Main man Mesoraco ready to live up to potential
With Hanigan being traded, young backstop steps in as Reds' starter behind plate
CINCINNATI -- From the day he was a first-round Draft pick of the Reds in 2007, Devin Mesoraco's future could not have been telegraphed more by the organization.
Mesoraco was groomed from the beginning under the notion that he would one day become the Reds' primary catcher. That time is now here.
The final steps toward achieving that reality came during this offseason with a pair of transactions. It began in November, when the Reds signed free agent Brayan Pena to a two-year contract to become their backup catcher. Two weeks ago, veteran catcher Ryan Hanigan went from Cincinnati to Tampa Bay in a three-team trade.
Hanigan being moved was the expected outcome from Pena's signing, since he is 33 and was a year away from free agency. Hanigan wound up signing a three-year, $11 million contract with Tampa Bay. Mesoraco is 25, a year away from arbitration eligibility and still has plenty of future ahead.
"I was obviously sad to see Hani go, because we've been pretty close as a catching unit as far as sharing information and picking each other's brain," Mesoraco said. "At the same time, it's a good opportunity for me. It's a vote of confidence for me. They've seen me improving over the years and getting better. I'm getting to be the player I'm supposed to be and can be. It definitely pumps me up a bit to come into camp in shape and 100 percent prepared to be an everyday catcher."
Because Hanigan endured two stints on the disabled list last season, Mesoraco was actually the one who caught more games. In his 103 games, including 84 starts, he batted .238/.287/.362 with nine home runs and 42 RBIs. It was an improvement over a 2012 rookie season when Mesoraco batted .212/.288/.352 in 54 games and found himself benched most of September and not on the postseason roster.
New Reds manager Bryan Price has yet to divulge what his 2014 lineup might look like, but it's possible that Mesoraco could have a higher profile. After he batted mostly seventh or eighth the past two seasons, he might shift closer to the middle of the order
"That's what we anticipated with Devin as he was progressing through the system," Price said. "I think with Devin, [he had] a very pull-oriented approach. As a younger guy coming up through the system, he had a lot power to right-center. I'd like to see him revisit that."
When he has played regularly, Mesoraco has generally produced. He hit .302 with 26 homers and 75 RBIs over three levels in the Minors in 2010. In 2011 at Triple-A, he had 15 homers and 71 RBIs.
His Major League production has yet to match that success, but Mesoraco has shown progress. His .264 batting average on balls in play (BABIP) in 2013 was below the league average, but an improvement from the .234 he posted in 2012. According to Fangraphs.com, 21.1 percent of Mesoraco's contact was on line drives, up from 16.7 percent the previous year.
Reds first baseman Joey Votto is among those who are looking forward to seeing what Mesoraco can do with his new opportunity.
"I think giving Devin Mesoraco a chance to play every day will be very beneficial," Votto said. "He's a guy that seems to be stuck in that potential mode. The only way to achieve his potential is by playing every day."
On the defensive side, pitchers became increasingly comfortable working with Mesoraco, while his receiving and blocking skills were better. He caught 29 percent of runners trying to steal, but his throwing also showed improvement. Hanigan led the Majors the last two seasons in caught stealing percentage and was universally praised by his pitchers.
Price believed Mesoraco benefited from having a couple of years to see what it takes to catch in the big leagues behind Hanigan.
"I think when you're catching in the Minor Leagues, you don't have advanced-scouting reports, you don't have as much of the video footage and somebody out in the field looking at your opponent and giving you at least a template for what you want to do," Price said. "Here, not only do we have an advance report, we have people that take that advance report and break it down and truly simplify it, and hit it with a lot of statistical data -- a lot of stuff that doesn't come overnight.
"And I think that's what we're talking about Ryan Hanigan, you can put him behind home plate and by the first at-bat of each hitter, he'd have some understanding of strengths and weaknesses and where he can go for the safe zone with the pitch. Devin, I think, is progressing in that direction."
Is Mesoraco encouraged by his progress? Yes. Does he feel like he's finished progressing? Not a chance.
"I think for me, I'm always trying to improve and get better," Mesoraco said. "Hopefully now with playing every day, a lot of those things will take care of themselves. More repetitions will certainly help."
Mesoraco will not have Hanigan's veteran presence anymore, but he won't be adrift on his own. Besides having Pena as a respected veteran and backup, longtime bullpen catcher Mike Stefanski is now the catching coach.
"We've worked a lot the last couple of years as far as sharpening things up," Mesoraco said. "I think he deserves a lot of credit for my development as a catcher. We will continue to do that. He's a great resource to have from a fundamental standpoint."
Mesoraco has about two months to ready himself to head to Spring Training as the Reds' main catcher. But as he trains near his Pennsylvania home, Mesoraco doesn't expect his offseason workouts to change much from when he was the backup.
"I think the preparation will be the same," Mesoraco said. "I've always prepared to play as many games as possible. I don't think going into Spring Training this year will be any different from the past."
But once he gets there, everybody will know the Reds have a different main man behind the plate -- the one they've been expecting since 2007.