While Kyle Higashioka is off to a hot start in New York Yankees camp, the pressure is on Austin Romine, who’s out of minor league options.One of the battles that hasn’t been talked about a whole lot down in New York Yankees camp is the one for the backup catcher role. That is until Kyle Higashioka started making things interesting.
The 26-year-old has been in the Yankees organization since 2008 and just last season furthered his game to the point that getting to the majors seems realistic — despite Tommy John surgery and a thumb injury delaying his development.
Higashioka earned his spot on the 40-man roster prior to the Rule-5 Draft after he slashed .276/.337/.511 with 21 home runs in 102 games between Double-A Trenton and Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre last year.
Those numbers aren’t overly impressing, but it made it plausible that a solid camp by the Huntington Beach-native would put some pressure on Austin Romine for that second catcher’s spot behind Gary Sanchez. So far, Romine should be feeling the heat.
Through nine spring training games, Higashioka is 5-for-9 (.556) with two home runs and three runs scored. Against Team Canada on Wednesday, the backstop went 1-for-2 with another home run off Chris Rowley in the bottom of the eighth. He has also caught both runners that have attempted to run on his arm.
On the other side of the battle, Romine is 5-for-19 (.263) with just one run scored. In 2016, he slashed .242/.269/.382 but only made one error in 355.1 total innings behind the plate while backing up Sanchez and Brian McCann.
Higashioka clearly packs the bat that a team like the Yankees — who will give Sanchez regular half-days off as a DH — would like at the backup catcher’s position. As for the defense, their seventh-round pick from the 2008 MLB June Amateur Draft is no scrub. In fact, he’s best known for his defensive abilities.
His 30.2 caught stealing percentage isn’t much far behind the freakish cannon of Gary Sanchez (34.9 rate as a minor leaguer) and is much better than Austin Romine’s minor league rate (24.9 percent) and major league rate (21.7 percent).
One fact that’s raining on Higashioka’s parade is that Romine is simply out of options — meaning he must clear waivers before being sent to the minors. But it’s not the end of the world if the Yankees smartly decide to hold onto Romine as the backup to avoid losing him.
First off, Higashioka has only played in 39 games in Triple-A. Just like Aaron Judge and now with Clint Frazier, the Yankees want to dominate the level before getting their feet wet in the Bronx. But, every team employs at least three catchers throughout the year because, for whatever the reason is, one of the major league catchers will need some time off.
Higashioka’s name will be called on when that time comes but if he continues to showcase his bat and abilities behind the plate, could he convince the brass that he is the better option at backup catcher?