Reds prospect: It's a catcher's game
Many scouts believe catcher is the thinnest position in the game, which is why Reds are excited about prized prospect Mesoraco.
By Scott Priestle
The Columbus Dispatch
Tuesday, June 17, 2008
DAYTON — After taking his turn in the batting cage before a recent Dayton Dragons game, Devin Mesoraco jogged to shortstop and fielded a few ground balls, flashing a bright smile and a little flair. Lest there be any doubt where his heart lies, he did so with a catcher's mitt.
"It's a catcher's game," he said. "You're calling pitches, you're hitting, you're taking part in everything. You control the game.
"It's a tough position, but for the guys who can do it, it's awesome."
The Cincinnati Reds believe Mesoraco can be such a guy, which is why they drafted the 19-year-old in the first round last season and gave him a $1.4 million signing bonus, despite the fact he had little experience against top competition and would need significant instruction.
It's a catcher's reward
Mesoraco began this season in extended spring training — playing games that don't count, in stifling heat, with no crowds, on the slow track to the big leagues. It took six weeks and a series of roster moves throughout the Reds system for Mesoraco to earn a spot with the low-Class A Dragons.
It's a catcher's penance
"That position takes time," said Donnie Scott, a former big-league catcher and Mesoraco's manager in Dayton. "I really didn't get a grasp of things for six years. I was already in the big leagues. Then all of a sudden, for some reason, I got it. I felt the flow of the game. I knew where to look, when to look — trying to pick up coaches' signs, reading base runners, those types of things.
"Those are things he's really just not seeing yet. And then beyond that it's having the confidence to try to make those plays. That's what we're trying to get to him."
The Reds are not alone. Nearly every major-league organization is searching for a prospect good enough to become an everyday catcher. Scouts and executives say it might be the thinnest position in the game, which had an impact on the recent draft and will have an impact on the trading season soon to commence.
A lot to learn
Some of the best in the game today — including Victor Martinez of the Indians, Russell Martin of the Dodgers and promising rookie Geovany Soto of the Cubs — signed as infielders.
Mesoraco is a rarity: He was good enough to play shortstop in high school, in Punxsutawney, Pa., but he chose to catch because he knew he had a brighter future there.
"I guess kids don't want to put the gear on anymore," said Indians manager Eric Wedge, a former big-league catcher. "It used to be, back in the day, you wanted to. It was the cool thing to do. Maybe now people realize how tough it is."
Soto said he never caught a game as an amateur. He had to work so hard on the nuances of the position — calling pitches, catching the ball properly, blocking balls in the dirt and maintaining the proper footwork when he threw to a base — that it was not until his seventh professional season (and third season in triple-A) that he hit well enough for Baseball America to rank him among the top 10 prospects in the Cubs organization.
Now in his eighth pro season, Soto is an early favorite to be National League Rookie of the Year. He is batting .288 with 11 home runs and 42 RBI.
"I had to start from scratch," he said. "They had to teach me everything."
And there is more to teach a catcher than any other position. In addition to catching and throwing, he is expected to call the pitches, direct the pitching staff and set a tone for his teammates. He is the only player positioned to see the entire field, and every other player can see him.
"There are so many little things that most people couldn't care less about," said veteran Scott Hatteberg, who spent the first 11 seasons of his pro career as a catcher before arm injuries forced him to play first base for the past seven seasons. "It's a thankless job."
'A golden opportunity'
Many top catching prospects never master the subtleties of the position, so they move to first or third base in the big leagues. Carlos Delgado, Paul Konerko and Mike Sweeney are among the most prominent ex-catchers in the game today. Those who can handle the workload find the position to be, in one scout's words, "a golden opportunity."
Three catchers were selected within the first 10 picks of the recent draft, even though two of the three — Buster Posey, taken fifth by the Giants, and Jason Castro, taken 10th by the Astros — are generally viewed as future big-league starters but not stars.
Reds officials knew Mesoraco would need a longer learning curve than most of their recent first-round picks, but they recognized the void in their farm system and were intrigued by his combination of offensive and defensive skills.
"He can be one of those guys," said Scott, who played with Texas, Seattle and Cincinnati in a brief big-league career. "But this whole process is going to take time. It's going to take a lot of time. There's no substitute for doing it, and he needs all the repetitions he can get."