Inside the unique Yankees bond of Kyle Higashioka, Austin Wells

SAN FRANCISCO — There was no shortage of family reunion-ing going on this past weekend in San Diego when the Yankees visited the Padres for the first time since the Juan Soto blockbuster.

With Soto, Michael King, Trent Grisham, Kyle Higashioka, Wandy Peralta, Tyler Wade and Jhony Brito all facing their former teammates, there were plenty of hugs exchanged.

But early Friday afternoon, before the series began, there was Higashioka and Austin Wells catching up on the field at an empty Petco Park.

From the outside, the relationship seems like one that could have been awkward.

Wells was called up last September as the Yankees’ top catching prospect, and by that point, it was more or less expected he would replace the veteran Higashioka to pair with Jose Trevino as the club’s catching tandem for 2024.

Higashioka still had another year left on his contract, but he was wise enough to see the bigger picture.

The Yankees’ recent visit to Petco Park offered a chance for Kyle Higashioka to catch-up with his former teammates, such as Aaron Judge. Getty Images

“I think towards the end of the season last year, I could kind of see the writing on the wall a little bit,” Higashioka said Saturday inside the Padres clubhouse. “I think I was a little more mentally prepared for it than maybe some of the other guys that came over [in the trade]. That being said, it’s always tough to leave a group of guys that you’ve known for so long.

“But at the same time, you’re not going to play forever. You’re either going to retire one day or you’re going to move to a different team or you’ll move to different teams many times. It’s just part of the game. I have an opportunity here to be on the team and play. You gotta make the best of it.”

Before the Yankees sent him packing, though, Higashioka did what he knows best: pay it forward by helping out the rookie breaking into the big leagues.

“It’s definitely a situation where you could see it in a negative way,” Wells said Wednesday. “But he’s always been positive with me, which I really appreciate because I feel like coming up, you don’t have a lot of guys that will lead you in the right direction. And he was one of those guys. So for him to be as positive as he is with me and has been, I’m super thankful for that.”

Called up last September to the Yankees, Austin Wells got an everyday tutorial in adjusting to the big leagues from Kyle Higashioka. AP

Those who have been around Higashioka for a while were not surprised by how he handled the situation.

“It was as expected,” Yankees director of catching Tanner Swanson said. “Having spent as much time around Kyle as I have, I think it’s just kind of who he is. I think he embraced the situation towards the end of last year as well as you can. Despite his playing time being somewhat limited and his role changing a little bit, he was the same guy every day in the clubhouse. And eager to give back, in a way, to an organization that he probably feels like did a lot for him over the course of time.”

Higashioka had been the elder statesman of the organization. The Yankees drafted him out of high school in 2008. He battled through nine seasons in the minor leagues — including being a 25-year-old playing 88 games at High-A in 2015 — before making his MLB debut in 2017, going back to Triple-A to play the majority of his games in 2018 and 2019 and then coming up for good in 2020.

So it was only fitting the advice Higashioka gave that has stuck with Wells the most.

“Stay grinding,” Wells said.

Higashioka described Wells and Trevino as “two of my good buddies,” and he has continued to stay in touch with them — with them doing the same for him.

Wells and Higashioka were able to catch up in person at Petco Park, and they keep in touch regularly. Greg Joyce

“Higgy was one of my good buddies last year and someone that was definitely helpful in me getting adjusted to the big league life,” Wells said. “Being able to stay in touch with a guy like that who’s so good to me is important to me. For him to go over to San Diego and get an opportunity to play, I was super happy for him. But obviously we’d love to have him around still. Just getting to talk with him here and there and get a different perspective every once in a while is always good.”

Wells is off to a solid start in his first full season in the big leagues. Though he’s hit into some tough luck at the plate (.202 average and one homer in 94 at-bats), he has continued to make strides behind it. Among the top 11 pitch framers in the game (by Baseball Savant’s Catcher Framing Runs) are Trevino (first with five), Wells (tied for seventh, two) and Higashioka (tied for 11th, one).

Trevino has also put together the makings of a bounce-back season through the first two months (his .269 average and .735 OPS are career highs) after his 2023 season ended in July because of wrist surgery.

Once Trevino went down, Higashioka took on more playing time until September, when Wells was called up, with Ben Rortvedt also becoming the regular catcher for Gerrit Cole in Trevino’s absence.

Higashioka said it was clear to him late last season that the Yankees’ abundance of catchers might mean he would get squeezed out of The Bronx. Corey Sipkin for the NY Post

Asked about the “writing on the wall,” Higashioka pointed to the fact that the Yankees were going to have an abundance of catchers in Wells, Trevino and Rortvedt (who was eventually traded to the Rays), not to mention minor leaguers Carlos Narvaez and Agustin Ramirez being added to the 40-man roster in November.

“And I wasn’t playing at the end of the year, even though I had good enough numbers to justify staying on the field,” Higashioka said. “It felt like they wanted to move in a different direction, which, that’s just baseball.”

And yet, Higashioka handled it professionally, to the surprise of no one.

“It’s probably no shock to anyone in our clubhouse,” Swanson said. “He’s as selfless as a guy as you’ll come across. As committed to winning as you’ll find. Despite it negatively impacting maybe his own personal situation, he took it in stride and did everything in his power on a daily basis to try to impact our group and help us improve on a daily basis. That’s just kind of what he’s about.”

And as far as landing spots go, Higashioka came out OK. The 34-year-old is now playing about an hour-and-a-half drive away from where he grew up, with the beach right there to feed his passion for surfing (which may be more of an offseason activity).

Traded to the Padres as part of the Juan Soto deal, Higashioka’s new baseball home is less than a two-hour drive from where he grew up. Getty Images

“It’s been pretty cool being a little closer to home,” Higashioka said. “My family gets to see me all the time, so they’re happy.”

Why depth matters

When Jon Berti took one step out of the batter’s box Friday night and then hit the deck like he had been shot, the immediate fear within the Yankees dugout — including from Aaron Boone — was that it involved his Achilles tendon.

Berti had a decent idea that it did not, because he knew the pain was higher up in his calf.

“But everyone else, that was their original thought,” Berti said this week. “And then looking back at the video, it definitely looked that way. Very fortunate that it wasn’t and it was just the calf.”

Jon Berti will be out for the next 6-8 weeks after suffering a calf strain last Friday against San Diego. Getty Images

While an Achilles tear likely would have been season-ending, the high-grade calf strain that Berti suffered still is expected to sideline him for six to eight weeks. He has been getting around this week in a walking boot and received a PRP injection Tuesday to help the recovery.

It was brutal timing for Berti, who had been batting .306 with a .748 OPS and four steals in 11 games since returning from a groin strain earlier this season. And even though DJ LeMahieu returned this week, the Yankees expected Berti to become an important bench piece.

“I was feeling good and helping contribute,” Berti said. “The team’s rolling, it’s fun to be a part of. So obviously it’s frustrating when something like this happens. I kind of allowed myself to be frustrated for a few days, but now moving forward, my job is to get healthy as soon as I can and get back to help this team win.”

Berti’s injury opened the door for Jahmai Jones — whose departure had been the expected corresponding move for LeMahieu — to remain on the roster, just like multiple bullpen injuries have extended Michael Tonkin’s stay after it initially looked like he would be the odd man out when Tommy Kahnle returned.

Berti’s injury should open the door for Jahmai Jones to stay on the Yankees roster. USA TODAY Sports via Reuters

Similarly, Thursday’s news that Clarke Schmidt would miss at least the next two months due to a lat strain backed up Boone in his repeated insistence he had not thought about who might be forced out of the Yankees rotation when Cole returns (likely by late June or early July).

The Yankees would have loved to have been forced to make that decision, because it would have meant Schmidt and the other four members of the rotation all had stayed healthy — not to mention Cole getting through his rehab assignment without any issues.

Want to catch a game? The Yankees schedule with links to buy tickets can be found here.

Revealing numbers

The record book got bigger and more complete this week when Major League Baseball officially added statistics from the Negro Leagues into its record.

The integration of Negro Leagues stats into MLB’s all-time records should provide a fuller picture of the careers of Hall of Famers such as Cool Papa Bell. Getty Images

Count Boone, a baseball lifer, as a fan of the move.

“Hopefully it’s something that allows us to get more context on Cool Papa Bell or just some of the great Negro League players, but then beyond that,” Boone said. “There’s the six, eight, 10, 12 guys that we can rattle off that you’ve heard of, but maybe this shines a light on even some more great players that aren’t necessarily household names from the past. So I think it’s great.”

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