Yankees centerfielder Aaron Judge and catcher Kyle Higashioka celebrate their...

Yankees centerfielder Aaron Judge and catcher Kyle Higashioka celebrate their 4-2 win against the Red Sox in an MLB game at Yankee Stadium on April 9, 2022. Credit: Kathleen Malone-Van Dyke

While Yankees fans – not to mention much of the Yankees organization – were on pins and needles regarding Aaron Judge’s free agency this off-season, the franchise’s longest-tenured player was not.

“I had a pretty good feeling he was coming back,” said catcher Kyle Higashioka, who was drafted by the Yankees in 2008. “I wasn’t too concerned.”

The 32-year-old Higashioka, in Manhattan Tuesday night as he was among the honorees at the annual Thurman Munson awards dinner to benefit AHRC New York City Foundation because of his extensive charitable work, said he never envisioned a 2023 scenario that didn’t include Judge as a Yankee.

“I know as an organization, it would be tough to replace, probably impossible to replace somebody of his caliber,” Higashioka said. “I knew the Yankees would do their part and I knew Judge wanted to come back, so to me it was just a matter of time.”

The time came during the December winter meetings when Judge agreed to a nine-year, $360-million contract.

As for the team Judge and Higashioka will be a part of this season, the catcher said he feels the upcoming edition of the Yankees is “a lot better” than the 2022 club, which went 99-63 in capturing the AL East title but was swept in four games by the eventual World Series champion Astros in the ALCS.

Higashioka noted the addition of Carlos Rodon, who will slot in behind Gerrit Cole in the rotation, and a bullpen that was good most of the season but was hampered by injuries late.

“That was a pretty [big] blow for us to have so many guys hurt at the end of last season,” Higashioka said.

Prospect park

Some of the Yankees' top prospects, including Anthony Volpe and Jasson Dominguez, highlighted the group of 29 non-roster invitees the club announced Tuesday would be in big-league camp for spring training.

Volpe, a 21-year-old considered by many to be the organization’s No. 1 prospect, is the only one of the group with a chance to make the roster out of camp as he’s slated to be involved in what as of now is shaping up as a three-way competition for the starting job at short (the others are Isiah Kiner-Falefa and Oswald Peraza). Dominguez, a centerfielder who turned 20 Tuesday and is nicknamed “The Martian” because of his “other-worldly” skillset, started 2022 – his first full season of professional ball – with Single-A Tampa and ended it with Double-A Somerset. Among the other touted prospects getting spring training invites are catchers Josh Breaux, Anthony Siegler and Austin Wells and outfielder Elijah Dunham.

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