Tuesday, February 5, 2013

What to make of all these catchers

Ryan Doumit started
56 games at catcher in
2012, 48 as the DH,
16 in left field
and six in right field.
One of my Tweeps expressed surprise last night that the Twins would have nine catchers in training camp. My response was that, with 34 pitchers scheduled to be in camp as well, they need a lot of catchers to handle all those throwing sessions. (Last year they also had nine catchers in camp.)

The truly noteworthy thing is that so many of the nine -- five -- are on the 40-man roster:

  • Joe Mauer, three-time batting champ, former MVP, perennial All-Star, future Hall of Famer -- and the starter of just 119 games the past two seasons behind the plate;
  • Ryan Doumit, whose left-handed bat is strong, whose right-handed bat is relatively weak and whose defense (at catcher, in the outfield or at first base) is weaker still;
  • Drew Butera, a fine receiver who cannot hit;
  • Chris Herrmann,who had a good season in Double A and is probably ticketed for Triple A Rochester; and
  • Josmil Pinto, who made Baseball America's Class A all-star team for his .295/.361/.473 season at high-A Fort Myers and matched those numbers in a brief Double A stint.

The four non-roster invitees, who will be there to handle bullpen sessions and ease the strain on the other five:

Danny Lehmann
hit .185 in 164
plate appearances
last season in
Double A and
Triple A combined.

  • Eric Fryer, a minor league free agent and Triple A veteran;
  • Danny Lehmann, a Butera type who split 2012 between Double A New Britain and Triple A Rochester;
  • Dan Rohlfing, who split 2012 between Fort Myers and New Britain; and
  • Kyle Knutson, a former Gopher who spent 2012 at low A Beloit and figures to move up to Fort Myers.

A few years ago, when the Twins were carrying Mauer, Butera, Mike Redmond, Jose Morales and Wilson Ramos on the 40, they were the only team with so many backstops on the roster. It's not so unique now -- both Boston and Tampa Bay currently list five catchers on their 40-man rosters, and I only checked the one division -- but it still seems like a lot of catchers. Five catchers is 12.5 percent of the roster space.

In the Twins case, at least two of the five -- Doumit and Herrmann -- figure to see considerable time in the outfield. Mauer is supposed to see his time behind the dish escalate, and it will be worth watching to see who loses time as a result, Doumit or Butera. One hundred twenty starts for Mauer leaves 42 for the reserves, and that's a fourth of the season. That's a good slice, but it's about half the load they had to carry in 2012.

Drew Butera has a
$700,000 contract for
the coming season.
Butera, we can easily see from his stats, is a terrible hitter. It's less easy to see in the stats that Doumit is a terrible catcher, but that's his reputation. And the sabermetric research into catching, primitive as it is, backs his reputation as a lousy receiver.

If Mauer is really going to start 120 games behind the plate, do the Twins need to carry three catchers? My guess is that Doumit would see most of his playing time at designated hitter, and given the uniqueness of the catching job, Ron Gardenhire's going to feel a lot more comfortable with Butera as his defensive insurance policy. If Doumit truly gives away as many runs as the piece linked to above surmises, the pitchers will be a lot better with Butera getting the bulk of those 42 games anyway.

These, then, figure to be the catching battles to come in training camp:

  • For playing time behind Mauer, between Doumit and Butera;
  • For a roster spot, between Butera, Herrmann and every option that doesn't include a third catcher (the two-catcher approach being more of a threat to Butera this March than Herrmann is);
  • For jobs in the high minors behind -- probably -- Herrmann at Triple A and Pinto at Double A, between Lehmann, Fryer and Rohlfing. Their positions get all the weaker if Butera doesn't stick in the majors.

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