In every draft of the Theo Epstein era, there has been at least one player selected who, in addition to having an awareness of the strike zone, has excellent bat-to-ball skills. In 2012, “that one guy” was Steven Bruno, who is now at AA Tennessee. In 2013, Will Remillard — who missed 2015 due to Tommy John surgery and is missing this season due to a second such procedure — filled that bill. Chesny Young from Mercer and Mark Zagunis of Virginia Tech both fit the profile in 2014.
Last year, PJ Higgins out of Old Dominion became was the next in line. Higgins was the last Cubs draft pick to sign when he inked a deal on July 17, 2015. In just a little over a month in the organization, Higgins, a 12th round pick, built himself a reputation as someone with great contact skills.
Higgins played only 21 games in the Arizona Rookie League, but hit a healthy .288 with a .345 on base percentage. He also hit two home runs with 10 RBI. He drew seven walks in that span as well.
He was quickly promoted to short-season Eugene, where he hit .316 with a .361 OBP. Higgins then went to fall instructs in Mesa, where he worked on converting to catcher. I thought that was a little odd because he was actually a catcher at Old Dominion. In fact he played a little bit of everywhere during his three years at ODU.
Higgins started about half the games his freshman year and never sat down during the next two years as a sophomore and junior. He was a second team all-conference player in Conference USA and lead Old Dominion in hitting with a .355 average as a junior.
The Cubs selected Higgins in part because of his ability to play several positions, including catcher, second base, and third base. Baseball America remarked that Higgins’ future possibly would be brightest if he remained a backstop, noting
“Higgins’ future is behind the plate, where he is a smooth receiver and shows average arm strength. Higgins also has some feel for the bat, with a gap-to-gap approach and inside-out approach.”
In just three games at South Bend this year, Higgins has caught twice and pinch-hit once. He is currently 4-for-9 (.444) with a .643 OBP, two RBI, and an OPS of 1.198.
In the two games I’ve seen, he looks great at the plate. He has excellent discipline and an idea of what part of the zone he likes to hit in. You can tell that manager Jimmy Gonzalez has confidence in Higgins, as he has placed the young hitter in the three hole in the batting order, a spot usually reserved for the team’s best hitter.
On defense, Higgins still has some areas to improve. He has an excellent arm and release, but he is going to have to work on balls in the dirt. In Saturday’s game, he had a couple of passed balls on fastballs down in the dirt from Ryan Kellogg. Some of it might just be an unfamiliarity with the pitchers, which should lessen as he gets more and more used to his battery-mates.
Overall, I think Higgins is someone Cubs fans are going to like over the course of time. As far as this year, I think he’s going to be “that one guy” everybody looks to to get a hit when it counts.