Reds 2015 Prep: C

Even though injuries derailed Cincinnati’s 2014 season that ended with a 76-86 record, former top prospect and current Reds catcher Devin Mesoraco’s breakout season gave some reason for excitement. Though he spent some time on the DL, he saw enough action to earn a spot on the All-Star team and is now establishing himself as one of the top offensive catchers in the game.

During a disappointing 2014 campaign there were some bright spots in Cincinnati. One of them was the breakout season by catcher Devin Mesoraco. The Reds had high hopes for him since they invested the fifteenth overall selection in the 2007 draft and gave a vote of confidence when they included 2010 first-rounder Yasmani Grandal in a trade package to San Diego. There were some bumps in the road while in the lower development levels, but he overcame them to to be recognized as the Reds top minor league hitter in 2011. After that he was a preseason candidate for 2012 Rookie of the Year but instead hit .212 and had a late season demotion back to Louisville.

However, catching is a tough position to master and there was little doubt that Mesoraco merited some extra patience. That was rewarded last year when he had a breakout season and earned a trip to the All-Star game. Earlier he was projected as power hitter with good plate discipline and his 2014 slash line of .273 AVG/.359 OB/.534 SLG/25 HR indicates that has become a reality. He also did a decent job behind the plate by committing only three errors while throwing out 28% of opposing base-runners. There’s reason to think the latter number can improve because he gunned down over 40% while in the minors in 2010. There were a couple of injuries that took him out of action which was common all over the Cincinnati roster. He still made it into 114 games, a number the Reds hope expect to increase in 2015.

Another benefit from Mesoraco’s rise to all-star status ripples throughout the rest of the roster. His emergence, as well as Todd Frazier’s, as a legitimate right-handed mid-lineup hitters allows the front office to be less selective when searching for a left fielder this offseason. In years past they sought right-handed cleanup hitters to protect Joey Votto. Some had their moments, but were unable to sustain them causing Brandon Phillips to frequently get pulled back into fourth spot. He cracked the 100 RBI level in 2012, but his slugging percentage has declined below .400 the past couple of years and he would be a better fit hitting elsewhere.

Injuries to Mesoraco and Votto last season led to more playing time than expected for free agent pickup Brayan Pena who set personal highs in games and plate appearances at the age of 32. He did a good job for a backup, but unfortunately he was often needed for regular duty and his on-base percentage was shy of the .300 mark. Overall, his 2014 AVG/OB/SLG is in line with his career averages and he remains a good backup option in 2015, which is the last year of his current contract.

Every team needs a third catcher even if they hope he isn’t needed for extensive MLB action and Tucker Barnhart will retain that role in Cincinnati. He failed to hit .200 over 60 MLB plate appearances, but injuries accelerated the 23 year-old’s debut ahead of schedule. When he wasn’t doing the I-71 shuffle between Louisville and Cincinnati he hit .246 AVG/.316 OB over his first 78 games at the AAA level. Barnhart projects as strong defensive catcher with good on-base skills to offset an absence of power at the plate. He’s been the top catching prospect in the Cincinnati system since the trade of Grandal and promotion of Mesoraco and remains a candidate for backup action or perhaps even regular duty depending on how well he learns the way to first base against MLB pitching.

Barnhart’s status of top catching prospect may be relinquished to trade return Chad Wallach who comes into the organization from Miami. Wallach, the son of longtime major leaguer Tim Wallach, is coming off his second minor league season over which he hit .326 against low/high-A pitching. He was promoted late in the season so he’ll likely start out at the new Cincinnati affiliate in Daytona, but he’s definitely shown prowess at the plate that will advance him further up the pipeline.

Every offseason there seems to be a reserve of journeyman catchers floating around and available for minor league contracts to teams for providing organizational depth at the position. Cincinnati has already signed Kyle Skipworth, and Ramon Cabrera for the upcoming season. Skipworth, who will turn 25 before opening day, was a first-round draft pick (sixth overall) of the Marlins in 2008. He made appearances in only four games for the Marlins before they DFA’s him in 2013. Over the past couple of years he’s hit around .200 in 143 AAA games. Cabrera, also 25 years old, is a veteran of seven minor league seasons starting with Pittsburgh in the Venezuelan Rookie League in 2008. He made it up to AAA for 39 games two years ago and spent all of last season in AA, mostly with Detroit, hitting .273 AVG/.325 OB/.364 SLG.

Of course it seemed like Cincinnati would always have the option of calling up journeyman Corky Miller, but he was also on the DL for much of last season and if the Louisville Bats’ ceremony to retire his number last year is any indication the 38 year-old’s playing days have finally come to an end. The Reds have also added another catcher to their system from an unlikely source by signing Jake Turnbull out of Australia. He’s still a teenager and figures to get his first taste of American baseball in the rookie leagues.

For a team with significant questions marks going into next year, catching is not one of them in Cincinnati. Injuries to Mesoraco might normally raise an eyebrow, but he’s still only 26 years old and for the Reds right now he’s not close to the top of the “injury concern list”. Whether decisions in the not-so-distant future are more for sustaining or rebuilding a team for contention, he expects to be an important part of the team’s foundation going forward. Pena has been a capable backup; therefore catching duties appear to be off the radar as the front office looks for transactions to improve the team for the upcoming season.

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