TAMPA, Fla. — On Saturday, Aaron Boone all but said the Yankees' 2020 plans include having Kyle Higashioka as Gary Sanchez’s backup.
“We feel like he’s been ready for this opportunity now for a while,” Boone said. “He understands, I think, that this is his time.”
But Higashioka, a seventh-round pick of the Yankees in 2008 who first appeared in big-league camp in 2010, prudently isn’t taking anything for granted. Not with some of the catchers joining him in camp, such as Josh Thole, Chris Iannetta and Erik Kratz, all of whom have more major-league experience than he does.
“In my mind, I’m not really listening to what they’re saying about the position,” Higashioka said Sunday when some of Boone’s comments were relayed to him. “I’m still just keeping the mindset of fighting for a job, and I think that’s going to keep me at my best for spring training and then through the season. I’m not really relaxing at all.”
Higashioka made his big-league debut in 2017 and has appeared in only 56 games since then, including 18 last year. Though his numbers have yet to show it — he’s hit .164 with six homers and a .547 OPS in the majors — the Yankees believe he has some untapped pop in his bat from the right side and have long been thrilled with his abilities behind the plate.
Higashioka, who will turn 30 on April 20, had a .278/.348/.581 slash line with 20 homers and 56 RBIs in 70 games for Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre last season.
The Yankees’ analytics department for several years preferred Higashioka to Austin Romine. For that reason, they made little effort to sign Romine, who also grew up in the organization, before he joined the Tigers as a free agent in the offseason.
While very much aware of his status, Higashioka said, “I’m trying to block all of that stuff out” and focus on what he still considers an open competition.
“I’ve noticed there’s little things where you kind of get treated like it may be a foregone conclusion,” he said of being named Sanchez’s backup, “but I’m not really letting that get into my head.”