Around the Horn: Phenom fills backstop role

Sanchez secures Yanks' everyday catching job after historic rookie season

Around the Horn: Phenom fills backstop role

With the start of Spring Training approaching, anticipation is building for the 2017 season. MLB.com will go around the horn to break down each area of the Yankees' roster, and as Casey Stengel once said, "You've got to have a catcher or you're going to have a lot of passed balls."

Far be it for us to argue with the Ol' Perfesser, so we begin with the men behind the plate.

Gary Sanchez spent this past Opening Day in the dugout of the Yankees' Triple-A affiliate, having been shipped back to the Minors for more seasoning after producing just two hits in a disappointing camp bid to serve as a big league backup. What a difference a year makes.

Sanchez will return to the George M. Steinbrenner Field complex this spring as the unquestioned starting catcher, carrying sky-high expectations following an amazing surge that saw the slugger belt 20 homers with 42 RBIs in 53 games to finish second to the Tigers' Michael Fulmer for the American League Rookie of the Year Award.

"I want to keep doing what I've been doing here, which is play hard and give my all," Sanchez said through an interpreter. "That's the way I look forward to next year. You want to work hard, and you want to come back ready to play."

The Yankees made their intentions clear at the tail end of the season, when general manager Brian Cashman said that the starting catcher job had already become Sanchez's to lose. Six weeks later, Brian McCann was traded to the Astros for a pair of prospects, leaving no doubt that Sanchez represented the Yanks' future in shin guards.

"He didn't have a good Spring Training, so it took a little longer than we wanted, but he was projected to be a middle-of-the-lineup-type hitter and a very exciting defender," Cashman said. "Boy, what he did was amazing."

Sanchez crushed the ball with regularity -- according to Statcast™, he was tied with Pedro Alvarez for the sixth-highest average exit velocity (94.1) in the Majors, ranking behind only Nelson Cruz (95.9), Giancarlo Stanton (95.1), Matt Holliday (94.7), Miguel Cabrera (94.5) and David Ortiz (94.2).

Statcast: Sanchez's 437-foot HR

Thirty-two of Sanchez's 60 hits went for extra bases, and he appears to be a safe bet as the No. 3 hitter in manager Joe Girardi's lineup, but the Yankees aren't necessarily counting on the 24-year-old to produce 50-plus home runs over a full big league campaign. He hit just 10 homers in 284 at-bats at Triple-A.

"It's hard to expect that, and I wouldn't expect that over the course of a six-month period next year," Cashman said. "But I think we have an exciting everyday talent that has a chance to be one of the best catchers in our game as we move forward, as long as he stays healthy and stays committed as he has the past 2 1/2 seasons now."

Blessed with a strong throwing arm, Sanchez's blocking and game-calling have made great strides since the beginning of 2015, when Yankees instructors say they witnessed a turnaround in his work ethic. Sanchez threw out 12 of 31 potential basestealers in the Majors (38.7 percent) and earned rave reviews from the Yanks' pitching staff, exhibiting a mature demeanor uncommon in rookie backstops.

Statcast: Sanchez nabs Stubbs

"He has good suggestions, which is rare for a young catcher," CC Sabathia said. "That makes you feel good and confident that he knows what he wants to call."

Austin Romine and Kyle Higashioka will compete to serve as the backups. Romine grabbed those honors last year when Sanchez struggled; he hit .242 with four homers and 26 RBIs in 62 games in his first full season in the Majors.

Romine, 28, said that he was rewarded after focusing on finding ways to slow the game down offensively.

"I wanted to prove to everybody I can hit," Romine said. "That was the sole purpose. They know I can catch; that's why I've been here for five years. They need to know I can hit."

The 26-year-old Higashioka's stock surged in 2016 as he hit 21 homers and drove in 81 runs for Double-A Trenton and Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, prompting his addition to the 40-man roster in November. The Yanks also selected Jorge Saez, 26, from the Blue Jays in the Minor League phase of the 2016 Rule 5 Draft.

Bryan Hoch has covered the Yankees for MLB.com since 2007. Follow him on Twitter @bryanhoch and on Facebook. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.