Ralph Freso - Getty Images
Dioner Navarro has been a pleasant surprise for the Reds this year, but has he been good enough to change the team's plans for the catcher position?
When the Reds traded Yasmani Grandal to the Padres as part of the deal for Mat Latos, the big plan was for Devin Mesoraco to be the Catcher of the Future. The catcher position was figured out, one less thing to worry about. Ryan Hanigan was around for a few years on a monster cheap contract and he would serve as sensei to the young fella. As catcher situations go around baseball, the Reds were much better off than most. They even signed Dioner Navarro to a minor league deal to serve as a safety valve just in case.
Of course, Hanigan has had a fine year, sticking to the script perfectly. He's hit a bunch of singles and drawn some walks, and he's played some of the best catcher defense in the league. If he were an old hunting dog owned by a distant and grizzled but ultimately tender-hearted old man, that old man would affectionately call him "Old Reliable". But never to his face.
Mesoraco, on the other hand, has been kind of a disappointment. He's hit only .212/.288/.352 in 184 PAs this season. I'm not sure what a reasonable expectation for him would have been, but I think it's safe to assume that it was better than what he's done. If he were a young pup owned by that same distance and grizzled by ultimately tender-hearted old man, the old man would probably be so indifferent to him as to not name him at all.
Mesoraco has not started a game in over a month. After he served his suspension and was sent to AAA back in August, Dioner Navarro was brought up to take his place. Navarro has done well with the opportunity, starting 13 games and hitting a just-fine-for-a-catcher .281/.300/.439 with five extra-base hits (Mesoraco has just 13 in three times as many PAs on the season). It seems pretty clear that the Reds favor Navarro over Mesoraco heading into the playoffs, and I would be surprised if they were to choose Mesoraco over Navarro for the roster.
Which is kind of a long way for me to get to what I'm trying to get at here: Is this just a "hey, Mesoraco is still a young rookie so we'll go with the veteran for the playoffs" kind of move, or is it more of a "we should fundamentally re-evaluate our plans going forward" kind of move? Navarro is going to be a free agent this winter, so the Reds will have to decide if he is worth keeping around. Given the scarcity of catchers in the league (not to mention switch-hitting catchers (and not to also mention switch-hitting catchers who hit .832 in AAA this season)), it is not unrealistic for Navarro and his agent to shoot for a guaranteed Major League deal next season. Given the fact that the Reds gave him a chance and he was patient enough to wait until late in the season to get a call-up, I would assume he likes it enough here to entertain any offer put on the table for him.
Such an offer would complicate things less than it would at first seem. Sure, Navarro would likely desire a guaranteed deal to stay in Cincinnati. But that guarantee would likely be for no more than $1-1½ mil. That's a perfectly reasonable contract for a back-up catcher. The complication, of course, would be with Mesoraco. He is, after all, the Catcher of the Future. And make no mistake, this season did nothing (or at least, should have done nothing) to change that. His offensive production was underwhelming, but he did have healthy walk and power rates. His BABIP was pretty low at .234. The results aren't great, but he wasn't awful.
Signing Navarro would bump Mesoraco back down to AAA for next season, but that might be for the best. One could argue that Mesoraco struggled this year because he was not getting regular at-bats. He only started two games a week and got a total of 184 PAs. That has to be tough for a 24-year-old catcher still learning his position and how to hit big league pitching. He could see that many in less than two months starting everyday down in Louisville. And if he destroys the International League the way he did in 2011, they could either trade or release Navarro with little side effect.
I'm still a big believer in Mesoraco. He has the tools and the talent to be a legitimate catcher in this league, and I'm confident he'll make good on that in due time. But it never hurts to have added depth, and Navarro has proven he can be just that. He may be worth keeping around, especially if he helps the Reds get to the World Series this October.