The Cincinnati Reds have not had a Rookie of the Year since Scott Williamson in 1999. After adding veteran help for their 2012 playoff push they will be counting on two rookies to fill key roles this summer. Shortstop Zach Cozart contributed two hits in the opener. Devin Mesoraco watched that victory from the bench, but it won't be long before he commences sharing duties behind the plate. Both will have ample opportunity to make cases for this year's ROY voting.
The 24 year old started down a path to making his hometown of Punxsutawney, PA known for something in addition to Groundhog's Day when the Reds invested the 15th overall selection on him in the 2007 draft. Catching professionally presented challenges when he entered their system as a teenager. After his prospect status fell he shed some weight before the 2010 season. It's easy to be skeptical of a physical conditioning program for improving baseball skills but something flipped the switch because he rocketed from high A to AAA en route to being named Reds minor league player of the year. As we enter this season one does not have to go very far down the Scout.com list of top prospects to find his name at #12.
Mesoraco's development influenced the Reds' decision to let Ramon Hernandez enter the free agent market. He received a vote of confidence this winter when another first round catcher, Yasmani Grandal, was included in the trade package that returned Mat Latos from the Padres. Hernandez left big shoes to fill, but the Red's offer a good situation for a young catcher to break in at the big league level while sharing time with veteran Ryan Hanigan.
His full season at Louisville last year suggests he's MLB ready at the plate. Not only did he hit .289, his patience in the batter's box helped him to put up a .371 OB%. That discipline did not compromise his power as he hit 15 HR before his roster expansion call-up plus two more with the Reds. If he continues driving the ball like that in Great American Ball Park Dusty Baker will be happy to pencil his name in the lineup frequently.
Right now his major challenge to getting the lion's share of action is not at the plate but behind it. He was charged with 10 errors and 10 passed balls in 97 games at Louisville last season before adding another 3E in 16 games for the Reds. In comparison, the RH/RH combo totaled 5E/5PB in 151 games. He threw out an impressive 44% of steal attempts at Lynchburg in 2010, but that percentage fell each time he advanced a level. He gunned down 26% in Louisville in 2011 which is likely to decline against savvier major league runners. Hernandez's and Hanigan's success rates were both around mid-30%, above league average. It's difficult to quantify the effectiveness of a catcher's pitch calling, but it's a lot to ask for a 24 year old rookie to start out on the same level as the 13 year veteran he's replacing.
Whatever level he starts, there's every reason for Reds fans to expect improvement as he gains experience. His offensive skills should compensate for growing pains he encounters facing big league competition. Cincinnati has seven Rookies of the Year in its history. Mesoraco and Cozart both have opportunities to become #8 while contributing to the team's success from middle defensive positions.
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