It has been nearly impossible to escape the media narrative this offseason painting the Yankees’ two colossal sluggers Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton as superhuman best friends. Given that we’re talking about the reigning NL MVP and AL MVP runner-up, it seems fair that they’re commanding most of the coverage at the start of Spring Training. ESPN was even televising Yankees batting practice, such was the hype swirling around these two mashers.
Seemingly forgotten in this media storm has been Gary Sanchez. It’s easy to forget that one year ago, Sanchez was being groomed as the new Face of the Yankees™ after his unbelievable rookie campaign in which he belted 20 homers in just 53 games, and slashed an equally mind-boggling .299/.376/.657 (171 wRC+).
Meanwhile, Judge was preparing to battle for a starting job after a disappointing rookie campaign. Stanton was a Marlin. Sanchez was poised to be the next great homegrown Yankee star.
Yet Sanchez now sits in the shadow of his two gargantuan teammates through no fault of his own. In fact, El Gary was the best catcher in baseball by nearly every metric last year. He led all catchers in homers (33), RBIs (90), wRC+ (130), and both versions of WAR (4.4 fWAR, 4.1 bWAR).
More incredibly, he did all that despite missing nearly a month early in the season with a biceps injury. With an even stronger lineup around him in 2018, it is possible he could see more pitches to hit this year. With the added internal motivation of reminding the world that it’s not just Judge and Stanton that can hit balls very, very, very far, it is easy to dream on monster offensive production for Sanchez in 2018. He seems prepared to claim the mantle of MLB’s best catcher from Buster Posey for the foreseeable future.
But the argument for Sanchez as the Yankees most important player lies not just in his own performance, but the alternative options the Yankees have at their disposal. Should Sanchez go down through injury, the team would be forced to turn to the likes of Austin Romine, Kyle Higashioka, and Erik Kratz.
Romine, though a functional backup and solid brawler, posted a .218/.272/.293 (49 wRC+) line and a -0.6 fWAR in 2017. Though Higashioka still has potential to be a useful player for the Yankees, fans soured on him after he failed to pick up his first major league hit in 20 plate appearances. Kratz is a journeyman that practically defines a replacement level player.
Judge, Stanton, and Luis Severino play at positions where the Yankees have depth in major league talent and high level prospects. Aaron Hicks and Clint Frazier are young, gifted outfielders who, despite not being superstars, are well above average big league players with high upside. Brett Gardner and Jacoby Ellsbury likewise provide solid veteran cover in the event of injury. Similarly, Severino anchors what is an already strong rotation, and prospects like Chance Adams and Domingo German look major league ready in the case of catastrophic injuries. There are also far more SP options in the trade market than there are options at backstop.
Though the Yankees will likely need all these superstars healthy and performing to achieve their goal of a 28th championship this season, it is easier to see a scenario in which Judge or Stanton go down and an unlikely hero emerges in their stead. If Gary Sanchez gets injured or shockingly underperforms this year, it could prove the single biggest hurdle to the team’s success in 2018.