The former All-Star is still looking for work and could be a nice depth piece for Milwaukee
Earlier this winter, I thought there was an opportunity for the Milwaukee Brewers to buy low on Gary Sanchez – the former All-Star catcher with the New York Yankees who has struggled the past couple of years to live up to his success earlier in his career.
Then came the William Contreras trade, which set the Brew Crew up nicely with their catcher of the future, as well as lesser moves including the trade to get Peyton Henry back and the retention of Alex Jackson who was removed from the 40-man roster but elected to stick in the system. With Contreras in the fold and Victor Caratini representing a capable backup option, there didn’t seem to be much of a rationale for the Brewers to dip their toes into the Sanchez market. But now, with "The Sanchize" still without an MLB club for 2023, I think there’s an opportunity for Milwaukee’s FO to bring in a player who would give them valuable depth for the upcoming season - and at a minimal cost.
Given the lack of offense league-wide at the catching position, the former Twin and Yankee represents a solid source of power and offensive upside. Per this recent article on Fangraphs, his 2022 wRC+ of 89 matched the MLB average for the catching position and his average exit velocity, hard-hit rate and barrel% were all elite (75th percentile or higher) last season. His 16 home runs were tied for 10th among all big-league backstops and he posted one of his best seasons defensively behind the plate - an area which has been a bugaboo for him over the past few years and a big part of why the Yankees traded him to Minnesota last winter.
The Twins worked with Sanchez on his receiving, and he posted not just his best season in terms of pitch framing since 2018 but also reduced his passed balls and wild-pitch%. His caught stealing rate also jumped from up to 28% from a career low 17% in ’21 with New York, so he was back to using his strong arm to control the running game. Per Baseball Prospectus’ defensive metrics, he was average or better in all of framing, blocking and throwing for the first time in his career.
Additionally, I think there’s a bit of upside in Sanchez’s offensive profile. He underperformed his xwOBA last year by 31 pts and his line-drive rate of 18.4% was the lowest it’s been since 2017. Additionally, the move Target Field did him zero favors as he slashed just .186/.273/.304 with a wRC+ mark of just 70 in his home games last season. If Sanchez gets some better batted ball luck and plays more in a better hitting environment, there’s a really good chance he delivers good to great numbers for a backup catcher.
So how would Sanchez fit in with the Brewers?
Obviously, Milwaukee is hoping Contreras is the real deal and can build off his 2022 All-Star campaign. But a big part of that equation may include utilizing him more in the Designated Hitter role and managing his innings behind the plate. Caratini can certainly handle the defensive duties of the position and spell Contreras when needed, but Caratini’s bat just doesn’t have the upside Sanchez’s does.
On days Contreras isn’t slated to catch, the Brewers will be sacrificing offense - whether it be Contreras himself on the bench or someone else if Contreras plugs in at DH, likely Jesse Winker or Christian Yelich. Sanchez can minimize the offensive shortfall and give the team cover in the event the starter has to leave the game due to injury or if you want to pinch hit/run for them in the later innings of a ballgame.
While his days of hitting 30+ homers and starting 120+ games behind the plate are likely over at this stage of his career, I’m convinced Sanchez can still be an impactful role player offensively. And the ability to be just a role player for the Brewers is increased in a three-man rotation. Sanchez still struggles with sliders and soft stuff away -it’s one of the reasons he performs so poorly against relief pitchers. But he still smokes fastballs and is a guy who does a ton of damage against starting pitchers in his second and third at bats against them. He would be an immediate start for me over Caratini in a matchup against Adam Wainwright or Kyle Hendricks and some of the other veteran arms in the NL Central.
Additionally, the Brewers only have three catchers on the 40-man roster right now - Contreras, Caratini and Henry - which is probably one fewer than the team would like to have to get through a full season. Catchers get banged up and one just has to look at Sanchez’s season last year in Minnesota to see the value he can bring. Slated to be the back-up catcher to Ryan Jeffers, Sanchez took over starting duties when Jeffers fractured his thumb and needed season ending surgery. All told, he ended up starting 80 games at catcher and another 32 at DH. Milwaukee wouldn’t be planning for that kind of playing time, but he would sure be some nice insurance if Contreras or Caratini were to go down with injury for an extended period.
Is carrying three catchers on the 26-man roster realistic?
I think it is, at least in the early part of the season. Looking at Fangraphs’ Roster Resource page, I think their projection of Turang starting the season with the big-league club is slightly presumptuous. I think it's far likelier that newcomer Brian Anderson, Luis Urias, Mike Brosseau and Keston Hiura form a rotation at 2B/3B in the early part of the season. If Turang starts the season AAA, there’s a spot available for Sanchez without having to cut anyone loose. And even if Turang (or one of the other rookies) plays themselves into a 26-man spot this spring, the Brewers could always part with Keston Hiura (who is out of options) or send Mike Brosseau to AAA to keep Sanchez.
And if we get to the point where a choice has to be made on Sanchez/Caratini it should be pretty straight-forward. If Sanchez’s defense reverts to pre-2022 levels or his bat takes a huge step backwards, you can cut him with very little ventured. Or if Caratini’s offense craters, as it did for San Diego in 2021, Sanchez’s presence gives you a backup option that isn’t named Payton Henry or Alex Jackson. Of course, there is always the chance that both players end up performing well and then we can just file that under a good problem to have.
Honestly, it’s a bit surprising to still see Sanchez on the open market. He is one of a handful of players remaining on the free agent market that was worth at least 1.0 fWAR in 2022. And while he doesn’t have an MLB team yet, Sanchez was named as a teammate of the Brewers’ Willy Adames for the Dominican Republic’s WBC squad earlier this month. He’s one of two catchers on the team along with Tampa’s Francisco Mejia, so he should get plenty of opportunity for regular action in that competition.
Two years ago, the Brewers brought in Jackie Bradley Jr in March. Last year, they brought in Andrew McCutchen. This is a team who hasn’t been afraid to make a free agent move late a few weeks prior to Opening Day. And at this point, Sanchez can't be looking for anything more than $4-5MM dollars on a one-year contract. So if I were Matt Arnold, I’d be talking to Adames every day about how Sanchez is looking in the WBC camp, if his defense still looks good and whether or not he would take a cheap ‘prove-it’ deal to play in Milwaukee.
Gary Sanchez may not be the player he once was, but he is far from washed-up and could put up some really solid numbers for any team looking to shore up their back-up catching position. He's a superior offensive player to Caratini and, if his defensive improvements from last year hold true, he might be his equal behind the plate as well.