Who Will be the Yankees Backup Catcher in 2020?
Will the Yanks re-sign Austin Romine? Is Kyle Higashioka ready to move up from third-string to the full-time backup? Could the Bombers look elsewhere for catching depth?
Catcher is unquestionably the toughest position to play on the diamond when it comes to durability.
Yasmani Grandal’s 137 games played behind the plate for the Brewers in 2019 was the most of any catcher, but the lowest total among players who led their respective positions in games played.
In New York, starting catcher Gary Sanchez was sidelined on the injured list twice in 2019, suiting up to catch in just 90 games. In 2018, he was behind the dish in just 76.
His starting spot should be secure moving forward -- after crushing 34 home runs to lead all catchers in 2019, he proved himself as one of the best hitters at his position in the game -- but with a history of injuries, to go along with the wear and tear of squatting every day, the Yankees’ backup role is critical for this team in 2020 and beyond.
The Bombers have three options ahead of Spring Training to figure out this catching conundrum. They can attempt to re-sign veteran backup Austin Romine, hand over the keys to 29-year-old Kyle Higashioka or attempt to acquire a backup via free agency or a trade.
As tempting as it is to predict who the Yanks might pick up from another organization, this decision is between Romine and Higashioka -- both drafted by the club and products of New York’s farm system.
Romine has been around for the longest -- he debuted with the Yankees in 2011 and has appeared in 60-plus games in each of the last four years. He’s a career .239 hitter, but has steadily improved over the last several seasons.
In 2019, the 31-year-old had the best season of his career. His .281 batting average, 64 hits and .748 OPS were tops in his eight big league seasons. Sure, he didn’t play a full season -- only appearing in just 72 games -- but his average was just eight points lower than Wilson Ramos, who led all backstops.
His tenure in pinstripes, however, is in jeopardy of coming to an end. Romine elected free agency at the end of October and just two days ago, the NY Post reported that the Phillies, and former Yankee skipper Joe Girardi, have shown interest in the veteran backstop.
Whether it’s Philly, New York or elsewhere, Romine’s reliability as the Yankees backup catcher for the past several years will earn him a gig in 2020. At the very least, another club could certainly use him as their backup, if not in a starting role.
The reason New York likely won’t resign Romine isn’t anything he did wrong, however, it’s just that they’ve got their eyes set on a younger, in-house option that’s got plenty of potential.
During the General Manager Meetings last month, Brian Cashman said he would be “comfortable” using Higashioka as their primary backup catcher moving forward.
Higashioka is a career .164 hitter in 56 big league games, so he’s still growing comfortable at the big league level. In 70 games with Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre in 2019, he mashed 20 homers while hitting .278.
Further, slow start notwithstanding, he’s already won over much of the Yankees fan base, as well as John Sterling.
After starting out 0-for-22, his first three hits in the bigs were home runs, earning the call from the Yankees’ radio play-by-play announcer, “Higshioka … the home run stroka!”
In addition to his potential on offense, Higashioka has shown signs of dependability behind the dish.
According to Statcast, the 29-year-old's average pop time to second base was seventh best among all catchers. The league average is 2.01 seconds and his impressive time of 1.94 is better than not only than Romine (2.06), but Sanchez as well (1.95). While Higashioka is ranked seventh, Romine is near the cellar at 64th.
Higashioka’s pop time was measured on just six attempts, which is a limited sample size, but on another encouraging note, he allowed zero past balls and didn't commit an error in 137 innings behind the dish in 2019.
“We feel he’s ready to go,” Cashman said of Higashioka to reporters at the General Manager Meetings. “Like a lot of aspects of our roster, we feel we have personnel that can do the job and that we have high confidence in.”
Higashioka, who is on the 40-man roster, is out of minor-league options. Therefore, unless the team elects to trade or release him, it’s safe to assume he’ll be with the Yankees in Baltimore on Opening Day.
Romine requires a new deal and after Travis d’Arnaud secured a two-year, $16 million deal with the Braves, the market should be kind to the Yanks' former backup. He's poised to sign a contract far more lucrative than his $1.8 million salary in 2019.
If the Yanks decide to re-sign Romine, however, they’ll either have to part ways with Higashioka, or forfeit a roster spot and carry three catchers.
It makes sense to go with the younger, cost-effective option, and according to Cashman’s comments, it’s apparent the organization has faith that Higashioka is up for the challenge. Besides, he won't be a free agent until 2025, so he won't be a financial burden for the next several years.
Let's be honest, Gary Sanchez is going to find his way on the injured list at some point in 2020 -- he's been on the IL four times in the last two seasons. Romine has been about as dependable as the Yankees could have ever wanted, and saying goodbye to that would be a risk, but all signs point to the baton being passed to Higashioka this winter.
To keep up with all of Yankee Maven's coverage, click the "follow" button at the top righthand corner of this page. For more from Max Goodman, follow him on Twitter @MaxTGoodman