It isn’t just Gary Sánchez’s future with the New York Yankees on the line in 2021, but perhaps his MLB career entirely.
As we begin our Yankees 2021 preview series, we start with one of the elephants in the room: Gary Sánchez needs to have a great year.
He knows it, the fans know it, and the New York Yankees players and front office know it. General manager Brian Cashman didn’t mince his words last month when discussing why Sánchez was benched in favor of backup Kyle Higashioka in the playoffs.
“I think the whole world knows why he was benched,” Cashman said in an interview with WFAN. “Whether he was told directly or not — I’m not saying he was or wasn’t — but the manager’s lineup card is an announcement in itself each day. You have to earn your keep to stay on that card.”
This was just the latest chapter in Sánchez’s polarizing history in New York. For all the hype around his powerful bat, strikeouts and his defense behind the plate both continue to be issues. He signed a $6.35 million contract for 2021 and has a year of arbitration left before free agency.
But the 28-year-old Sánchez is officially at a crossroads. It’s time for him to put up or shut up, and not just because his future with the New York Yankees depends on it.
Rather, his career as he knows it might be in jeopardy, and the Yankees are more ready to move on than people realize.
First, some context on how bad Gary Sánchez was in the shortened 2020 season. He batted an abysmal .147. He had 10 home runs, but just 23 hits on the season. Per Fangraphs, his K% was a horrific 36%. His defense continued to regress.
Let’s put these numbers in context compared to another streaky hitter: Texas Rangers outfielder Joey Gallo. At 27, he’s a year younger than Sánchez. He’s a .208 career hitter with a career K% of 37.6. He also has hit 120 home runs in his young career, and is shaping up to be a reliable glove in the outfield.
But here’s the rub. For his .208 lifetime batting average, Gallo has a .327 OBP. His wOBA is a respectable .348. His high K% and low batting average aside, he makes up for it by drawing walks and playing well in the field.
Gary Sánchez, meanwhile, is a .236 lifetime hitter with a .320 OBP. His career wOBA is .346, but his BB% is just 9.6 compared to Gallo’s 14.
Throw in the rough work with the glove, and Sánchez’s streakiness hit rock bottom last season.
Who’s on deck?
Unfortunately for the Yankees, the front office went all in on Gary Sánchez and there is no clear successor in the minors. He’s probably the most frustrating player on the team, yet still the best option at his position. If he struggles again this year, Cashman will be hard-pressed to find Sánchez’s successor quickly.
The initial decision would probably be to install Higashioka as the starter. He’s a little older, turning 31 in April, and hit .250 in 16 games last year while not drawing a single walk. Yet, he showed some pop with the bat and hit four home runs with 10 RBI. Higashioka also proved a strong pitch framer and offered stronger defense behind the plate.
In the minors, the Yankees have next to no immediate options. Anthony Seigler is a switch-hitter with a high ceiling, but he’s also 21 and a .216 hitter in two years of limited minor league action. He’s never played above A-ball.
Another prospect, Josh Breaux, hit .271 with 13 home runs and 49 RBI in 2019, but also at Class-A. 19-year-old Venezuelan Antonio Gomez also has people excited, but hasn’t played above rookie ball.
It’s also worth noting that Seigler and Breaux each dealt with arm injuries in 2019. Furthermore, the pandemic wiped out the 2020 minor league season and probably delayed prospects’ development by a year. This means trading for a backstop is tougher since the Yankees are already short on key pieces to include in potential deals.
Simply put, either Gary Sánchez gets right, or the New York Yankees have to live with a potentially gaping hole in the lineup for a year, maybe longer.
The most frustrating thing about the Gary Sánchez paradox is that he has proven he can be a fixture in the Yankees’ lineup. As a rookie in 2016, he hit .299 with 20 home runs in just 53 games and finished second in AL Rookie of the Year voting. In 2017, he hit .278 with 33 homers and 90 RBI— in just 122 games.
Injuries and inconsistency have since dogged Sánchez, who is hitting just .200 since 2018. The 30 home run-100 RBI potential is there, but picks and chooses when to come out.
But now, both Yankees management and the fans have waited long enough for the real Gary Sánchez to present himself. He needs to not only be better in 2021, but be fantastic. Everyone’s patience is low enough that anything short of practically blowing up the stat sheet will be considered a failure. At least it will in the eyes of Yankees Twitter and its insistent flock.
Hopefully, Sánchez is motivated. Other teams have easily noted his struggles by now, so dumping him on another team isn’t an option; at least not for anything meaningful in return.
It has gotten to the point where the man they call “The Kraken” is barely a minnow Captain Jack Sparrow would fry up for an at-sea snack. His career is on the line, and everyone involved from himself to the Yankees knows it.
Hopefully, 2021 proves to be the start of the Gary Sánchez comeback.