Last year at this time, Times-Tribune columnist Donnie Collins was still the man in charge of this project, while I was transitioning to become the RailRiders beat writer. As part of that transition, Donnie had me predict the final position of the series, which was catcher. Keeping a long story short, I correctly predicted that Gary Sanchez and Eddy Rodriguez would open the 2016 season as the RailRiders’ catchers. Since we won’t know what this year’s Opening Day roster will look like for another six weeks, I’m technically 100 percent when it comes to my predictions!

With that said, we continue our five-part series and look at who could open the season behind the plate for the RailRiders.

The Candidates

  • Wilkin Castillo
  • Kellin Deglan
  • Francisco Diaz
  • Kyle Higashioka*
  • Jorge Saez

* Indicates player is on 40-man roster

Other than Higashioka, you might be thinking to yourself, “Who are these guys?” That’s a fair question considering that Castillo, Deglan and Saez are in their first year with the organization and Diaz has played just 28 of his 461 career minor league games above the Class A level.

(Kyle Higashioka finally managed to stay healthy in 2016 and he put together the best year of his minor league career and was rewarded with a 40-man roster spot in November. Butch Comegys / Times-Tribune Photographer)

(Kyle Higashioka finally managed to stay healthy in 2016 and he put together the best year of his minor league career and was rewarded with a 40-man roster spot in November. Butch Comegys / Times-Tribune Photographer)

Pencil Him In

  • Kyle Higashioka

The Yankees stuck with Higashioka through all the injuries, which included Tommy John surgery and a broken thumb that limited him to 24 games in the 2013-14 seasons. In 2016, he showed why that was a good decision. Higashioka finally managed to stay healthy and put together his best professional season, batting .276 with 21 home runs, 81 RBIs and an .847 OPS in 102 games between Double-A Trenton and the RailRiders. In November, the Yankees put him on their 40-man roster.

Consider this, as well. Only 39 of those games came with the RailRiders. With Sanchez slotted as the RailRiders’ starting catcher, there really wasn’t any room for Higashioka in Scranton, forcing him to play at Double-A. But when Higashioka got his opportunities, he made the most of them.

The first one came in late May when Sanchez went on the disabled list with a non-displaced fracture in his right thumb. Higashioka came up and filled in so well that it was almost as if Sanchez had never left. In 13 games from May 27-June 13, he hit .412 with five homers and 17 RBIs and earned an International League Batter of the Week award. When Sanchez returned, Higashioka went back to Trenton until early August when he was brought back to the RailRiders to replace the called-up Sanchez. Higashioka’s first at-bat in his return? A two-run home run.

With all that being said, Higashioka has played just 44 games at the Triple-A level. In that second stint with the RailRiders last season, he only hit .165 and struck out 24 times in 26 regular-season games. He clearly still has room to grow and it wouldn’t make sense for the Yankees to bring him up to New York as a backup to Sanchez or even the team’s third catcher behind Romie. The only benefit to Higashioka — and the Yankees for that matter — would be for him to begin the year as the everyday guy behind the dish in Scranton.

(Other than on a rehab assignment, don't expect to see Gary Sanchez at PNC Field this summer. Jason Farmer / Times-Tribune Photographer

(Other than on a rehab assignment, don’t expect to see Gary Sanchez at PNC Field this summer. Jason Farmer / Times-Tribune Photographer

The Wild Cards

  • Gary Sanchez
  • Austin Romine

Last year when Donnie was predicting what the starting rotation would like, he didn’t bother to list Luis Severino as a contender. When I was putting the 65-70 player capsules for our annual season preview section, I didn’t bother to make one for Severino. And both of us were fully aware that Severino had options left. It just didn’t seem plausible that Severino could actually pitch for the RailRiders in 2016.

We all know how that played out.

Why do I bring that up now? Because it’s one year later and I did not list Sanchez as a candidate above and don’t plan on filling out his capsule for our annual season preview section, all while knowing he has options left. But let’s make this clear: Gary Sanchez is the New York Yankees’ starting catcher. There is no debating that. We all know what he did last year in such limited time.

But why are he and Romine considered my wild cards? It’s simple. If one gets hurt this spring, that changes everything for the RailRiders. The Yankees have the luxury of having three catchers on their 40-man roster so an injury to either Sanchez or Romine could open the door for Higashioka.


  • Kyle Higashioka
  • Wilkin Castillo

In the previous two parts of this series, I had a section where I eliminated pitchers that I considered were not ready to play at the Triple-A level on Opening Day. As you can see, that does not appear in this post. I thought about including it but ultimately decided that it wouldn’t be fair to include Deglan, Diaz or Saez in it.

Look, Higashioka is going to be the RailRiders’ starting catcher. The real question is who the backup will be. I think all three listed above are capable of doing that. That’s basically what they’ve been their whole careers, after all.

Texas drafted Deglan with the 22nd pick of the 2010 draft but he never advanced past Double-A before electing free agency in November. The Yankees selected Saez in the Triple-A phase of December’s Rule 5 draft from Toronto. His 40 games at Double-A New Hampshire in 2016 marked the first time in his five-year career that he played above Class A. Diaz is entering his second year with the Yankees organization and has played just two games above Double-A. That came last year with the RailRiders.

The Yankees always like to have a veteran catcher in Triple-A, which is why I believe Higashioka’s backup will be Castillo. Honestly, I was surprised when they elected to not re-sign Rodriguez, who was one of the most respected players in the RailRiders’ clubhouse and served as a mentor not only to Sanchez but to several of the organization’s top prospects the last two years.

Castillo is a 32-year-old journeyman minor leaguer similar to Rodriguez. Over half of his minor-league games have come at the Triple-A level and he played  in 22 games for Cincinnati in the 2008-09 seasons. He clearly has the most experience out of all five of the candidates and makes the most sense to fill that backup void.