Man, it sure feels like P.J. Higgins is in the right place at the right time to have another step forward.
The Cubs have this new coaching staff that includes god-knows-how-many former catchers. The rules have changed to add a 26th man – specifically a position player – to the roster. And the Cubs bench depth is … well, as thin as its been in years.
Enter Higgins, a catcher with the versatility to play elsewhere, a grinder with some pop, and a guy who has dazzled in the first week of games – so much so that he’s even picking up extra starts, like today, as the DH.
First there was the power display:
Another Cubs catcher, another home run. 15-9. pic.twitter.com/Swza1ttGY0
— BleedCubbieBlue (@CubbieBlue2016) February 24, 2020
And the defensive chops:
P.J. Higgins continues a catcher-driven spring. pic.twitter.com/ChY0fb14T8
— Marquee Sports Network (@WatchMarquee) February 26, 2020
Beyond the highlights, Higgins, 26, has shown that he’s adept at third base, and has recorded a hit in four of the five games he’s played. The Cubs went into Mesa, I think, with it in their minds that the end of the roster would be a five-man fight for two jobs: Nico Hoerner, Daniel Descalso, Jason Kipnis, Hernan Perez, Josh Phegley.
Perhaps, and I’ll stress perhaps, Higgins can start to budge his way into that discussion.
A 12th round pick in 2015 from Old Dominion, Higgins was a leadoff hitter for the Monarchs, a career .324 hitter thanks to a 7.9 K% but with just four home runs in 159 games. Higgins split time between second and third base in his junior season, appearing as catcher just a handful of times.
The Cubs scouts saw a plus arm and lateral quickness and thought catcher could become his long-term position. They have been right, as Higgins has blossomed into a real plus back there, throwing out 23 of 56 attempted baserunners last year. He did this while deferring a lot of innings to Jhonny Pereda (the best defensive catcher in the minors), playing equal amounts at third and first base.
Higgins has also continued to develop as a hitter, with the Cubs working to allow him to tap into his strength a little more. He has seen his groundball rate drop in each of his four full professional seasons, and he’s been better when in a position to attack.
Like a lot of players, his power also took a huge step forward at AAA this past year.
Here’s a stat I’ve found very telling, per Minor Graphs. This is Higgins estimated fly ball distance the last four seasons on balls he has pulled in the air:
2016 – 272 feet
2017 – 281 feet
2018 – 291 feet
2019 – 322 feet
This is how Higgins doubled his previous career-high in home runs this year, albeit still with a modest ten. The juiced ball played its part, yes, but Higgins deserves credit for the approach changes and strength development that have added to his game.
He’s also done that while not sacrificing too much in his overall plate approach. Yes, Higgins strikeout rate is up from 11.6% in High-A in 2017 to 20.7% during his time in Iowa last year. But Higgins has still never played a level and posted an above league average strikeout rate, which is perhaps his most attractive quality as a hypothetical bench piece.
The question will be if he offers enough upside to warrant a Major League roster spot, which is probably what led the Cubs to not protect Higgins from the Rule 5 Draft (and what led to his going unselected). In just two months, Higgins will turn 27 years old, so we’re pushing the boundaries of the word “prospect” when we talk about him. It’s fair to wonder if the year-over-year growth we’ve seen so far will run out and if we’ll enter the “this is who he is” phase.
Rostering Higgins, I think, becomes a tactical question in the best use of the 26th roster spot. David Ross has said that a third catcher is something he would consider, which might have more value than two left-handed hitting second baseman in Kipnis and Descalso. Higgins might be a few niche areas away from true utility that would put him over the edge. He’s never been tried in the outfield, nor has he hit left-handed pitchers particularly well. Those would help, but they are probably longer term projects.
In all likelihood, Higgins will start the year in Triple-A Iowa, probably waiting for an injury to be the right choice to fill in. If he keeps banging on the door like he has this week, doors will start to open.