By Sweeny Murti
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This might finally be Austin Romine’s time.
When the Yankees drafted Romine in the second round back in 2007, they probably hoped it would take less than nine years. And, when he won the Kevin Lawn Award as the Yankees Minor League Player of the Year twice in three years (2009 and 2011) it seemed certain things were on the right track.
But that’s where baseball can get in the way sometimes, even for a second-generation big leaguer (his father, Kevin, played with the Red Sox from 1985-91). That alone doesn’t guarantee a ticket to the majors. The Yankees once drafted David Parrish — son of former Tigers All-Star Lance Parrish (both were catchers) — in the first round and he didn’t play a single inning in the majors.
The top prospect label goes away when the fast track gets derailed, no matter the reasons. Whether it was the back injury that cost him the 2012 season or whether it was Triple-A pitching (how could we know, really?), Romine’s bat hadn’t taken off and others in this catching-rich organization passed him along the way. He also suffered a concussion late in the 2013 season.
Romine’s defense has always been considered his best asset and of big league quality. Plenty of scouts talked him up last spring training when they thought he might be available, and he was when the Yankees put him on waivers after he lost the backup catcher’s job to John Ryan Murphy. To the surprise of some, Romine cleared waivers and was outrighted to Triple-A.
Romine didn’t win the job last spring because he didn’t hit, going just 6-for-35 (.171) in 19 games. March has never been his best time of year. He batted just .179 (5-for-28) the spring prior to the 2014 season. Small samples are what they are, but Romine consistently failed to put up numbers in the spring games that could have earned him a big league job.
This time it’s different. With another job on the line, battling the newest top catching prospect Gary Sanchez for the backup spot, Romine is batting .313 (5-for-16) through his first eight games. In 113 at-bats over six previous exhibition seasons, Romine had four extra-base hits. He has three (all doubles) so far this spring.
His confidence is showing both on and off the field. I spoke to Romine often last spring and the tension was palpable. He seemed to be almost fearful that his chance was slipping away. Now there seems to be a little more freedom in Romine’s mind, and even though Sanchez seemed to have one foot on the roster when camp opened, he needs to improve on the 1-for-12 he’s put up at the plate so far.
Sanchez improved and matured in everyone’s estimation throughout the organization during the 2015 season. Maybe he will go on a tear over the next two weeks. But the Yankees would keep him on the big league roster only if they felt his right-handed bat could be a weapon in reserve against the lefty pitching that muzzled them too often last year.
If Sanchez isn’t ready to carry that load, the Yankees are better served getting him regular at-bats and reps behind the plate at Triple-A. Sanchez is still only 23, but this isn’t about who is losing the job. It’s about who is winning it, and that’s Romine at the midway point of the exhibition season.
Romine, now 27, is the guy many around the game tell me is the perfect backup. Again, scouts are saying they could use him on their team (this time if the Yankees try to get him through waivers and outright him, Romine could refuse the assignment and become a free agent). Romine’s former coach at Triple-A, Butch Wynegar, a former All-Star catcher, has always believed in his ability and thinks he can hit enough to win the job.
“He needs to understand his role as a hitter,” Wynegar told me. “He can’t swing big for the fences. He has to handle the bat. He can be a successful hitter for sure by staying within himself and by doing the little things to help the team.”
The Yankees will take this decision down to the wire for fear of injury in the waning hours of spring training. There are others in camp, like Sebastian Valle and Carlos Corporan, but all things being equal this competition is coming down to either Romine or Sanchez making an Opening Day roster for the first time.
Sanchez is still the one with top prospect status attached and his day isn’t far away. But Romine’s might be sooner.
Follow Sweeny on Twitter at @YankeesWFAN