CD's Connect the Dots...Pratt Fall May Help Hinch

The saying that "opportunity is the mother of invention" has made a visit to the Philadelphia Phillie clubhouse this spring and landed at the foot of one AJ Hinch, erstwhile "can't miss" catching prospect of more teams than he cares to remember. If he is to seize upon this golden opportunity presented to him in the form of a knee injury to veteran catcher Todd Pratt, then Hinch must find a way to reinvent himself. Indeed, AJ Hinch seeks to benefit from Pratt's fall.

The AJ Hinch story reads like a long novel of unrequited love, first by the myriad of baseball teams that tried without success to get Hinch to place his John Hancock on a professional contract.  Then, after Hinch finally decided to relent and sign, it has been he who has suffered the slings and arrows of three teams that have found him wanting, if not with the glove, then most certainly with the bat.

That Hinch happened on to a Philadelphia Phillie spring at the most fortuitous time could end up making all parties happy, quite a unique experience in the life of this former All-American from Stanford. 

It is a telling statement that Hinch just might make JD Drew seem like an anxious contract signer after his past reluctance to commit to pro ball.  Drew is remembered in less than favorable terms by a Phillie fan base still resentful and angry that he refused to sign in 1997 and make the City of Brotherly Love his home base.

The shenanigans of Drew and his agent, Scott Boras, still occasionally resonate within the walls of Phillie officials, not so much at regret that he is not a Phillie, but that players like Troy Glaus and Lance Berkman were passed over so Drew could thumb his nose at anything less than a 10 million dollar signing bonus.

 
Yet, the fact remains that after a full year of fruitless negotiations, Drew did reenter the draft in 1998 and signed with the St. Louis Cardinals within weeks of the draft.  Hinch, on the other hand, turned down not one, nor two, but three opportunities to sign before committing to the Oakland A's as a 3rd round pick in the winter of 1996.  Not, of course, without protracted negotiations.

 

Hinch still jokes about the fact that many teams felt that he didn't have the desire to be a star in the big leagues, and his checkered career speaks to this theory in loud tones.  Not so, he insists, and is determined to prove it with the Phils this spring.  He realizes that the torn cartilage in Todd Pratt's knee may be the break he needs to "break" camp with the Phils.

 

It was not always so questionable for Hinch, a player who did make an immediate impact once he finally signed with the A's.  In his first year in 1997, he raced through the California League and lit up the Pacific Coast League to the tune of an average well north of .330 and 24 home runs in less than 140 games.

Oakland immediately tabbed him as their likely backstop for the next decade and happily envisioned a lineup with Jason Giambi, Eric Chavez, Miguel Tejada, Ben Grieve and Hinch as the heavy weights. At 24 years of age, Hinch was certainly making up for lost time and quickly became the full-time starter in 1998.  Truth be told, he was more than adequate, though his .231 average and 9 home runs were a tad disappointing.  Nevertheless, he displayed a veteran's understanding of pitch calling and won praise from veteran hurlers like Tom Candiotti and Kenny Rogers.

Certainly, he would work on his hitting over the winter and come back better than ever in 1999.  Unfortunately, it was not to be.  The irony of this was that after being a reluctant warrior for several years, he thoroughly enjoyed playing in Oakland and hoped to take up permanent residence with this young and wild crew of players.

The '99 season was a complete washout for Hinch, as his average sunk to .215, his defense suffered, and he was back in the minors by July.  This was to be his last full season with Oakland, as he played the entire 2000 season in Triple A and was traded to Kansas City in the winter of that year.

Once again, he found a team to his liking, and hoped to settle in, but again it was not to be, though his .249 average and 7 home runs in 2002 was the best offensive performance of his career.  When he was not offered a contract for 2003, he signed a free agent deal with the Detroit Tigers and embarked on perhaps the longest season of his career.

There have been worse teams in baseball history than the Tigers, but not many!  For the entire month of September, they chased the dubious record of 120 losses in a single season, a record thought safe forever by the 1962 Mets, perhaps the most hapless team ever.

Only a successful final weekend capped off a dismal 53-119 season by the Tigers, and Hinch was almost a forgotten figure. He played in only 27 games, and hit a mere .203 with 3 home runs.  It appeared that his career might be over at the age of 29, until he received a call from Mike Arbuckle and the Phils.

As most Phillie faithful are painfully aware, if the Phils minor league system reads like the Sea of Tranquility, then the catching position is known as the Dead Sea.  Oh, Russ Jacobson still may emerge as a player with a future, and Trent Pratt [no relation to Todd!] and Jose Cortez may someday discover their bats.

Yet the fact remains that Hinch saw a chance to resurrect a fallen career and the Phils saw a chance to fortify their Triple A catching position.  This seemed like a match made in heaven, yet heaven may have to wait, Philadelphia could be beckoning.

It seems that the trusty Pratt, expected to back up starter Mike Lieberthal with the Phyllis, injured his knee last week, and his surgery will leave him absent for at least a month.  Careful mathematics leads one to the conclusion that he probably will not be ready to play until mid-April and here is where Hinch enters the picture.

Suddenly, he has emerged as Exhibit A on the Phillie depth chart at the backstop post, carefully positioned between Lieberthal and 3rd string catcher, Shawn Wooten.  In common terms, the job has become his to lose and all he must display is sound defensive tendencies and a useful bat.

In Larry Bowa's "think defense first" scheme of things, Hinch gets a solid A not only for a good glove, but a strong arm.  He has also developed a good rapport with many of the Phillie pitchers and this makes his case even stronger. 

Yet, it behooves him to demonstrate some semblance of a bat, if for no other reason than he will be compared to Pratt, a hitter of the first rate off the bench last season.  Not only that, but with slugger Jim Thome possibly idled the first week of the season, the Phils will be inclined to look for players who can help make up for Thome's absence.

Certainly, a curtain call for Chase Utley and Wooten appear in the works, as both carry Have Bats Will Travel signs on their duffel bags.  However, the fact remains that somewhere hidden in those nasty .203 and .215 batting averages lies a player who was a bonafide slugger in college and in his first year as a pro.  If Hinch can recapture, even in miniature style, the form that made him such a desirable player at Stanford, then both the Phils and Hinch may solve their ongoing dilemmas.

For the Phils, having him succeed makes their search for a solid young catcher to replace Lieberthal on an occasional basis null and void and will allow them to draft a catcher instead of pay dearly to trade for one.



In the case of Hinch, this could finally be a place he can call home after the wanderings that seemed to forever define his career.  In the parlance of sports, a sudden fall or tumble is affectionately referred to as a "pratt-fall."

Sports have many ironies, and stories unfold on a daily basis. It would make a unique and interesting story, indeed, if AJ Hinch became the Phils reserve catcher and benefited from a teammates "pratt-fall", a Todd Pratt Fall.

Columnist's Note:  Due to change in personal and professional schedules, my Connect the Dots articles will now only come out once a week – on Mondays – beginning this edition, and Sundays beginning next week, for my Hey! CD column. I welcome suggestions, questions and comments.  Please send them to connectthedots@earthlink.net and I will respond! CD from the Left Coast


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