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Sanchez gives Yankees star behind plate

Catcher looks to keep improving on defense to match big bat
MLB.com @BryanHoch

With the start of Spring Training approaching, anticipation is building for the 2018 season. MLB.com is going around the horn to break down each area of the Yankees' roster, beginning this week with the catchers.

At this time last year, there was talk of Gary Sanchez being the new face of the Yankees, coming off a remarkable showing in which he hit 20 home runs in his first 51 big league games. Then Aaron Judge stole the spotlight, pacing the American League with 52 blasts and earning unanimous selection as the Rookie of the Year.

With the start of Spring Training approaching, anticipation is building for the 2018 season. MLB.com is going around the horn to break down each area of the Yankees' roster, beginning this week with the catchers.

At this time last year, there was talk of Gary Sanchez being the new face of the Yankees, coming off a remarkable showing in which he hit 20 home runs in his first 51 big league games. Then Aaron Judge stole the spotlight, pacing the American League with 52 blasts and earning unanimous selection as the Rookie of the Year.

That is fine with Sanchez, who prefers to be viewed simply as part of the group that is trying to steal the division from the Red Sox in 2018. Coming off a strong first full campaign in the Majors, the 25-year-old Sanchez offers the Yankees confidence that they will be set behind the plate.

"Now we have two animals in the lineup," Sanchez said in December, offering the New York Post his reaction to the Giancarlo Stanton trade. "Maybe two and a half [with me]."

Video: Must C Crushed: Sanchez powers Yanks with two-HR game

Sanchez hit .278/.345/.531 with 79 runs scored, 20 doubles, 33 home runs and 90 RBIs in 122 games last year, making 99 starts at catcher and 18 at designated hitter. Selected to the All-Star Game, Sanchez led all big league catchers in runs, homers, RBIs and slugging percentage. He hit .208 (11-for-53) with three homers and eight RBIs in 13 postseason games.

Despite missing most of April with a right biceps strain, Sanchez's 33 homers shattered a franchise record for catchers previously shared by Yogi Berra and Jorge Posada (30) and were the most by any catcher since the Braves' Javy Lopez hit 43 in 2003. As in 2016, Sanchez's bat caught fire in August, when he hit 12 homers.

Sanchez's defense was a point of contention, most notably after an August game in Cleveland in which former manager Joe Girardi said that Sanchez had been late getting down to block balls and "needs to improve, bottom line."

Video: BOS@NYY: Yanks turn strike-'em-out, throw-'em-out DP

In Sanchez's first 64 games, he permitted 12 passed balls in 553 2/3 innings while throwing out 10 of 36 attempted basestealers (27.8 percent). At the time, general manager Brian Cashman said that Sanchez's bulk was affecting his flexibility behind the plate, as the catcher had added eight to 12 pounds of muscle during the previous offseason.

Over Sanchez's final 40 regular-season games, he allowed four passed balls in 327 1/3 innings and threw out nine of 20 on the bases (45 percent). Sanchez's 16 passed balls were tied for the Major League lead with the Dodgers' Yasmani Grandal, while the Yankees' 53 wild pitches with Sanchez behind the plate were second to the Rangers' and Rockies' Jonathan Lucroy (58).

"Every time I'm back there, every pitch that hits the dirt, I'm trying to block it," Sanchez said. "I'm not going to block them all."

Sanchez's efforts to improve will continue under a new manager, Aaron Boone, and with the assistance of new bench coach Josh Bard. Boone made it a point to meet with Sanchez in December, attempting to build a strong relationship with his starting catcher.

"It's such an important position, and it's a chance to impact like no other position on the field, with things that don't necessarily show up in the stat column," Boone said. "Obviously, he's a tremendous talent. He's already had massive success as a young player. So it's just building that relationship, gaining that trust and letting him know that he's going to be very well supported by me and our coaching staff."

Video: Boone on forming relationship with Sanchez

Austin Romine is in line to return as the backup catcher in 2018. The 29-year-old hit .218 with 19 runs, nine doubles, two homers and 21 RBIs in 80 games, making 58 starts behind the plate and four at first base.

"All you want to do as a backup player who gets thrust into that kind of position is do well for the team and show them you belong," Romine said.

Third on the depth chart is Kyle Higashioka, who turns 28 in April and played his first nine games in the Majors, going hitless in 18 at-bats over two stints with the club. After slugging 21 homers in 2016 and earning a place on the 40-man roster, Higashioka played just 14 games at Triple-A in 2017, missing nearly half the season with three stints on the disabled list.

Erik Kratz, who went 2-for-2 with a double and two RBIs in four games for the Yankees last year, has also returned to the organization on a Minor League contract. The 37-year-old veteran has also played in the Majors with the Pirates, Phillies, Blue Jays, Royals and Astros.

Bryan Hoch has covered the Yankees for MLB.com since 2007. Follow him on Twitter @bryanhoch and on Facebook.

New York Yankees, Gary Sanchez