Around the Horn: Catchers
Mets eager for a season-long look at d'Arnaud, with Recker and Teagarden as backups
With pitchers and catchers scheduled to report to Port St. Lucie, Fla., by Feb. 15, it's time to begin dissecting the 2014 roster. This is the first of a seven-part Around the Horn series that will take a position-by-position look at the projected starters and backup options heading into the season. First up: catchers.
NEW YORK -- In many ways, 2013 was a lost season for Travis d'Arnaud. Members of the front office insist that if he had been healthy, d'Arnaud would have made his big league debut last April -- similar to how the Blue Jays said he was on the cusp of the Majors before tearing up his knee the year before.
Instead, d'Arnaud's latest injury ensured that the Mets learned little of note about their top offensive prospect in 2013. When d'Arnaud broke his left foot in April, knocking him out for much of the summer, his extra-large carafe of coffee turned into nothing more than the usual cup. And when he struggled offensively during his brief time up, batting .202 with a .548 OPS in 31 games, questions arose.
So now the Mets enter 2014 with unchanged curiosity. They know that d'Arnaud is already an expert at framing pitches, with all the tools needed to develop into an anchor for the pitching staff. They know he still oozes with enough offensive potential to become one of the better-hitting backstops in baseball. They know that d'Arnaud's makeup, as the scouting cliché goes, is off the charts.
What they don't know is whether all that will translate into a breakout season in 2014.
"Certainly, when he gets to Spring Training," manager Terry Collins said recently, "we've got some work to do."
Because d'Arnaud is already familiar with most Mets pitchers not named Bartolo Colon, much of that work should focus on his offense. Considered a potential .300 hitter with moderate power while working his way through the Phillies', Blue Jays' and Mets' farm systems, d'Arnaud displayed those abilities regularly during more than 500 Minor League games. But he struggled at the plate last September, showing none of the raw power and contact skills that had established him one of the game's top prospects.
Chalk it up to sample size for now. In a recent profile, MLB.com prospect guru Jim Callis lauded d'Arnaud's "compact swing and all-fields approach," predicting All-Star-caliber production from the youngster. September struggles aside, Callis called him the league's best catching prospect.
"I started off slow with the bat, just putting too much stress on myself and trying to overswing and hit everything 600 feet instead of just taking my hits," d'Arnaud said recently. "Eventually, those turn into doubles, and those eventually turn into homers."
Such confidence is part of the makeup that the Mets find so special.
"Until you're around the guy, you don't realize how sharp he is," Collins said. "He grasped the game plan very quickly, puts it in play, has a great feel for his relationship with the pitching staff."
Because of all the responsibility they are placing on d'Arnaud's shoulders, the Mets have not stressed much over backup catching. There was some thought earlier in the offseason that they might bring back John Buck, Henry Blanco or a similarly well-respected veteran to give d'Arnaud a valuable mentor, but no deal materialized, and most such backups have already signed elsewhere.
That leaves Anthony Recker, Buck's backup last summer, and Taylor Teagarden, a light-hitting veteran whom the Mets recently signed to a Minor League deal.
Recker, 30, impressed the Mets as an all-or-nothing offensive player who was genuinely liked by the pitching staff. Gregarious in the clubhouse, he developed a particular connection with Jon Niese, who enjoyed throwing to him in both games and bullpen sessions. Recker also knocked a half-dozen balls over the fence in 151 plate appearances, providing some offensive value despite a .280 on-base percentage.
Given all that, and given his league-minimum salary, Recker appears to be the favorite over Teagarden, who would earn a reported $750,000 if he makes the team. But Teagarden, a former Rangers prospect who appeared in 23 games with the Orioles last season, is a Grapefruit League hot streak away from winning the job of d'Arnaud's backup.