Catch the Future

One year ago multiple players stepped up with surprising performances to help the Reds win 97 games. One disappointment was rookie catcher Devin Mesoraco. He's still figures prominently into the Reds future plans and the way he's hitting in spring training gives reason to think that he's ready to leave his 2012 campaign in the rear view mirror.

One year ago Devin Mesoraco was a preseason contender to win NL Rookie of the Year. Instead of getting the hardware he got a late-season ticket to Louisville to work on his swing. When the Reds postseason roster was announced he was not on it, replaced by veteran free agent Dioner Navarro who spent most of the season in AAA.

Mesoraco came to the Reds from a first round draft choice (fifteenth overall pick) in 2007. There's no secret of the plight of small market teams and the importance of cashing in on young talent before they get too expensive. High profile free agents are normally cost prohibitive and the draft is their lifeline for sustaining talent levels to remain competitive. One thing that is crucial for success is that a high rate of first-round talent needs to stick, either in the form of the actual draftee or their trade return.

Mesoraco was identified as the Reds catcher of the future. That was confirmed before last season when Cincinnati packaged their 08 top pick, Yasmani Grandal, with fellow first-rounders Yonder Alonso and Brue Boxberger in a package to San Diego for Mat Latos. Even though the catcher they kept disappointed in his rookie campaign let there be no doubts that the plans the Reds have for him have not changed after his first 72 big league games. Statistically Grandal was better last season, hitting close to the.300 AVG/.400 OB marks in sixty games. Now that performance has a shadow cast over it while he sits out a 50 game suspension from testing positive for use of a banned substance.

2012 was not the first slow start that Mesoraco had in his professional career. He hit only .219 as a teenager for the Reds Gulf Coast Rookie League team after he was drafted. The Reds still skipped him over Billings the next year and his stats at Dayton were pedestrian. After he finished 09 in high A with a .228 average, the word "bust" was beginning to enter into his reputation, perhaps influencing decision to invest the high draft pick on Grandal. He returned to that level to start the next season and caught fire offensively, rocketing all the way to AAA. His 2011 season at Louisville was rewarded by the Reds with recognition as their Minor League Player of the Year.

Mesoraco projects as a catcher with plus offensive skills. The rigors of the job defensively are demanding and a receiver can create a lot of value if he can hold down the position while contributing as a run-producer. Mesoraco showed exceptional plate discipline in AAA and his 2011 OB% (.371) was .082' higher than his average (.289). On top of that he popped fifteen homers and almost slugged .500.

Last year that average dropped to .212 against major league pitching. The other half of the Reds catching tandem, Ryan Hanigan previously never had 300 AB in a season but Mesoraco's non-production left him setting personal highs in games and plate appearances. Fortunately for the Reds the 32 year-old veteran held up well and the job was in good hands.

Perhaps this spring is more important for the Cincinnati junior backstop than most of the other players in camp. The Reds must like what they've seen thus far as he's started out 8-17 with a couple of homers, including 2-2 with 3 RBI yesterday. Mesoraco has yet to turn 25 and he plays a difficult position. Actually Cincinnati has one of the better situations for a young catcher because of Hanigan. Having the two split time does not compromise the active roster because everyone uses two spots for catchers anyway.

Of course hitting is only part of the job description and play behind the plate is important to the team's defensive effort. Mesoraco was charged with only three errors and three passed balls, the same amounts as Hanigan had in roughly twice the action. Of course comparing the rookie to the incumbent is unfair because he's one of the better defensive catchers in the game, throwing out a league-leading 48% of would-be base stealers last season. Mesoraco threw out only 20%, but he has the arm to improve, having gunned down 40% one year in the minors. As far as hanging the signs is concerned, the ERA of pitchers throwing to the rookie last year was around one run higher than when he was not behind the plate. That differential was probably a creation of both Hanigan's expertise and the fact that Mesoraco caught almost exclusively for five-man Mike Leake who had the highest ernie in the rotation.

It's a tough job but somebody's got to do it. The Reds have a lot invested in Mesoraco and it is way too early to judge that decision. Offensively there's not a lot of pressure on him, but he will burden the lineup with a hole if he doesn't improve upon his 2012 average. If/when he reaches expectations with the bat it will be a huge boost to the potency of the bottom of the lineup. Hanigan gives the Reds a good situation for a young player to learn the most challenging position at the MLB level. He provides solid play if the prospect is slow to develop and little roadblock to generous action when he's ready. In the meantime don't expect the Reds to be calling San Diego in an attempt to get Grandal back by swapping Devin Mesoraco.


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