Sanchez in the mix for backup backstop

Prospect catches Tanaka's debut, learning 'subtleties' of position

Sanchez in the mix for backup backstop

CLEARWATER, Fla. -- This is the first spring in which Gary Sanchez has a legitimate chance of making the Opening Day roster, and while the Yankees have offered nothing but glowing reviews for his work thus far, their top catching prospect isn't taking anything for granted.

Sanchez was paired with Masahiro Tanaka for the right-hander's first spring start on Sunday, a 6-5 loss to the Phillies. Rated as the Yankees' No. 3 prospect by MLBPipeline.com, Sanchez is widely viewed as the front-runner to serve as Brian McCann's backup.

"It doesn't feel different," Sanchez said through an interpreter. "To me, I'm just focusing on my job. I've got to keep working hard every day, call a good game and whatever decision is up to them."

While the Yankees are hoping for returns on the time and money they have invested in Sanchez, who scored a $3 million bonus coming from the Dominican Republic in 2009, they are enjoying the early installments of a spring catching competition.

Austin Romine is out of Minor League options and non-roster invitee Carlos Corporan has an out clause in his contract that kicks in later this month. Romine in particular seems to have designs upon making it a tough call, doubling twice and driving in three runs on Sunday.

Romine's two-run double

"They're going to make our decision really tough, is what they're going to do," manager Joe Girardi said.

Sanchez impressed the Yankees late last season, earning a promotion to Triple-A before making a cameo in the Majors and then enjoying a monster showing in the Arizona Fall League. Assignments like Sunday's two innings with Tanaka are a result of the work that Sanchez put in.

"He could always throw. The physical things, he could always do," Girardi said. "But there's little subtleties to receiving and handling a game, and as you see them catch starters longer, you'll see more how he's really improved."

Sanchez's ability to mash left-handed pitching could prove useful to Girardi, who hopes to rest McCann more often this season. The Yankees have some history of breaking in young catchers as backups, with Jorge Posada, Francisco Cervelli and John Ryan Murphy standing as recent examples.

Sanchez said that he could benefit from serving as McCann's backup and learning first-hand how to handle a pitching staff in the big leagues.

"It's exciting to be in the mix," Sanchez said. "For us, all players, we want to make it to the big leagues. But that's not my decision."

Bryan Hoch is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @bryanhoch, on Facebook and read his MLBlog, Bombers Beat. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.