Position Battle: Catcher


Baseball, like all sports, is about conflict. We watch baseball to see a pitcher compete with a batter as one team competes with another. Conflict infuses every aspect of the game. Whether it’s appropriate or not, the conflict causes us to use a lot of war metaphors when talking about baseball. A long home run is a “bomb.” A pitcher who gives up a lot of hits is “getting shelled.” And when multiple players at the same position compete for a job, they have a “battle.”

As Spring Training kicks into high gear, I’ll be previewing each of the positions on the baseball diamond and talking about how battles (or lack thereof) that are raging. Since I’m a history buff (a.k.a. a huge nerd with too much time on his hands), I’ll even present a historical battle as comparison for each.

First up, the catcher position.

Who is in Camp?

As I noted this morning, there are nine backstops in camp with the Twins. Joe Mauer, Drew Butera, and Ryan Doumit are all on the Major League roster. They are joined by a plethora of non-roster invitees, a surprising number of whom are named Danny or Daniel: Danny Rams, Daniel Rohlfing, Danny Lehmann, Rene Rivera, J.R. Towles, and Chris Herrmann.

Is there a battle?

There probably is some sort of battle, but not for the starting spot. Barring another injury or Act of God, Mauer will squat behind the plate for all nine innings against the Orioles on April 6th. Doumit would appear to be the consensus number two catcher, though manager Ron Gardenhire has stated his desire to keep Doumit in the lineup on a regular basis as the designated hitter. If there is to be a position battle, it will be fought over the number three catcher slot.

Butera is the favorite for the job. He is a first-rate defender who can throw out runners and block pitches in the dirt, and by all accounts, Twins pitchers love to work with him. But aside from his annual Father’s Day clutch performances, Butera cannot hit at all. He has a career slash line of .178/.220/.261, and for a long stretch last season, it appeared he had a chance to break the record for worst batting average in a season.

Thus, it’s easy to think that Towles and Rivera would have a chance to compete for a job. Towles was once a top prospect with the Astros, but his .187/.256/.293 career Major League line is little better than Butera’s. Rivera spent quite a bit of time with the Twins in 2011, so pitchers are familiar with him. But again, he doesn’t offer much of an alternative in terms of hitting. In 114 plate appearances last year, Rivera hit .144/.211/.202. It may not be much of an exaggeration to say that the Twins have three of the worst-hitting catchers in all of baseball on their roster!

There is a darkhorse candidate. Chris Herrmann notched an impressive .380 on-base percentage at AA last year with a modicum of power, and he improved his stock with a strong performance in the Arizona Fall League. Herrmann’s lack of experience above the AA level will probably deny him any opportunity to make the team out of Spring Training, but if he plays well he could make set himself up for a call-up during the season.

How does this battle compare?

On a scale from drunken fistfight (easy, inconsequential battle) to Stalingrad (epic, bloody struggle), I’ll rank this battle as a Fort Sumter.Fort Sumter was the first battle of the Civil War, but unlike the rest of that war it was a relatively quick affair with a minimum of casualties. Likewise, the catching battle may make a little noise, but the outcome is probably a foregone conclusion, and I doubt that the Twins will waste a lot of time  and effort on this one.

Who will win?

Just as the General Beauregard and the Confederate Army had little trouble forcing the besieged Yankee garrison to surrender Fort Sumter, Drew Butera should have little trouble keeping his Major League position.

Butera’s hitting struggles probably force the Twins to at least think about giving a different player a shot, but the other options really are not much of an improvement at the plate, and they aren’t nearly as good behind it. And while it was a severe drain on the team to have Butera in the lineup for 93 games, 20 games of Butera in the third-string role would not be a problem. Keep in mind, though, that Fort Sumter was the start of a much larger conflict. The third-string catcher battle won’t end this Spring. Herrmann or another player may become a factor later in the season.