The Burying of Devin Mesoraco

Heading into last season, Devin Mesoraco was a consensus top-15 prospect, and it was thought that he would see significant time behind the dish with the Reds. After all, they had traded their other top catching prospect — Yasmani Grandal — away in the Mat Latos trade in order to supposedly clear the way for him. But instead, Mesoraco spent most of the season sitting on the bench, and things haven’t been much different this year. In doing so, Cincinnati and manager Dusty Baker may have squandered one of the rarest assets in baseball.

Last season, FanGraphs ranked Mesoraco 15th on the top 100 list, which was just about the average for where he was ranked in aggregate:

Devin Mesoraco 2012 Rank
FanGraphs 15
Baseball America 16
Baseball Prospectus 24
Bullpen Banter 10
ESPN 8
John Sickels 12
MLB.com 14
Average 14.14

This is no small feat. Using Baseball America’s top 100 prospect list archive, which runs all the way back to 1990, we can see that it’s pretty rare for a catcher to end up being a top-25 prospect. In the 24-year span — including this season — there have been a total of 21 players who have reached that status, and they have been listed as top-25 prospects a total of 33 times:

Player Year-Rank
Mike Zunino 2013-17
Travis D’Arnaud 2012-17, 2013-23
Devin Mesoraco 2012-16
Jesus Montero 2010-4, 2011-3, 2012-6
Carlos Santana 2010-10
Buster Posey 2009-14, 2010-7
Matt Wieters 2008-12, 2009-1
Jarrod Saltalamacchia 2006-18
Jeff Mathis 2004-22
Victor Martinez 2003-16
Joe Mauer 2002-7, 2003-4, 2004-1, 2005-1
J.R. House 2001-21
Michael Barrett 1999-6
Ben Davis 1996-10, 1999-24
Charles Johnson 1994-20, 1995-7
Carlos Delgado 1993-4, 1994-5
Javy Lopez 1993-20, 1994-17
Todd Hundley 1992-18
Ivan Rodriguez 1991-7
Todd Zeile 1990-7
Sandy Alomar 1990-5

There has been a wave of such catchers lately, but for a long time there just was a total dearth of great catching prospects. And again, the Reds seemed to know this — they traded Grandal because he was stuck behind Mesoraco on the depth chart. But what we didn’t realize was that Mesoraco was stuck behind Ryan Hanigan on the very same depth chart.

The reason that no one had figured on Hanigan taking hold of the Reds’ job is that there wasn’t really any reason pointing to him deserving it, at least not statistically. Hanigan didn’t debut in the majors until his age-26 season, and didn’t garner 100 plate appearances in a season until his age-28 campaign. Heading into last season, he had never played 100 games in a season before, and had only crossed the 300 PA mark in a season once. His career triple-slash line was .275/.371/.368, good for a 100 wRC+, and he had a career total of 5.6 WAR. It wasn’t that Hanigan was bad per se, it’s just that there was nothing overly remarkable about his performance, and heading into his age-31 season, it was assumed that he would caddy for Mesoraco rather than start in front of him.

That’s not how it played out though. Mesoraco never forced the issue with his play. He was hitting .300 at the end of April, but fell apart in his limited May action — he hit just .135/.256/.324 in 43 May plate appearances. At the end of May, 2012, Mesoraco was hitting .209/.316/.373 in 79 PA. Hanigan, meanwhile, was hitting .307/.369/.386 in 112 PA. If he wasn’t already buried by that point, Mesoraco certainly was heading into June.

Of course, you could make the argument that he had been buried before then. Mesoraco started consecutive games on April 20-21 and April 26-27, and then that was it until after the All-Star break. He would settle into a pattern where he would get consecutive starts after that, but then he suffered a concussion in early August, and in late August, when he was still not hitting the Reds optioned him for 12 days in a move that was probably designed to limit his future earnings in arbitration (a player being optioned is generally seen as a large demerit in the arbitration process). But again, it’s hard to get into a rhythm at the plate when you’re not getting regular chances to play.

The situation hasn’t changed much this season. Mesoraco finally started three games in a row for the first time in his big-league career from April 20-22, but since Hanigan landed on the disabled list on the 21st, the starts didn’t reflect a shift in Baker’s depth chart. Indeed, Hanigan went right back to getting the lion share of playing time when he returned from the DL. Currently, the pattern is the 32-year-old Hanigan starts three games and then the 25-year-old Mesoraco starts two. Even with the more regimented playing time, Mesoraco isn’t making people take notice. He has a healthy 11.2% walk rate, but his 85 wRC+ isn’t anything about which to write home.

Still, compared to his top-catching-prospect brethren, it’d be hard to say that even with this more regimented playing time that Mesoraco is getting a fair shake. To wit:

Mesoraco Grid

The boxes in orange represent the seasons in the player’s career where he was listed as a preseason top-25 prospect, and the numbers in said boxes represent the player’s cumulative career major league PA’s at the end of that season (aside from the current players, who are updated to the start of Thursday’s action where applicable).

As you can see, Mesoraco’s lack of playing time represents more the exception than the rule. (That might not change any time soon either. Hanigan is a free agent at the end of the season, but he probably won’t command that much on the open market, and the Reds could easily re-sign him if they so choose.)

You could rightly point out that Mesoraco achieved his top prospect status later than the majority of the players on this list, but in Alomar, Martinez, Santana and Zeile, there are comparable players. They all achieved regular playing time by the time they were 25. Mesoraco has not.

Assuming he maintains his current pace, Mesoraco figures to end the season with around 320 PA, which would put him in the neighborhood of 560 for his career. At the end of their age-25 seasons, 17 of the 21 had logged more playing time than that. Since Mike Zunino is already up, it stands to reason he’ll get to that mark way before his age-25 season, and even though Travis d’Arnaud is getting off to a late start, if he gets a second-half callup and is the full-time starter next year, he could top 560 as well. Really, that leaves House as the only top prospect who failed to reach that threshold. House was a true exception — he needed rotator cuff surgery in his age-24 season and left baseball for football a year later. He would return to baseball shortly thereafter, but his ship had sailed by that point.

Mesoraco’s ship may not have sailed exactly, but his star has dimmed considerably, and while he hasn’t hit well, he hasn’t been given a proper chance either. This isn’t to say that Mesoraco is a diamond in the rough. Playing time guarantees nothing — we need to look no further than Jesus Montero to see that. But Montero was at least given a real opportunity to succeed or fail. It’s true that the Mariners and Reds are in different situations, but given the fact that Hanigan is pumping a putrid 51 wRC+, the Reds really don’t have anything to lose at this point. Perhaps Mesoraco wasn’t deserving of his top prospect sheen, but given how Cincinnati has buried him behind Hanigan, we can’t really say that we know for sure.




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Paul Swydan is the co-managing editor of The Hardball Times, a writer and editor for FanGraphs and a writer for ESPN Insider. Follow him on Twitter @Swydan.

41 Responses to “The Burying of Devin Mesoraco”

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  1. Stringer Bell says:

    Dusty Baker is a terrible manager? Get right out of town

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  2. CB says:

    Hanigan’s defense and game-calling are by all accounts excellent and though I have no way to prove it I strongly believe that the success and stability of the Reds’ rotation these past two seasons has something to do with his presence. The kid is still learning from him. Hanigan catches Cueto, Bailey, and Arroyo like he has for years; Mes gets Leake and Latos. In a few seasons Mes will have as much experience with Latos as Hanigan has with Arroyo. I follow the Reds closely and I don’t think there’s any sentiment among the fans, media, or Internet punditry that Hanigan is getting too much playing time. In short: nothing is f***ed here.

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    • CB says:

      However if you would like to jeer Cozart hitting second then by all means, farrr Dusty.

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    • Matt says:

      Even if that’s the case, you could still be sacrificing long term potential at the catcher position for a year or two of short term success. I’m probably not knowledgeable enough to know which makes more sense, but it is still a risk/reward situation

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      • CB says:

        I think this is a fair point, but the Reds are a small-market team built to win now. They need to stockpile wins now because they might not mean as much in a few seasons when the slumbering behemoth in Chicago awakens.

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    • Doug Gray says:

      The Reds bench calls the game for both catchers, so any game calling is a wash for the most part. The catcher will decide the second sign he gives, but the first sign is always from the Reds bench.

      As for the “no one thinks Hanigan is getting too much playing time”, you are incorrect there. Plenty of people feel that way. You just seem to have missed it.

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      • Iron says:

        Ok, not ‘no one’, but certainly not many. Reds fans mostly support Hanigan as an unspectacular but serviceable catcher who deserves the job until Mesoraco proves otherwise, which he hasn’t done. There was a little push from fans in the other direction in April when Hanny was just awful and Mesoraco was hitting well, but that has pretty much silenced for the last two months.

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        • Doug Gray says:

          I don’t know where you follow the Reds at, but it must be different places than I do.

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        • Jason says:

          The games? The radio? The Reds website? Cincinnati sportsbars? The water-cooler? Granted, I would not expect to see you at the water-cooler, but the consensus is pretty strong, I am surprised you are unaware of it.

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        • Doug Gray says:

          The official Reds website? Really? Those are the people you want to listen to? The fans on a teams official website or the people handing out at sports bars or the water cooler at your work?

          Go read the places where the educated fans write/hang out. While there is certainly plenty of people there who are on the Hanigan bandwagon, there are plenty on the “get Mesoraco the 60/40 split of the time instead of the other way around” too.

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        • Hello says:

          I’m with CB and Iron. I have no problem with Hanigan holding the fort until Mes breaks out offensively. Hanigan’s defense- particularly in the run game (this year 55% CS vs 24% for Mes) and blocking balls- makes me feel nice inside.

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        • Doug Gray says:

          How tough is it for a guy to break out offensively sitting 3 and 4 days in a row?

          That is the biggest gripe. Give him 3 months of consistent playing time and see what happens. Saying he hasn’t taken the job doesn’t do much for a lot of us because he simply isn’t getting any sort of consistent playing time and he is batting 8th, where he gets fewer pitches to hit than anywhere in the lineup because guys are pitching around him (and Hanigan for that matter) because the pitcher is next.

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        • Jason says:

          I’ve never put much stock into the ‘Player X only sucks because he isn’t getting to play enough. Play him every day and then he’ll be great all of a sudden.’ Never seems to work that way. You want more playing time, earn it by excelling in the role you’ve been given.

          The crux of the Mesoraco should play more argument presented here seems to be that he should be played in place of a guy who is playing better than he is simply because he was once a highly touted prospect. I say he can wait a year to get the 60% because he hasn’t shown he’s ready for more.

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        • Kris says:

          Mesoraco never hits 8th Doug, you know that

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      • al says:

        That’s definitely not true. Please post your evidence to support the statement that the Reds bench calls the pitcher’s games. I’ve read interviews with both Hanigan, Arroyo, and Latos that state the opposite.

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    • Rick says:

      CB, you’re mistaken. If you were on twitter, there’s a predominant sentiment that Hanigan needs to play less. Latos and Leake are having no issues holding down opposing offenses with Mesoraco behind the dish.

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  3. Eric says:

    It’s also worth mentioning that Grandal (who was supposedly behind Mesoraco on the depth chart) has 298 PA since Opening Day 2012. Mesoraco has 327 in the same time frame. Grandal didn’t debut until June of 2012 and served a 50 game suspension this year. I’m not saying the Reds traded the wrong catcher, it’s just incredible to look at the playing time differences.

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  4. Luke says:

    Dusty Baker was quoted last year saying that Des Mes would be a cleanup hitter for the Reds at some point in the future. So I don’t think the organization has intentions to continue having him catch only 2/5 of the starting rotation. I can tell you that right now Des Mes is a notch or 2 above Hannagan as a hitter, but markedly below him as both a pitch caller and as a defensive catcher. Mes has the gracefulness of a gorilla any time he has to come out from behind the plate (see bobbled balls, awkward diving catches on pop-ups and indecisiveness in calling off position players on bunted balls). In short he’s still learning and needs to improve a lot to rip Hannagan of his starting gig.

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    • Doug Gray says:

      The Reds bench calls the pitches for both catchers. This mystical “Hanigan is a great game caller” needs to stop. He doesn’t call his game. Neither does Mesoraco. Neither did Corky Miller when he was up earlier this year.

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      • Kris says:

        I just don’t believe this is true. Calls may come from the dugout on occasion when Hanigan catches, but not with regularity. They come with more regularity for Mesoraco.

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  5. Iron says:

    I’d also point out that Hanigan’s ‘putrid 51 WRC+’ is a little misleading. He had a -44 WRC+ playing hurt in April. Came off the DL and hit a more respectable 94 WCR+ since. Going forward, the 94 or higher seems more in line with what you are going to get out of Hanigan, and Mesoraco has not shown that ability at the major league level. And Hanigan’s defense and rapport with the pitchers is grossly underrated.

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    • Iron says:

      And you can say Hanigan only has ’5.6 career WAR’ or you could point out his 2.7 WAR last year, behind only Votto and Phillips on the 98 win Reds position players.

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  6. JAC says:

    Defensively, Mesoraco doesn’t pass the eye test. Horrible framing. They probably figure that Hanigan is better and since their objective is to win baseball games now, Meso is better off on the pine.

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  7. Lmb405@aol.com says:

    Hanigan has never hit for power. But his on base percentage has always been high, and for the past four? seasons he has a higher walk/strikeout ratio. He is an excellent defensive catcher, and Mes is, as someone said, still learning. In my opinion, Hanigan’s defense outweighs Mesoraco’s offense at this point.

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  8. Dallas says:

    Hanigan actually isn’t a free agent until after 2014. He signed a 2-yr deal thru 2013, but he’s got one more year of arb eligibility. I only add this to note that instead of “he might be back,” we should say he definitely will be back, which could continue to hinder Mesoraco.

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  9. TheGrandslamwich says:

    Was I the only one who was shocked to see that Jeff Mathis was once a top 25 prospect?

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    • Kevin Krueger says:

      Nope. As soon as I saw it, my brain went, “What the…??? How the…??? Dang, baseball is crazy isn’t it?!?”

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  10. Retirenutting says:

    How does Tony Sanchez stack up to Mesoraco at this point– both 25, one rotting on a MLB bench most of the time and one putting up a .306 .389.563 .951 line at AAA and making his MLB debut (probably tomorrow)? Who’d you rather have?

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  11. Johnnie B. says:

    He’ll play when I’m– er, when he’s good and ready. You really can’t trust anyone under 30, you know.

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  12. MisterRedLeg says:

    I think the Reds should of kept Corky Miller.

    First, None of these catchers can hit

    Second, Corky can pitch. The Reds bullpen needs help

    Third, Corky sports a nice mustache aka Mr Redlegs

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  13. AnthonySoprano says:

    ROFLMAO

    I am so glad Dusty is coaching this team. It’s stuff like this that makes me hate him so much. He will single-handedly keep the Reds from winning anything ever …

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  14. Dusty Baker says:

    Dear Mr Saprano

    Thanks for the post and the comments but

    Your dead to me

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  15. okra says:

    Why not let Mes get regular AB’s in the minors?

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  16. Baltar says:

    I never thought I’d defend Dusty Baker, but 40% of the playing time to prove himself and handling 2 of the starters seems very reasonable to me. I’d hardly call that buried.

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  17. al says:

    Has Fangraphs (or anyone?) ever done a study on the idea of regular playing time? It seems like it’s a fairly widely held belief that there’s a “rhythm” that you can only get when you’re playing 5+ times per week (despite the fact that these guys hit every day multiple times a day off machines etc).

    It would probably be a tough thing to look at because obviously, better players play more. But you could look at catchers specifically, and do a year-toyear thing with consecutive days played.

    As for Mesoraco, plenty of guys have hit their way into this league and off the bench. It’s not like he he’s in uncharted territory. Until he is observably better than Hanigan, it’s not going to happen, and arguably shouldn’t.

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  18. al says:

    David Ross has 4 consecutive years with an OPS+ north of 100 and less than 200 PA. Just sayin.

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  19. Jared Roberts says:

    Doug Gray is 100 right. How is Mesoraco supposed to develop sitting for 3 days… No other team does this with their top prospects… In fact, this is so bad that it makes one wonder, did the Reds draft their #1 pick to be a platoon player? I think the simple answer is no, and this lies at the fault of one Dusty Baker.

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