Why keeping Sánchez makes sense for NY

December 3rd, 2020

There were six arbitration-eligible Yankees tendered contracts for 2021 on Wednesday. The one people really noticed and wanted to talk about -- mostly because he is sometimes as much a lightning rod around the Yankees as Giancarlo Stanton is -- was Gary Sánchez.

This all happened on Sánchez’s 28th birthday, ending weeks of speculation that the Yanks might let him walk, something that sounded bananas to me from the start. The fact that the Yankees kept Sánchez is a good thing, and could even still turn out to be a great thing. So too, could Sánchez.

Everybody knows what happened to Sánchez last season, when his batting average cratered to .147, which brought whole new geographical dimensions to the Mendoza Line even if he did hit 10 home runs and record 24 RBIs. Everybody knows Sánchez started just one game in the Yankees’ five-game American League Division Series loss to the Rays, by which time Kyle Higashioka had long since become the personal catcher for New York's $324 million ace, Gerrit Cole.

And if you have friends who are Yankees fans, you know how their heads nearly explode every time another ball gets past Sánchez, or when he strikes out again in a big moment. Or any moment, really. These are Yanks fans who would have been completely happy to see their team decline the opportunity to tender Sánchez a contract that could pay him north of $5 million next season in his second time through arbitration. He’ll be arbitration eligible again next winter, and eligible for free agency at the conclusion of the 2022 season.

But the Yankees could not just give Sánchez away, for all of his problems last season at the plate and behind it, until the job of Yankees catcher became Higashioka’s. Higashioka was there when Cole pitched Game 1 of the AL Wild Card series against the Indians, he was there when Cole pitched Game 1 of the ALDS and he was there again when Cole was out there for Game 5 of that same series against the Rays. The Yankees lost their season that night on a home run from Mike Zunino. Sánchez never got a chance to hit one for the Yankees, because at that point in their 2020 season, they had clearly given up on him.

But they did not give up on Sánchez when it counted, on Dec. 2, which means he will get the chance to reclaim his position as the Yankees No. 1 catcher in the spring, when it will be his job -- and the job of the organization -- to help him find the promise he showed when he first got to Yankee Stadium in 2016.

Four years later, in the biggest moments of the Yankees' season, first against the Indians in the AL Wild Card round and then against the Rays in the ALDS, it was clear that both manager Aaron Boone and general manager Brian Cashman no longer thought Sánchez gave the team its best chance to win.

“I think he’s been unfairly criticized a lot,” Boone said recently on YES Network. “I think at times it’s over the top and people are blinded by some of the things that he’s done really well. This year was certainly a challenging year for him and a struggle for him in a lot of ways, but that’s OK.”

It’s worth mentioning that as unfair as Boone says the criticism of his catcher is, it’s not as if Sánchez benched himself last October. He ended up getting into three games (starting two) during the postseason and hitting one home run, against the Indians. And again: Sánchez never got to the plate at the end against the Rays when one home run swing could have saved the Yankees.

When it was over, and Cashman was summing up his team’s season, he was asked about the situation at catcher for the Yankees going forward, and hardly gave Sánchez a ringing endorsement. It was mostly because Cashman saw the same season from Sánchez that everybody else saw.

“I think it’s certainly a fair question obviously the way Gary Sánchez’s season transpired, and then the way it ended with Higashioka actually starting in the postseason as many games as he did,” Cashman said. “I think it’s one of the discussion points we’re going to have to focus on.”

But when it was time to declare, Cashman wisely decided not to give Sánchez the chance to go play baseball somewhere else, even if his batting average was historically bad, albeit in a 60-game season. And with all that? You know how many Yankees hit more home runs last season than Sánchez did? Just one: Luke Voit (22). Four Yankees had more RBIs than Sánchez's 24. DJ LeMahieu -- their best player and the AL batting champion -- had 27 to go with his 10 home runs.

As bad as it all really was for Sánchez, it is always worth remembering that he was the home run kid for the Yankees before Aaron Judge, coming to the Bronx for good in 2016 and hitting 20 home runs in 53 games that season (he’d gotten into two games at the end of ’15). It’s also worth noting that he has hit 115 home runs in his first 421 games in the big leagues. In comparison, Judge has hit 119 in his first 424.

Sánchez stays at Yankee Stadium. The Yankees usually make news at this time of year adding people. They did it this week by not subtracting Sánchez, which is a good thing and could turn out to be great. Just like him.