Twice in the last four seasons, the Cincinnati Reds have boasted enough talent and depth at the catching position to afford trading an eventual starting catcher away to amass talent in other areas. Since their breakout 2010 season in which they won the NL Central and reached the playoffs for the first time since 1995, the Reds held the rights to such notable backstops as Ramon Hernandez, Ryan Hanigan, Yasmani Grandal, Brayan Pena, and 2014 All Star Devin Mesoraco, a core as deep and productive both offensively and defensively as an franchise in Major League Baseball over that time.
Not to mention the indomitable Corky Miller, of course.
In both trades, the intentions were both clear and two fold. When Grandal was packaged with Yonder Alonso, Edinson Volquez, and Brad Boxberger and sent to the San Diego Padres for Mat Latos, the team was intent on adding a front-line starter to make a push towards deep playoff runs in 2012 and 2013. When Ryan Hanigan was dealt to the Tampa Bay Rays, it was to clear much needed salary space for a team on a super tight budget. In each of those instances, though, priority 1A was also made blatantly clear.
The Reds had chosen Devin Mesoraco to be their catcher of the future, and were banking on his ability to be the team's anchor behind the plate and with the pitching staff for the foreseeable future.
The 4 year, $28 million contract they agreed to with Mesoraco prior to the start of the 2015 season was further proof of that intention, which makes the timing and severity of Devin's hip impingement all the more difficult to deal with. Bryan Price and Devin both added a bit of intrigue to the developing scenario after Mesoraco's walk-off double against the Atlanta Braves on Tuesday night, too, as they each spoke rather extensively to C. Trent Rosecrans of the Cincinnati Enquirer regarding the prospect of a future move to the outfield for the cornerstone catcher.
Or, to expose the elephant in the room, perhaps the once cornerstone catcher.
The 3 years and $25.1 million left on Devin's contract and the powerful bat he still wields dictate that the Reds can't possible keep him in the role he's been relegated to for the last month of the season, that of a seldom-used pinch hitter who cannot physically play the position he grew up playing and can't tactically play anywhere else. With Joey Votto entrenched at 1B, Todd Frazier again playing All Star caliber ball at 3B, and Devin's injury and build preventing a Craig Biggio-esque transition to middle infield, the only logical landing spot should the team's dreams of him catching 140+ games a season be kaput is in a corner outfield spot.
Conveniently enough, there just might be an opening there, and soon. Marlon Byrd will be 38 in months, and while his recent hot streak has lifted his overall numbers out of their April doldrums, his age and $8 million vesting option likely didn't have his name in ink for the Reds' long-term plans even if Mesoraco's hip had never impinged. On top of that, the hopeful presumptive next-in-line for the team's revolving LF plan - Jesse Winker - has an OPS in the .600's while still just 21 years old in AA Pensacola. If ever there was a parting of the waters that would allow for a move from the most demanding defensive position on the field to one of the least, the moving parts on the Reds roster and in the system appear to be aligning for Mesoraco's move, assuming it's something the team decides to commit to (at least in part).
And that brings us back to where this post originally began. If Devin Mesoraco is not the team's catcher-in-bulk, the Reds face a dearth of catching ability the likes of which they've not seen for a half-decade. Pena, who has filled in admirably behind the plate in 2015, will be a free agent after the 2015 season and a 34 year old at the start of the 2016 season, and despite his solid contributions, he's never caught more than 69 games (nice) in a single season in his entire career. Behind him for now is Tucker Barnhart, and while Tucker's glove is and has been MLB ready for several years (to which his Minor League Gold Glove attests), the roughly .650 OPS he has produced in 222 games in AA and AAA don't have him profiled as an every day starter in the big leagues.
Behind Tucker? Kyle Skipworth, who hasn't had a single season OBP over .292 in four full years above A ball. Behind Skipworth? You find the likes of 27 year old former 20th round pick Chris Berset and his .647 career minor league OPS, as well as Yovan Gonzalez and his career .600 OPS. Cam Maron has shown solid on base skills in his early development, but he has just 16 PA above A ball, and Chad Wallach - acquired in the offseason trade with the Miami Marlins for Latos - has definite promise, but he's sporting just a .664 OPS in A+ Daytona and has yet to reach the AA level.
In other words, if Devin Mesoraco indeed cannot catch, the Reds are in pretty desperate need for a catcher after 2015.
A few notable catching names are set to be free agents after this season, but the biggest two will be pricey and come with serious question marks. Alex Avila has carved out a nice career with the Tigers, but he has a knee surgery pending and has seen his offensive production plummet over each of the last four years. Similarly, Matt Wieters appears set to hit the market this winter, but the 3-time All Star (and Scott Boras client) will be one of the most sought after bats available despite having missed over a year while currently recovering from Tommy John surgery. Pena almost headlines the next tier available, with 40 year old to be A.J. Pierzynski and former Red Dioner Navarro the only other names of real note.
Walt Jocketty has shown that he's a trading man, though, and despite a propensity of trading prospects for established players prior to the 2014-2015 season, his Latos and Simon trades have shown that he's still willing and able to get young, projectable talent in swaps. In both Johnny Cueto and Aroldis Chapman, he still has his two biggest trade chips at his disposal should the Reds continue to lag behind other teams in the playoff race. Reading the tea leaves suggests acquiring a near-majors ready catcher should be paramount.