During his end-of-season "State of the Yankees" press conference Wednesday following a fourth-place finish in the AL East, GM Brian Cashman was asked whether veteran catcher Brian McCann would have a solid role next season, given Gary Sanchez's powerful rookie performance. The Yanks exec answered in the affirmative, saying the catching gig was Sanchez's but McCann would play a part as a left-handed-hitting complement. He added that he expected to receive trade calls on McCann as well as backup Austin Romine.
Then came an aside about a 26-year-old catcher the club drafted in the seventh round out of a California high school back in 2008, helped rehab through two major injuries and re-signed as a Minor League free agent last offseason.
"[Kyle] Higashioka has always been a tremendous defensive catcher and, offensively, he showed up significantly this year," Cashman said. "He'll go on our 40-man roster this winter for the Rule 5 protection."
Higashioka received a congratulatory text from his agent soon after, and it was then that he realized just how close his Major League dream truly was.
"I was surprised by it," Higashioka said Wednesday. "I just found out this morning when I got the text, and I'm really stoked about the opportunity. This is the first step to really getting to the big leagues."
Most surprising isn't the announcement itself necessarily. It's how Higashioka forced the Yankees' hand with a stellar 2016, hitting .276/.337/.511 with a career-best 21 homers and 81 RBIs in 102 games for Double-A Trenton and Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre and culiminating at the National Championship when he started behind the plate and batted cleanup in the RailRiders' 3-1 win over El Paso.
All of this came one year after he hit just .250/.299/.367 with five homers in 93 games between Scranton/Wilkes-Barre and Class A Advanced Tampa. Over nine seasons in the Yankees system, he's produced a career line of .242/.305/.386. In his previous eight seasons, he had never hit more than eight homers. In 2016, he crossed that mark by June 24.
"It was about refining my approach and knowing my strengths and weaknesses," he said. "As a catcher, I'm not the biggest speed guy out there, so when I looked at it, it does me no good to put the ball on the ground. At the upper levels, 90 percent of ground balls are outs because the infielders are so good there. So instead, I'm trying to do a better job of hitting line drives, hitting the ball to the outfield.... I'm pretty much a math and science guy, so it made a lot of sense to me to try and match the plane of my bat with the plane of the pitch. That's when things clicked. The power numbers came around, but I wasn't forcing anything. It was more a byproduct of the little adjustments."
Those refinements were years in the making, and not just on the field.
In 2013 -- his sixth professional season and what would have been his fourth full campaign in the Minors -- Higashioka injured his right elbow in April after only seven games with Trenton and underwent Tommy John surgery. Just as he was wrapping up the yearlong rehab process, he broke his thumb in May 2014, keeping him out until late July. Even then, he managed only 17 games between rehab appearances in the Gulf Coast League and his assignment back in Tampa.
While he was limited during those two seasons, he kept the diamond on his mind, watching as many Major Leagues games as he could -- not an option for most Minor Leaguers, who typically have their own games to focus on. Higashioka studied some of the game's best right-handed sluggers, like Miguel Cabrera and Josh Donaldson, to see what he could glean from their trips to the plate.
"When you have that much time off, it becomes more of a mental thing," he said. "You have to stay locked in constantly and keep your eyes focused on the ultimate goal. You go so long without playing much that it's easy to forget what you're trying to work toward, unless you're constantly thinking about it."
When he returned to full-time duty in 2015, the California native played 93 games between Tampa and Scranton/Wilkes-Barre -- his first time above 50 contests since 2011 -- with no official trips to the DL. But on Nov. 7 of that year, he elected free agency to test those waters, only to re-sign with the Yankees 11 days later. Given a full-time crack at Double-A, the 26-year-old, long lauded for his ability to work with a pitching staff, took off.
"I was just making sure I was in the best position possible for my career, and even though I was a free agent, I re-signed here for that reason," he said. "My goal this year was to make the big leagues. I know that sounds crazy for a guy who had only really played at [Class A Advanced], but it's my ultimate goal and I thought, 'Why not now?' I definitely did all those good things this year, and I'm proud of that. The opportunity just didn't arise."
There is certainly a better chance now, though, for that opportunity to arrive. Given his Minor League experience, Higashioka would have been eligible for the Rule 5 Draft this December and, considering his defensive prowess and newfound power, would have made a nice candidate for any Major League club in need of a cheap backup backstop. With the Yankees out of the playoffs, the official move to put Higashioka on the 40-man won't likely come until the deadline in November.
But even when the move does come, he'll likely still be the fourth catcher on the 40-man behind Sanchez, McCann and Romine. As Cashman alluded to, there's a chance, even a likelihood, that the Bombers could move McCann or Romine in an attempt to clear roster space (and in the case of the former, salary). For now, fresh off the news that he'll be one step closer to the Majors, Higashioka is preparing to fight for his place among the pinstriped catchers.
"I don't know how the pieces will fall," he said. "But it'll definitely be a different experience next year. I assume I'll get a little more playing time in Spring Training, and that'll be huge. I'm looking forward to that and getting the chance to show what I can do with some of the guys.
"It's never really true though, until it is. I can't say I'm a big leaguer until I'm there. For now, I'm unbelievably happy, and there's still a lot of work to do going forward."
Sam Dykstra is a reporter for MiLB.com. Follow and interact with him on Twitter, @SamDykstraMiLB.