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The Red Report 2019 — Curt Casali

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Examining the man who may have started the overhaul of Cincinnati’s bench

Cincinnati Reds Photo Day Photo by Rob Tringali/Getty Images

Fast Facts

  • Catcher
  • 30 years old
  • Graduate of Vanderbilt University, where he was teammates with Reds right-hander Sonny Gray and Reds pitching assistant Caleb Cotham, and played under Reds pitching coach Derek Johnson.

Organizational history

  • Drafted by the Detroit Tigers in the 10th round of the 2011 draft.
  • Traded by the Tigers to the Tampa Bay Rays on March 25, 2013 for retention of a Rule 5 pick.
  • Released by the Rays after the 2017 season, then was signed and released by both the Los Angeles Angels and the Texas Rangers before signing again with the Rays on March 22, 2018.
  • Claimed off waivers by the Cincinnati Reds on May 31, 2018.

Career stats

Scouting report


Source: FanGraphs

Ken Gif-y Jr.

Projections

Outlook

Of all the improvements the 2019 Reds have made over past years, one area that gets quite a bit of attention is the team’s bench. Even going back before its rebuilding years, Cincinnati has long been known for having a mediocre to downright nauseating bench from which to make late-game substitutions and gave occasional starts to, but this year, that area seems to be loaded up well. The team traded for Matt Kemp, who ought to be a fine right-handed complement to Scott Schebler as far as outfielders go, and signed Derek Dietrich and Jose Iglesias to fill out the infield. Considering the team already went into this winter dreaming on possible contributions from the likes of outfielder Philip Ervin and injured infielder Alex Blandino, it seems as though legitimate big-leaguers will be shipped to AAA at the beginning of the season regardless of which cuts the team makes, and that’s a very positive sign for the depth of this club.

The overhaul of the team’s bench has mostly taken place over the course of this winter, but if you want to find where it started, it might very well be traced back to the acquisition of Casali at the end of last May. It occurred just after the Reds traded their backup catcher at the time, Devin Mesoraco, to the New York Mets for embattled right-handed starter Matt Harvey. The dearth of catching talent at Cincinnati’s upper minors — the outwardly terrible Stuart Turner and similarly light-hitting Aruban Chadwick Tromp were far and away the best options from within the organization — necessitated finding Tucker Barnhart’s new back-up elsewhere, and that led the Reds to Casali.

Casali entered Cincinnati’s organization having caught just nine big-league games since the end of the 2016 season, and receiving just 13 plate appearances in that time. After 2017, he’d been given trial runs in two other organizations before ultimately signing a minor league deal back in Tampa Bay, where he immediately swung the bat like someone with something to prove, slashing .274/.327/.453 in 104 plate appearances.

The Reds didn’t waste a minute bringing him to their major league club, where he continued to hit. He went 2-for-3 with a homer and a walk in his team debut on June 2nd, and ripped a pinch-hit double in his next action three days later. He finished his first month in Cincinnati hitting a preposterous .393/.452/.607 in 32 plate appearances, and after coming back to earth a bit in July, regrouped to post a .762 OPS over his final two months of the season.

Now, on a team that is just now coming out of a rebuild, Casali’s presence on the roster might seem a tad confusing to some. He is 30 years old, will make $950,000 in 2019, and is relegated to catcher and first base only. Meanwhile, the Reds acquired two other utility players from Los Angeles Dodgers this season — Kyle Farmer via trade and Connor Joe via the Rule 5 draft — who can each catch and are coming off strong offensive seasons at AAA. If Cincinnati’s mission is indeed to carry 13 pitchers for the majority of the year, then roster flexibility will be more important than ever, and Farmer and Joe would each offer more of that than Casali.

On the other hand, have you noticed how absolutely wretched catchers around baseball are at hitting these days? Curt Casali’s 115 wRC+ in 2018 doesn’t jump off the page at you, but among all catchers who got at least 150 plate appearances last season, that mark ranked sixth-best in the majors. For a guy who three different teams decided they didn’t want after giving him temporary roster spots before the season, that’s a damn fine place to be. And for a Reds team whose starter, Barnhart, happened to rank 31st on that list of catchers with a wRC+ of 89, Casali’s offense was a breath of fresh air, and added to the lineup a layer of depth that the team didn’t have without him.

Casali’s ability to retain that level of offensive production will be crucial to his viability on the roster in 2019, though, and it isn’t immediately clear whether he’ll be able to easily do that. According to Statcast, his expected slugging number (.374) was 76 points lower than his actual slugging number (.450), and his xwOBA (.307) came in 40 points lower than his actual wOBA (.347). He did, however, strike out just 20.5 percent of the time, down significantly from his career average of 28 percent, and sacrificed just 1.3 percent off his career walk rate to make that cut. Regardless of how much the peripherals support his final numbers, there is little doubt that Casali was the best hitter he’s ever been in 2018. Helping the 2019 Reds even more than he did last year won’t be easy, but thanks to newfound catching depth in the organization, fans shouldn’t worry about a regressed version of Casali lingering long enough to hurt the team, either.