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
John Sickels 12 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.

Paul Swydan used to be the managing editor of The Hardball Times, a writer and editor for FanGraphs and a writer for and The Boston Globe. Now, he owns The Silver Unicorn Bookstore, an independent bookstore in Acton, Mass. Follow him on Twitter @Swydan. Follow the store @SilUnicornActon.

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Stringer Bell
10 years ago

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