Back in 2004, after having been drafted in the eighth round the previous June, catcher Matt Pagnozzi received his first spring non-roster invitation (NRI). Though he did not appear in an official major league spring training game, it had to be an exciting opportunity for the then-21-year-old.
Three long years would pass without Pagnozzi receiving a second official camp invite, with its spot in the major league clubhouse, big league expense money as well as the prestige and positive reinforcement that goes along with it.
During that intervening time, since-forgotten players like Danilo Sanchez, Iker Franco and Kit Pellow were chosen ahead of him. (For a complete list of Cardinals NRIs from recent years, check this post on my blog, The Cardinal Nation, thecardinalnation.com.)
When I asked him about it, Tony La Russa didn't remember that the now-26-year-old had gone so long without an official invite, instead recalling that Pagnozzi had been one of the catchers called over from minor league to help when needed.
During the 2005 through 2007 seasons, he honed his defensive skills in the minor leagues, but struggled with the bat, never hitting above .220. A clear pattern emerged in that Pagnozzi would be promoted to the next level, only to take a step backward before remaining at the higher classification in his second try. This occurred with Palm Beach, Springfield and Memphis.
As most Cardinals fans know, Matt is the nephew of beloved former Cardinals catcher Tom Pagnozzi (in St. Louis from 1987 through 1998). When asked about his catching influencers, Mike Matheny and Yadier Molina were the first two names out of his mouth.
With his current major league camp invite, Pags the junior has snagged his second in a row and third overall. That is not all. This time, he has made serious headway.
In 2008, Pagnozzi accrued his first two major league spring training at-bats. It was a start. Here in 2009, he has already appeared in over a dozen games (15 to be exact) and has his first hit, going 1-for-7 at the plate.
Most impressive is the fact that Pagnozzi is the last NRI catcher remaining in camp, after highly-touted prospect Bryan Anderson was re-assigned to the minor leagues earlier in the week. 2009 marked Anderson's fourth consecutive camp invite.
The two are very different players. Perhaps an ideal package would be to combine the hitting of Anderson with the defense of Pagnozzi. Based on this spring training, it is clear the glove man has become the defacto third catcher kept ready in Memphis in case a need in St. Louis arises.
Last year, MLB veteran Mark Johnson played that role, but was not used in St. Louis until rosters expanded in September. Once called up from Springfield early last season, Anderson had to compete with Johnson for playing time with Memphis. This year, he will have the resurgent Pagnozzi to contend with.
Pagnozzi is the last remaining player in big league camp of the 25 official and several minor leaguers that had been wearing a uniform number in the 70's, 80's and 90's. After Tuesday's day off, his clubhouse stall had been moved from the now-empty corner over with the other 31 players competing for the 25-man roster. His comment was as upbeat as it was predictable.
"They can put me wherever they want as long as it is in this room," the catcher explained happily.
La Russa was right to the point when I asked about his decision to keep Pagnozzi over Anderson.
"You compare him to Anderson – he's got more experience. Anderson is a developing player… Pagnozzi has done a nice job," observed his manager.
As Pagnozzi states in the following audio interview, provided exclusively for Scout.com subscribers, his primary goal remains to reach St. Louis. What once seemed an unlikely objective has now become attainable.
My money is on Pagnozzi making his big league debut sometime during the 2009 season.
Special bonus for Scout.com subscribers: Pagnozzi discusses his journey since having been drafted in 2003, his influences, his continued learning as well as what he hopes to see ahead.
Brian Walton can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Catch his Cardinals commentary daily at his blog, The Cardinal Nation.
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