On Thursday, the Yankees added another insurance piece to the roster puzzle by signing Chris Iannetta to a minor-league deal with an invite to spring training. Iannetta is the second veteran catcher the team brought on board this offseason, after re-uniting with Erik Kratz on a minor-league deal back in December.
Iannetta and Kratz will look to serve as the base comparison this spring for Kyle Higashioka, the longtime farmhand catcher who is slated to earn the backup catching gig behind Gary Sanchez. Neither veteran is entering 2020 near their peak production, with Iannetta entering his age-36 season and Kratz near the end of his career at 39. The Yankees brought them in to compete in spring, and then serve as a failsafe if they remain in the organization in case of injury.
That places a lot of faith in Higashioka sticking with the big-league club, for several reasons. The first is that Higashioka has only had the proverbial cup of coffee in the majors, playing in 56 games across three seasons. These stints were all call-ups due to injury and didn’t result in great numbers for Higashioka, but they’re too small of a sample size to make much of. The larger concern is that Higashioka is out of minor-league options, meaning he’ll have to make improvements on his previous results without getting any consistent playing time.
There are some indications that betting on Higashioka is a smart move. After experiencing a dip in production in Triple-A Scranton in 2018, Higashioka put up career numbers in 2019. His .278/.348/.581 slash line represented new high-water marks across the board, and his 23 home runs combined in Triple-A and MLB also were a new personal best. When given a pitching staff that he’s familiar working with, the offensive numbers looked more than passable, which is all you can ask for out of a backup catcher.
The lesser playing time may not be such a negative factor for Higashioka’s development, either. In 12 professional seasons, Higashioka has played in over 100 games in a single season only once, eclipsing the mark in 2016 with time split across Double-A Scranton and Trenton. Higashioka’s climb to the majors has been one of persistence as much as talent, spending several years at the top of the farm system before earning his chance. Plus, considering that former backup Austin Romine played in 80, 77, and 72 games over the past three seasons respectively, the workload for Higashioka probably won’t be that diminished.
Higashioka could then be considered the floor of production that the Yankees are comfortable with in their backup role. Gary Sanchez is still one of the prize pieces of the organization, and the presumed starter for years to come. Higashioka will still be under control until 2025, meaning that he could serve as the backup, provide incremental improvement year-by-year and be more than serviceable while remaining very affordable. If an opportunity to upgrade somewhere down the line presents itself, then the Yankees might be motivated to make a move, but if not the team is set at a valuable position.