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The fascinating connections of the longest-tenured Yankee

Pondering Kyle Higashioka’s 15-season journey in the Yankees organization.

MLB: Boston Red Sox at New York Yankees Gregory Fisher-USA TODAY Sports

Backup catchers come, and backup catchers go. The Yankees have a pretty solid one on their hands. Kyle Higashioka isn’t anything special as far as baseball ability goes, although a a wRC+ around 80 or so with solid defense behind the plate is more than enough to keep a backup catcher’s career alive for more than a couple years. A receiver’s value is often held as much in their knowledge of their pitchers and the game around them, though, and Higashioka has plenty of that to offer to the Yankees specifically, having recently taken Brett Gardner’s mantle as its longest-tenured player within the organization.

It’s a pretty steep drop from there. Were Higgy to depart before the 2023 season, he’d pass the torch to Luis Severino, who joined the team as a 17-year-old at the very tail end of 2011. Should Severino or Aaron Judge (drafted in 2013) not return at the end of their contracts, it might trickle all the way down to Estevan Florial’s signing in 2015. Those don’t have the same impressive feel as 2008, though. All of those players reached the majors at various stages of young phenom-dom, while Higashioka toiled away in the minors for more than a decade before getting a real chance to stick.

The degree to which Higgy comes from a different era just doesn’t quite fit the perception we get of him as having just broken into the big leagues. He was drafted in the seventh round in 2008, when Tim Beckham was selected first overall. Along with Beckham, only three more of the first 30 picks in that draft played in the majors in 2022 (and a potential Hall of Famer, Buster Posey, has already retired). Two of them — Aaron Hicks and Gerrit Cole — suited up for the Yankees!

MLB: Houston Astros at New York Yankees Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

That Cole, Hicks, and Higashioka were all selected in the same draft is a funny thought. It’s interesting to compare the three, all born within a year of each other and yet intersecting at different points of very different career arcs. Cole, it seems, is still in the heart of his prime, perhaps with some of his best years still to come. Hicks is, well, not that, and almost certainly on the wrong side of the performance curve. Higashioka might be an afterthought next to those two in terms of having a career worth thinking about in those terms. That doesn’t mean he hasn’t had just as worthwhile of a journey — if not more so.

There aren’t many players who can say they played at every affiliate for an MLB team, but Higashioka’s been there. He’s caught spring training bullpens for legends who saw the mound in World Series from a year starting with the numbers 1-9-9, and there’s a non-zero chance he’ll have caught bullpens from someone who will pitch for the Yankees in a year starting with 2-0-3.

Drafted one pick behind current free-agent left-hander Will Smith (who reached the majors in 2012), Higashioka moved from rookie ball to short-season A to A from 2018-2010, in which time he caught rotations headlined by Adam Warren and Arodys Vizcaíno and split time with John Ryan Murphy, future Twin. The next year, playing in Low-A Charleston and High-A Tampa, he rubbed elbows with faces of bygone eras like Mark Prior and Carlos Silva while simultaneously sharing backstop duties with an 18-year-old named Gary Sánchez.

MLB: New York Yankees-Workouts Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Although injuries sabotaged much of his 2012-14 seasons, he shared playing time and rehab stints with Francisco Cervelli and the minds of Alex Rodríguez and (checks notes) Russell Branyan.

For every name in dark blue on Baseball-Reference, indicating a player with major league experience, there are ten that aren’t. After missing most of the 2013-14 seasons due to Tommy John surgery, he might have joined them. Instead, he came up with an entire new set of names and people to know. Returning to Tampa in 2015, he shared the field with Miguel Andújar and Tyler Wade, catching games from Giovanny Gallegos and Jordan Montgomery, two of the 47 pitchers who appeared in a game for the team that year. There aren’t many minor leaguers who stick it out for nine years without reaching the majors, but that’s when Higashioka first reached Triple-A for good, where he joined Severino and Aaron Judge for the first time after playing alongside bright futures of past days like Dustin Fowler and Jackson Frazier.

As we know by now, Higgy finally reached the majors as an up-and-down catcher in years 10-12, then planted his foot firmly on the MLB roster in year 13 of pro ball when fellow backup Austin Romine became a free agent. Part of the reason it’s remarkable is that he’s not a particularly remarkable ballplayer — his ascent wouldn’t have been so slow if he had managed to OPS above .680 at any point before 2016. I imagine he wished it would have happened sooner, but it makes for an interesting career nonetheless.

Higashioka has been a Yankee for longer than any player currently on the roster has been in the majors. More often than not, players who fit that bill are franchise icons. There might not be a position in baseball more anonymous than backup catcher, yet the Yankees have one who’s probably had twice as many teammates as anyone on the roster and has crossed paths with every “remember some guys”-type veteran who’s stopped by a Yankees minor league affiliate (hello Kevin Youkilis!) over the past few presidential elections. The wandering life of a career minor leaguer, improbably ascended to the Show!

Whenever Kyle Higashioka’s time in the Bronx wraps up, be it by trade, non-tender, or eventual free agency, it will quietly be the end of an era. Perhaps not an era that means much of anything, but an era nonetheless.