Mesoraco retains number-two catcher job with Reds

The Reds kept Devin Mesoraco in the majors for the duration of last season, even though the young catcher scuffled in a cup of coffee at the end of 2011 (.180/.226/.360) and was not overly impressive in Cactus League play (.250/.295/.450). Once considered among the top catching prospects in baseball, Mesoraco ranked as the second-best minor leaguer in the Reds system in back-to-back years, according to Kevin Goldstein, who also billed him as the 24th-best prospect across all organizations and positions entering 2012.

Unfortunately, the Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania native left those hoping for the end of winter a breakout waiting for another year. He managed only a .212/.288/.352 triple-slash line and served as a glorified backup to Ryan Hanigan instead of stealing playing time from the steady, but unspectacular veteran. In September, mid-season pickup Dioner Navarro overtook Mesoraco on the depth chart, capping off a disappointing year.

Goldstein, like most other evaluators, expected Mesoraco to develop into an “above-average catcher with the ceiling of an occasional All-Star." And since he won’t turn 25 until June 19, he still has plenty of time to reach those heights. Mark Anderson, who compiled the under-25 list in Jason Parks’ recent look at the Reds’ farm system, moved Mesoraco into the organization’s top five young talents, citing his ability to stick behind the plate and his still-present 20-homer ceiling. Meanwhile, although general manager Walt Jocketty brought in some veteran competition to push Mesoraco this spring, the organization has decided to give him another shot.

John Fay, who covers the Reds for the Cincinnati Enquirer, tweeted on Tuesday afternoon that Mesoraco had earned a spot on the Opening Day roster, after confirming the news with manager Dusty Baker. The skipper, whose proclivity toward veterans is well documented, responded to the query with, “It’s not like he didn’t earn it,” referring at least in part to Mesoraco’s .361/.425/.611 effort over 40 plate appearances.

Mesoraco was widely expected to stay in the majors entering the offseason, but Jocketty cast some doubt on his status by signing Miguel Olivo to a minor-league deal on February 1. Whether the Reds added Olivo simply to motivate Mesoraco or legitimately intended to keep the veteran if the youngster continued to struggle is uncertain; regardless, the 34-year-old left the 24-year-old with only a short hurdle to clear by going 6-for-36 with 13 strikeouts in his 39 trips to the box. The Reds offered Olivo $100,000 to stay in the organization and report to Triple-A Louisville, but even if he takes the bonus, he’s likely to function as organizational depth rather than forcing Mesoraco to look over his shoulder. 

The question now is how many at-bats Mesoraco will be able pilfer from Hanigan in 2013. A 32-year-old late-bloomer, Hanigan was worth 1.7 WARP last year, and the coming season will be his last playing on a below-market (three-year, $4 million) extension signed in March 2011. With four years and 77 days of major-league service time, Hanigan will be a third-year arbitration-eligible player next winter, and if he remains Cincinnati’s primary catcher, that should put him in line for a healthy raise.

In addition to being underrated because of his discipline-oriented profile at the plate, Hanigan also ranked among the top 10 pitch framers in baseball in Mike Fast’s study published in September 2011. If the Reds factor in the value added from Hanigan’s glovework, then it could become more difficult for Mesoraco to usurp playing time, even if he shows improvement offensively.

PECOTA is bullish on Mesoraco’s chances of taking a step forward this year, projecting him to provide 1.0 WARP over 253 plate appearances. That forecast includes 10 home runs, which actually would be even more optimistic than Anderson’s long-term 20-homer ceiling, if it were prorated to a full season’s worth of at-bats. Some teams, such as the Braves—who deployed David Ross as an elite backup to Brian McCann—have in recent years reaped the benefits of fielding two quality catchers, but if Mesoraco finally comes through with a long-awaited breakout, Jocketty could choose to dangle Hanigan in trade talks next winter.

Injuries force Padres to juggle Opening Day infield plans

Padres fans were supposed to get a glimpse into their team’s future at the keystone this season, with rookie Jedd Gyorko battling sophomore Logan Forsythe for the starting job at the position. Instead, a pair of spring training injuries has shifted the spotlight to the hot corner, where Gyorko is now expected to play when Bud Black’s team takes the field in Queens on April 1.

A couple of weeks ago, CBS Sports’ Jon Heyman heard from sources connected to the Padres front office that Gyorko was “on the verge of winning” his competition with Forsythe. At that point, though, third baseman Chase Headley, who was blocking Gyorko’s major-league-ready bat, was still healthy. Five days later, Headley broke his thumb, opening up the hot corner, where Gyorko is a more natural defensive fit, for at least the first few weeks of the regular season.

Headley, who exploded to the tune of 31 homers and 5.3 WARP last year, has two more years of team control remaining before he can test the free-agent waters. The Padres tried to initiate extension talks this offseason, but the gap between the sides was sizable, and the 28-year-old ultimately settled for an $8.575 million payday in 2013, his third of four years of arbitration eligibility. If future attempts to keep Headley in San Diego for the long haul prove fruitless, general manager Josh Byrnes could be forced to decide whether to put his best position player on the trade block. And, from that standpoint, the opportunity to see what Gyorko could offer in his stead is useful.

Unfortunately, while Gyorko’s late-spring move to third might have cleared the path for Forsythe to play second, the University of Arkansas product appears likely to follow Headley onto the disabled list. According to beat writer Corey Brock, Forsythe suffered a setback with a foot ailment that has bothered him for most of this month, and he is now a long shot to be ready for Opening Day. That means the keystone will, temporarily, go to Alexi Amarista, who profiles better as a utility man, but—per Nick Faleris’ under-25 segment in the Padres’ prospect rankings—has the upside to suffice as an everyday placeholder.

And, as a result, the position battles that were supposed to be waged in March will now drag into April, at the end of which Black and Byrnes will be forced to render a decision about their depth chart. Headley will swipe third base from Gyorko as soon as he returns, so the fifth-ranked prospect is competing directly with Amarista and indirectly with Forsythe, who might spell either of the infielders if his foot heals faster than Headley’s thumb. A strong April from Gyorko is likely to lead the Padres to look past his defensive shortcomings and move forward with the transition to second base. If Gyorko falls into an early slump, though, the keystone could be a revolving door for much of the year.

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