impression as he prepares for his first full pro season. If you don’t win a bullpen job in camp, you still want to put yourself in position for an early call-up. Make the Yankees remember you. That’s what Preston Claiborne did a few years ago. Someone like Campos could do the same this year.

Kozma. (Presswire)
Kozma. (Presswire)

The 25th Man

Cashman is on record saying the Yankees hope to use their 25th roster spot as a revolving door depending on their need at the time. If they need an extra reliever, they’ll use that spot for an extra reliever. If they need a position player, they’ll call up a position player. So on and so forth. Good idea in theory. How will it work in the real world? We’re going to find out soon enough.

The Yankees have three off-days within the first two full weeks of the season, so using that 25th roster spot on an eighth reliever out of Spring Training qualifies as overkill. I understand the starters are still getting stretched all the way out and whatnot, but eight relievers with all those off-days? Nah. Carrying an extra bench player early on makes the most sense, and the Yankees have plenty of infield (Jonathan Diaz, Donovan Solano, Pete Kozma, Ronald Torreyes, Rob Refsnyder) and outfield (Slade Heathcott, Mason Williams, Ben Gamel) options.

The 25th man decision is going to depend entirely on Starlin Castro‘s ability to play third base, because if he can’t do it, the Yankees will need to carry a backup third baseman. So moreso than the backup catcher and bullpen battles, the 25th man competition is going to be influenced by outside factors. Castro’s the big one, but health with be a factor too, as will 40-man roster considerations. Is it worth designating someone for assignment to carry Kozma for two weeks? Maybe it is. That’s up to the Yankees.

Murphy trade, Sanchez’s hamstring give Romine another opportunity with the Yankees

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Over the last two seasons Austin Romine has become a forgotten man in the Yankees organization. He spent almost the entire 2013 season as Chris Stewart’s backup (what a sentence) before falling behind John Ryan Murphy and Gary Sanchez on the catching depth chart in 2014 and 2015, respectively. The Yankees removed Romine from the 40-man roster last spring.

Now, with Spring Training less than seven weeks away, Romine finds himself in a surprisingly good spot. Relatively speaking, of course. Murphy has been traded and Sanchez may or may not need additional time in Triple-A, so the backup catcher’s position is potentially up for grabs. I definitely wouldn’t call Romine the favorite for the job, though he is a legitimate candidate for it, and that’s something we couldn’t say a few months ago.

“You look at the two catchers that we have. Sanchez is very talented, had a very good Fall League. Austin Romine I think made some huge strides last year in Triple-A and we feel good about our catching,” said Joe Girardi at the Winter Meetings, a few weeks after the Murphy trade. Girardi and Brian Cashman have both been careful not to anoint Sanchez the backup catcher, and I think it’s easy to understand why. It gives the players involved some extra motivation.

Romine turned 27 last month and the 2015 season was close to a make or break year for him. He’s a catcher and catchers are always in demand, so he had that going for him, but once he was dropped from the 40-man roster, he was going to have to earn his way back, whether he was still with the Yankees or in another organization. Romine had a solid summer with the RailRiders (99 wRC+) and found himself back in the show in September.

Of course, Romine was only back in the big leagues because Sanchez got hurt. Sanchez pulled a hamstring running the bases about a week before rosters expanded, and when he still wasn’t healthy on September 1st, the Yankees called up Romine to be the third catcher. They dropped Tyler Austin from the 40-man roster to make room for him. Hey, in an organization with Murphy and Sanchez, it was going to take a break like that for Romine to get back to the Bronx.

Sanchez’s relatively minor hamstring injury has extended Romine’s tenure with the Yankees. Had Sanchez stayed healthy, he would have come up as the third catcher on September 1st, and Romine would not have been re-added to the 40-man roster. He would have then become a minor league free agent after the season and gone looking for a better opportunity. Perhaps losing Romine as a depth piece means Murphy is never traded. Seems unlikely but who knows.

The Sanchez injury and the Murphy trade have given Romine a pretty big opportunity. He’ll come to camp with a chance to win a big league job and that does not necessarily mean with the Yankees either. Yes, Romine will physically be in camp with the Yankees, but he’ll be working to show the other 29 teams he has something to offer too. If Sanchez gets the job, Romine wants another team to want him in a trade or on waivers.

Because he’s out of minor league options and has already been outrighted off the 40-man once before, it seems as though Romine is either going to make the team or leave the organization at the end of Spring Training. The Yankees can’t send Romine to the minors without first passing him through waivers, and if he clears, he can elect free agency, which he would likely do simply to get a fresh start in a different organization. I wouldn’t blame him.

Baseball is cruel. There was a time when Romine looked to be on track to become the catcher of the future — assuming he beat out Jesus Montero for the job, of course — but others have since jumped over him on the depth chart. A unique set of circumstances — Sanchez’s injury and Murphy’s trade — have kept Romine in the organization longer than expected. The result could very be a big league job in 2016, either in New York or elsewhere.

The Third & Fourth String Catchers [2015 Season Review]

(Presswire)
Sanchez. (Presswire)

This past season, the Yankees were the only team in baseball to use just two catchers. A dozen teams used three different catchers and the other 17 used at least four. Brian McCann and John Ryan Murphy combined to catch every inning of every game for New York, which is a minor miracle. It’s so easy for catchers to get banged up and yet both stayed healthy.

The Yankees called up two additional catchers once rosters expanded in September, and even though neither spent an inning behind the plate, they had important seasons for the Yankees. Gary Sanchez re-established himself as a top prospect and Austin Romine stayed healthy and put together a solid season in Triple-A. Their work allowed the Yankees to trade Murphy this offseason.

The Arrival of Sanchez

Fair or not, Sanchez’s prospect stock took a hit in 2014, when he was merely very good instead of great with Double-A Trenton. He hit .270/.338/.406 (108 wRC+) with 13 home runs in 110 games and made incremental progress with his defense, which is good, but not exactly a huge breakout. Sanchez has been around for a while now and people were still waiting for that huge year.

Sanchez, who turns 23 today, finally had that monster year in 2015. After barely playing in camp — Sanchez went 1-for-9 (with a dinger!) in six Grapefruit League games — he started the season back with the Thunder and hit in the middle of what was a rather ridiculous lineup, especially by Double-A standards. Check out the team’s Opening Day starting nine:

Trenton lineup

That’s something else. Sanchez stayed in the cleanup spot and raked for the Thunder, hitting .262/.319/.476 (127 wRC+) with 12 home runs in 58 games. Power is Sanchez’s calling card and he was showing a lot of it early on.

The Yankees moved Sanchez up to Triple-A Scranton in mid-July — he missed two weeks in mid-June with a minor hand injury after being hit by a foul tip — and he hit the ground running with the RailRiders. Sanchez went 2-for-4 with a homer in his Triple-A debut and 25-for-70 (.357) with six doubles and four homers in his first 20 games with Scranton. A minor hamstring pull ended Sanchez’s minor league regular season on August 26th.

The team planned to called Sanchez to the big leagues when rosters expanded in September, though he had to wait until September 12th, after the hamstring healed and he got some tune-up at-bats in the Triple-A postseason. Sanchez hit .295/.349/.500 (145 wRC+) at Triple-A and .271/.329/.476 (131 wRC+) with 18 home runs in 96 minor league games overall. Only two minor league catchers hit more home runs in 2015.

The Yankees were in the postseason race right down to Game 162 — they didn’t clinch homefield advantage in the wildcard game until the final day of the season, remember — so Sanchez didn’t play much in September. He got two at-bats, both as a pinch-hitter in a blowout. He popped up against Oliver Drake and struck out against Zach Britton in those two at-bats. Anti-climatic!

Sanchez was on the wildcard game roster as an extra right-handed bench bat, but he didn’t get into the game. The Yankees decided to send Sanchez to the Arizona Fall League after the season and holy moly, he raked in the desert. He put up a .295/.357/.625 (159 wRC+) batting line with a league-leading seven home runs in 22 games, and was impressive on both sides of the ball.

The Yankees value catcher defense very highly, and I don’t think they would have traded Murphy if they aren’t comfortable with Sanchez behind the plate. Does that mean they think he’s ready to catch everyday at the MLB level? Of course not. But Sanchez has steadily improved behind the plate and the Murphy trade was a big vote of confidence. It showed the team has faith in his defensive skills. Simply put, Sanchez’s play this summer made Murphy expendable.

We can never rule out an offseason trade, but right now Sanchez appears to have the inside track on the backup catcher’s job next year. The Yankees are really starting to emphasize youth and incorporating Sanchez into the 25-man roster is an obvious piece of that puzzle. We’ll see how things play out this winter and in Spring Training. One thing we know for sure is Sanchez is in position to have a real impact for the Yankees in 2016.

The Return of Romine

Coming into Spring Training, the Yankees said Murphy and Romine (and Eddy Rodriguez) were competing for the backup catcher’s spot. That was never really the case though. When Francisco Cervelli got hurt last season, it was Murphy who got called up to replace him. Romine, who spent most of 2013 as Chris Stewart’s backup, wasn’t even called up when rosters expanded on September 1st. He didn’t come up until later in the month, after Cervelli got hurt.

A poor Spring Training ended any chance Romine had at making the team. (He went 6-for-35 with ten strikeouts in camp.) It was going to take a monster spring combined with Murphy falling on his face for Romine to get the backup catcher job. Since he was out of minor league options, the Yankees had to put Romine on waivers to send him to Triple-A. Thanks to some creative timing, they were able to slip him through.

Romine. (Presswire)
Romine. (Presswire)

The Yankees designated Romine for assignment on April 4th, two days before Opening Day and the day before teams had to set their 25-man Opening Day roster. That gave them ten days to trade, release, or waive Romine. They waited until April 6th, the day after teams had to set their Opening Day rosters, to put him on waivers. Clubs had already set their rosters, so claiming Romine would have been a headache. That allowed him to slip through unclaimed. Sneaky!

Romine, who turned 27 last week, opened 2015 as the starting catcher with Triple-A Scranton. He started the season slow but did make it count when he connected — Romine went 11-for-56 (.196) in his first 15 games but had eight extra-base hits (seven doubles and one homer). He quickly settled in after that and owned a .267/.326/.407 (112 wRC+) line with six homers in 65 games the day Sanchez was promoted.

Considering Romine hit .242/.300/.365 (82 wRC+) in 81 Triple-A games in 2014, his rebound in 2015 was a welcome surprise. If nothing else, it allowed the Yankees to feel a little better about their catching depth. Sanchez took over behind the plate after being promoted and Romine moved into something of a utility role for the RailRiders. He played some first base and DH in addition to catching whenever Sanchez needed a rest, improving his versatility a tiny little bit.

The hamstring injury meant Sanchez wasn’t ready to be called up when rosters expanded on September 1st, so Romine got the call as the third catcher by default. He was re-added to the 40-man roster and joined the big league team after hitting hit .261/.311/.379 (99 wRC+) with seven home runs in 92 Triple-A games overall. Romine appeared in just one MLB this year: he started Game 160 at first base and went 0-for-2 with a line out and a ground out before being lifted for a pinch-hitter. That’s all.

Before the Murphy trade, Romine looked like a prime candidate to lose his 40-man roster spot whenever time came this offseason. Since he had already been outrighted once before (in April), he could elect free agency, which he almost certainly would have done so he could join an organization that gave him a better opportunity. Instead, Romine remains with the Yankees thanks to the Murphy trade and figures to do so for the foreseeable future.

At the moment it appears Romine will come to Spring Training and be given a chance to win the backup catcher’s job, except this time it might be a true competition with Sanchez. There are valid reasons to have Sanchez return to Triple-A next season — work on his defense, mostly — which could clear a spot for Romine. The Murphy trade was big for Romine. If nothing else, it bought him a few more weeks on the 40-man roster. It also gives him a legitimate chance to break camp with the Yankees next season.