BBB 2017 Top Prospect Countdown #27: Kyle Higashioka

Kyle Higashioka is a 26-year-old right-handed catcher from Huntington Beach California. The Yankees drafted Higashioka way back in 2008, in the seventh round of the Major League Baseball amateur draft. Higashioka was highly touted for his superior defensive game behind the plate. His size, 6"1" 205 pounds, combined with his defensive ability convinced the Yankees to select him in the seventh round, where they viewed him as a high value prospect. The Yankees were one of few teams who thought he had offensive potential that could develop over time.

Photo Credit: Mike Janes


Breakdown
Higashioka is the very definition of a late bloomer. Surprisingly, in his first professional action in 2009 Higashioka impressed at the plate putting up a .253 batting average, well above expectations for him at the time.  Over the next couple of seasons Higashioka’s offensive numbers plateaued, but he continued to develop as a pro. Physically, his body began to fill out and behind the plate his defense was spectacular, as he built a rapport with his pitching staff.  

In both 2010 and 2011 Higashioka was invited as a “non-roster invite” to spring training, in which he gained valuable experience going head to head with other members of the Yankees roster and working with the Yankees coaching staff. Then an unfortunate timeline of events occurred. After just a handful of games in AA in 2013, Higashioka's season ended on a snap pickoff throw to first base. The awkward throw would result in Tommy John surgery that would cause Higashioka to miss the entire 2013 and part of the 2014 season. Just as he was ready to return in 2014, he suffered a broken thumb that forced him into two more months on the shelf. 

In 2015, he returned to the field and batted a solid .250 with 37 RBI’s, mostly with the Single-A Tampa Yankees before being promoted to the Triple-A Scranton Yankees at the end of the year. Last season served as a breakout year for Higashioka. Splitting time between the AA Trenton Thunder and AAA Scranton Yankees, Higashioka put up career highs of .276 average, 81 RBIs, and 21 home runs. 

Interestingly enough, Higashioka has always had the tools to be a solid hitter. Scouts in his draft profile mentioned his compact stroke, above average pitch recognition, and patience at the plate. The interesting part was that it didn’t really seem to translate statistically. So while Higashioka’s offensive surge may be a surprise to many, the Yankees always saw this potential. Higashioka’s greatest offensive strength may be his ability to hit to all fields. This includes his power chart, which makes it very clear that Higashioka can utilize the short porch in right field, even as a right-handed hitter.

Projection
Many saw the insane rise of Gary Sanchez and assumed that is what made Brian McCann expendable. In reality, what really made McCann expendable was the rise of Sanchez paired with the rise of Higashioka, as well as the presence of Austin Romine on the roster. 

As I’ve mentioned many times, Higashioka is a highly regarded defensive catcher who is excellent at calling a game and guiding his pitching staff. Gary Sanchez is the future of the Yankees, but don’t be surprised if there is eventually chatter to have him move positions, if Higashioka continues his offense tear. Sanchez is a good defensive catcher, but Higashioka has the potential to be a great one. 

This season will be a huge year for Higashioka. He took a major step in his offensive development in 2016 and it is now imperative that he sustains or improves on these numbers. He is someone to keep an eye on during spring training, because a hot start could mean he lands on the 25-man roster early in 2017, being that he was added to the 40-man roster this season. 

I have no doubt he will make his debut at some point in 2017 for the Yankees, but his offensive development will be the key to whether he is merely a late inning defensive replacement or someone who is vying for at-bats behind the plate, or out of the DH position. Higashioka actually became a free agent in 2016 and resigned with the Yankees almost immediately stating he “couldn’t see himself anywhere else," while the Yankees protected him from this year’s Rule 5 Draft. So, although Higashioka has had a near decade long journey in the minor leagues, the team still clearly sees him as a part of the future.

Article by: Jesse Bartley

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