At his end-of-season press conference, Yankees general manager Brian Cashman was noncommittal about Gary Sanchez being the starting catcher next season and said the organization would “evaluate the marketplace at every position.”
But the market for help behind the plate appears thin — and one potential candidate is no longer in play.
Tucker Barnhart, whose $7.5 million club option was unlikely to be picked up by the Reds this week, came off the board as a possible free-agent target when he was traded to the Tigers on Wednesday for a minor league third baseman. Instead of the Yankees exploring the idea of teaming the left-handed hitting Barnhart with Kyle Higashioka as a strong defensive tandem behind the plate, Barnhart will try to help the Tigers take the next step in their rebuilding process.
So where does that leave the Yankees with free agency set to begin at 5 p.m. Sunday?
For the second straight offseason, Sanchez’s future with the Yankees is up in the air. Last year, they ultimately tendered him a contract, banking on his potential, but he did not bounce back as strongly as either side had hoped. He hit .204 with an OPS-plus of 99 (100 is league average) and 121 strikeouts in 440 plate appearances, while his defensive and pitch framing metrics continued to rank among the worst at his position.
The Yankees have until Dec. 2 to tender Sanchez another contract, which is projected to be worth nearly $8 million in arbitration. But the decision on Sanchez is unlikely to be made in a vacuum — the Yankees also will take into account whether they feel an upgrade can be found through free agency or a trade this offseason.
Three potential free-agent catchers will have their futures cleared up by Sunday, the deadline for teams or players to decide on contract options.
The Rays have a $7 million club option on Mike Zunino, who recorded the third-highest fWAR (4.5) of any catcher this season — trailing only the Giants’ Buster Posey (4.9), who announced his retirement on Thursday, and the Dodgers’ Will Smith (4.6). Sanchez’s fWAR this season ranked 19th at 1.5.
The 30-year-old Zunino had a higher strikeout rate than Sanchez this season but also crushed 33 home runs with a 138 OPS-plus. More significantly, he ranked ninth among catchers in defensive runs saved and fifth in Statcast’s pitch framing metric, Runs From Extra Strikes, while working with the Rays’ young pitching staff.
But the Rays, who declined Zunino’s option last year when he was coming off a rough season before re-signing him, are expected to pick up his option by Sunday, the Tampa Bay Times reported.
The Red Sox also have to decide on a $7 million club option on Christian Vazquez while the Indians have a $7 million club option on Roberto Perez. Both veterans struggled this season on offense but have better defensive reputations — especially Perez.
Otherwise, the list of definite free-agent catchers lacks impact players. After an offseason in which J.T. Realmuto was not just the top catcher on the market, but one of the top free agents overall, this year’s class will be led by Yan Gomes and Manny Piña — two veterans known more for their strong defense than offense.
If the Yankees don’t believe they can find a match through free agency, they could test the trade market in the hope of finding an upgrade at catcher. One potential candidate is Willson Contreras, should the Cubs decide to continue their teardown after trading away Anthony Rizzo, Javier Baez and Kris Bryant at the deadline.
Contreras, 29, is entering the final year of arbitration (he’s projected to earn nearly $9 million in 2022) and coming off a season in which he hit .237 with a 108 OPS-plus, which were both below his career averages. He also ranked eighth in defensive runs saved among catchers and 39th in Runs From Extra Strikes.
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