Let’s play that exciting new Yankee-themed game show: Kevin Maas or Gary Sanchez?
He arrived during a downtrodden season for the Yankees to hit homers in bulk and finish second for the AL Rookie of the Year. Maas or Sanchez?
Injury, lack of adaptability, questionable defense and meh athleticism led to never recapturing that initial glory. Maas or Sanchez?
The Yankees recognized the shortcomings and relatively quickly pivoted away from the concept that this player could return to brilliance. Maas or Sanchez?
The answers are, of course, 1. Both Maas and Sanchez. 2. Both Maas and so far Sanchez. 3. Just Maas.
On the dawn of another season, the Yankees are still refusing to make Sanchez part of the answer for Question 3. Unlike the World Series champion Dodgers, the haven’t-won-since-2009 Yankees refused to exceed the luxury-tax threshold this year. So, J.T. Realmuto in free agency was never a consideration. The Yanks toyed with non-tendering Sanchez. But they remain addicted to the possibility of Sanchez or, perhaps, are scared of giving up on him and having those possibilities realized elsewhere.
“No questions there have been peaks and valleys,” Aaron Boone said. “But there have been real peaks there.”
The tallest was in 2016, when the Yanks essentially surrendered by trading Aroldis Chapman and Andrew Miller. Sanchez rose from the minors and near single-handedly pushed the Yanks to the edge of a wild-card race by clubbing 20 homers in 229 at-bats (reminiscent of the 21 in 254 that Maas hit during the Yanks’ dismal 1990 season). In 2017 and ‘19, Sanchez’s power showed. But there was a time the Yanks thought he was going to be an elite overall hitter. That has never resurfaced. His batting averages have plummeted, his whiffs soared. And his defense — beyond a power arm — has been problematic. Last year he became all but unplayable, losing first the assignment to catch Gerrit Cole, and then just to catch much in the playoffs.
Sanchez will be back for Cole and the No. 1 job Thursday in the opener against the Blue Jays. How long does that last? How long do the Yanks keep talking themselves into Sanchez’s upside if it fails to materialize early this year. He cannot be a free agent until after the 2022 campaign. Yet, his feels like the audition year for Sanchez, at least to stay a Yankee.
“Decisions like that, I don’t make,” Sanchez said.
Brian Cashman, who does make those decisions, offered that the commitment to stick with Sanchez in 2021 reveals, “That we believe and hope that he can continue to be a No. 1 catcher in this game and a force, especially with the bat.”
But there is a pretty large gulf between “believe” and “hope.” In 2016, the Yankees had belief. Each year since hope infiltrates more. Sometimes it feels as if the Yanks are talking themselves into Sanchez as much as truly trusting him, especially at a time when it is so difficult to find a high-end two-way catcher. Sanchez, though, is often high-end parts of a game that do not add up to a satisfying whole. He hits the ball with fierce power. But doesn’t hit the ball enough. He has among the best pop times to second in a game in which the stolen base is not much of a big deal any longer. And when it comes to blocking pitches, he often looks like the worst goalie in the league.
This is not about indifference. Despite body language that would scream otherwise, Sanchez is known around the Yanks for working diligently and caring. Boone and Cashman praised his efforts with catching coach Tanner Swanson and the improvements this spring. Sanchez called this his, “best spring training behind the plate.”
Even if that is accurate, his game remains out of sync. After beginning spring training powerfully, Sanchez closed with four hits in 32 at-bats, half of which ended in strikeouts. In the Monday finale against Detroit, Sanchez batted twice, hitting into a first-pitch double play and — after crushing a foul homer — striking out on a hanging Jose Urena breaking ball.
“We are betting on the upside,” Boone said. And he added, “Now, we get to find out.”
Indeed. At 28, Maas checked in with his final Yankee season, already having lost regular playing time or any organizational belief that his initial brilliance would return. Sanchez, at 28, opens Thursday as the No. 1 catcher. Again. This is his last best chance to prove he is no Maas or else his Yankee career will be no mas.