New York Yankees 2020 Season Preview: Kyle Higashioka

New York Yankees, Kyle Higashioka

After serving as the “third catcher” behind Austin Romine for the past three years, Kyle Higashioka is going to have the chance to prove himself to the New York Yankees in 2020. With Romine now playing in Detroit, the back-up catcher role is all Higgy’s.

Higashioka has never played more than 29 major league games in one season but has spent over a year on the major league roster. He would come up when the roster expanded in September or when Gary Sanchez hit the IL, but that was about it.

Over his 146 career at-bats, he has a career .164 average. That’s not great, but he hit .214 in 2019, and each year has been better. He hit .278 and mashed 20 home runs in AAA in 2019.

Higashioka calls good games, and his defense and arm are developing. Overall, his playstyle is similar to Gary Sanchez, with just a bit better defense.

2020 Expectations:

As said before, Higashioka is expected to be the back-up catcher at the major league level in 2020. Now, the team has Erik Kratz and Chris Ianetta in the organization, but both are on minor league deals. Both will be in spring training but are not expected to break camp with the team.

But, I think it’s likely that we will see Ianetta eventually. If Sanchez lands on the IL (or Higashioka), they will need another catcher. I have a hard time seeing it be Kratz because of his age and skill level decreasing, so it would probably be Ianetta. The only way we see Ianetta or Kratz without an injury is if Higashioka is playing bad.

The Yankees need Higashioka to continue to call good games and develop the rest of his game. The potential is there, and he’s a little better every year. Hopefully, 2020 is the year he breaks out and shows the team what he’s made of.

Should the Yankees be concerned about the catcher position this spring?

The New York Yankees have addressed the catcher this offseason by means of quantity and not quality. Having brought in two additional catchers to compete with Kyle Higashioka, the consensus is that manager Aaron Boone and Co. aren’t sold on the reserve option backing up Gary Sanchez.

The inevitable truth is that Sanchez’s injury history has forced the Yankees into a hole in the past, luckily, they’ve had Austin Romine to hold down the fort, but he was in search of a starting role this offseason and found an opportunity with the Detroit Tigers.

Who are the Yankees betting on to backup Sanchez?

The 40-man roster currently holds two catchers who don’t have minor league options, and while their veteran presence offers value for the A-ball level pitchers, they cannot be trusted to excel in the majors. Right now, Higashioka is the golden goose, but his offensive production in 2019 doesn’t justify any optimism in his potential moving forward.

Having hit .214 last season over 18 games, it’s hard to believe the Yankees are investing this much faith in the 29-year old, but his small sample size suggests that he might have lacked the reps to prove his worth. Not bringing in a better option leads us to believe Boone is confident he can hold down the job being Sanchez while Erik Kratz and Chris Iannetta battle for a roster spot in the minors.

While Kratz and Iannetta are older players, they’re plush with experience and knowledge. In fact, they might be able to help Higashioka develop to a degree. Iannetta is an excellent source of wisdom for the younger players, as he’s played for the Mariners, Angels, Rockies, and Diamondback during his career, earning three playoff appearances. His 1,122 regular-season games should give Boone the peace of mind that he has an experienced catcher at his disposal, especially defensively.

Kratz’s 61 wRC+ suggests that his offense is quite weak, but his defensive efficiency is reliable, earning 20 defensive runs saved during his career.

The two options are both defensively stout, but they don’t offer much in the offensive category. The Yankees will be doing everything they can to mitigate injuries to Sanchez, but he’s been unable to avoid such ailments the past few seasons.

The Yankees Don’t Have as Much Faith in Kyle Higashioka

The New York Yankees decided the best option they have is to shore up their options at the catcher position for the 2020 season. Signing Eric Kratz earlier this offseason, they recently signed Chris Iannetta to a minor league contract with a spring training invite. Now, at the GM meetings this offseason, Brian Cashman said he’d “feel comfortable using (Higashioka) as the permanent backup catcher”. But does he really?

Why Iannetta Matters to Higashioka

Higashioka is out of options. So if Higashioka makes the team for Opening Day, and is sent back down, he’ll no longer be protected by the Yankees. He’ll have to clear waivers in order to return to Scranton. Now, let’s evaluate Iannetta vs Higashioka, as one of them will be filling in for an extended time behind Gary Sanchez, in all likelihood. 

With 56 major league games to his credit, Higashioka has a bit of a Tyler Wade problem. He’s a mediocre (at best) hitter, while simultaneously embodying the biggest problem with hitters. If he isn’t hitting for power, he’s getting out. He currently posses a 30% strikeout rate (48 strikeouts in 156 plate appearances), which is not great. While he’s spent most of his time in the minors (since 2008), Higashioka is a pretty lackluster defensive catcher. His dWAR is only 0.2, which helps explain (as well as his -0.3 oWAR) why he never stuck around the bigs.

Chris Iannetta is, by contrast, the perfect backup catcher. He’s not going to hit a ton, but he’s going to be much more dependable both offensively AND defensively than Higashioka. Iannetta’s career 19.0 and 3.8 o/dWAR’s speak to that value. Granted, Iannetta has had much more time getting to that point on a big league level than Higashioka has had, but if Higashioka was actually good enough, he should have had the opportunity to get a regular spot on the big club before he turned 30.

It’s like the Clint Frazier problem the Yankees have. If Frazier’s defense was better, Frazier would be the shoe in over Mike Tauchman for that 4th outfielder spot. If Higgy was a more viable option than Romine, Romine wouldn’t have been on the big club for as long as he was.

At the end of the day, you don’t go out and sign 2 backup to the backup catchers if you have faith in Higashioka.

New York Yankees: Should Kyle Higashioka Be Worried?

New York Yankees, Kyle Higashioka

The New York Yankees signed veteran catcher Chris Iannetta to a minor league deal on Thursday, throwing a fourth catcher into the mix.

Should Higgy Be Worried?

Gary Sanchez is without question the starting catcher, but the team now has three other catchers that could play as the backup.

I believe that Kyle Higashioka is still the favorite to win the spot, and it’s his to lose. Iannetta and other catching veteran Erik Kratz have been around forever, and both are such smart catchers.

Kratz is 39, a few years older than Iannetta (36). There is no way in my mind that Kratz sees the major league level in 2020, as he bat just .102 in 2019. He’s last in the depth chart.

Iannetta is third for right now, but that could change. He bat .222 as the Rockies backup last season, but still may have a little left in the tank. He could steal the backup position, but that would be if Higgy has a disaster of a spring and Iannetta has a flawless spring.

Overall, I think that Higgy should be a little concerned about his chances, but not code red concerned. Iannetta is on minor league deal, meaning that he would have to be added to the 40-man roster and the team would have to clear a spot for him. But, if they Yankees think that he’s undoubtedly the guy, then they would of course clear the spot for him.

Every time that Higgy is called up, he looks better and better. It’s just a matter of if the can sustain consistent offense and show that he belongs in the spring. I think that the spot is still his, he just needs to show it.


The New York Yankees Sign A Catcher

New York Yankees

Rumors have reported that the New York Yankees signed catcher Erik Kratz to a minor league deal on Friday.

Kratz, 39, has had several stints with the Yankees over the last few years. He made four appearances with the team in 2017, and spent time in Scranton in both 2018 and 2019.

Because of his age, he’s on the last leg of his career and just happy to being playing baseball. He’s played pro ball since 2002 and made MLB appearances in every season since 2010.

The signing of Kratz actually makes the catcher depth chart clearer. By the looks of it, the Yankees will be out on Martin Maldonado and will use Kratz as the third catcher. He will eventually be put on the 40 man roster with Kyle Higashioka and Gary Sanchez.

With that being said, it appears that Higashioka will be the backup catcher. Brian Cashman and ownership spoke about Higgy during the Gerrit Cole signing day ceremonies, and all stated that they feel very comfortable with him as the backup.

When Sanchez or Higashioka gets hurt, it’s likely that Kratz would come up. But, once he comes up, he can’t go back down without clearing waivers. I think that the team would look to pursue another catcher if/when Kratz gets called up.

Obviously, Kratz will get a spring training invite and will probably be with the team almost until it’s time to break camp and head north.

Overall, I like this move from the Yankees. They have another catcher waiting for whenever called upon, and it didn’t cost much money.