A Too Early Look at the 25-Man Roster: Backup Catcher Battle
With pitchers and catchers scheduled to report to Clearwater on February 13th–three short weeks from now–it is certainly early to look forward to which 25 players will emerge from Spring Training as members of the Phillies Opening Day roster. Last week, we looked at the locks to break camp with the Major League club. That brings us to this week and next where we’ll turn to potential roster battles in the final two weeks before pitchers and catchers report.
Through the first part of this series, we identified 20 players who are, for practical purposes, guaranteed to be on the Phillies 25-man Opening Day roster. The composition of that is as follows:
Starting Pitchers (5): Aaron Nola, Jerad Eickhoff, Vince Velasquez, Jeremy Hellickson, and Clay Buchholz
Relief Pitchers (5): Hector Neris, Jeanmar Gomez, Pat Neshek, Joaquin Benoit, Edubray Ramos
Infielders (6): Cameron Rupp, Tommy Joseph, Cesar Hernandez, Freddy Galvis, Maikel Franco, Andres Blanco
Outfielders (4): Odubel Herrera, Michael Saunders, Howie Kendrick, Aaron Altherr
That leaves battles for the last five spots on the team in the following roles: Backup catcher, bullpen lefty, last bullpen spot, and two bench bats. We’ll start today with an examination of the roster battle for backup catcher.
Realistically, the Phillies have three catchers in camp who could conceivably make the team as Cameron Rupp’s backup. While it’s fun to dream on Jorge Alfaro showing up, having a Spring Training like Maikel Franco’s last year, and forcing his way onto the roster, that isn’t going to happen. Alfaro is only entering his age-24 season (which is young for a catcher, developmentally) and, aside from his brief MLB debut in September, has never played above AA. He’ll start the season in AAA with the potential for a mid-season call if everything goes well.
That leaves three catchers in the mix: Andrew Knapp, Ryan Hanigan, and Bryan Holaday. Our preview will only focus on them.
Before we even venture into performance-based factors in this roster battle, one candidate enters as a huge favorite simply based on the construction of the team’s roster.
The Phillies have three catchers on the 40-man roster entering camp: Cameron Rupp, Jorge Alfaro, and Andrew Knapp. Rupp is a lock for the team, and we already discussed how Alfaro is a long-shot, at best, to make the team. Both Hanigan and Holaday are on minor league contracts with non-roster invitations to camp, meaning they would have to be added to the 40-man roster (and another player would have to be exposed to waivers) for them to appear on the 25-man roster. Given the Phillies glut of prospects in the upper levels of the minor leagues, there aren’t a lot of wasted spots on the 40-man roster to use to make room for an addition. That gives Knapp a major advantage to open the season as the team’s backup catcher.
Because Knapp has never played above the AAA level while Holaday and Hanigan have had long major league careers, we’re stuck comparing apples and oranges here somewhat. Below are the 2016 slash lines for all three combined across all levels.
Knapp’s numbers look better than those of his competitors mostly across the board, but it should be noted that both Hanigan and Holaday have major league numbers dragging down their 2016 performances.
Still, neither Holaday nor Hanigan has a reputation as an offensive plus at the catcher position. Hanigan has posted an OPS+ over 100 only once in his career (2010) and hasn’t had an OPS+ of 90 or better since 2012. Holaday has a slightly better recent record with above average OPS+’s in 2013 and 2015, but has failed to crack 70 in any of his other three season in the major leagues.
Knapp undoubtedly took a step back offensively in 2016 after a breakout 2015 in hitter-friendly Reading. There, in 241 plate appearances, he hit .360/.419/.631, and shot into the discussion for just about every top-10 list of Phillies prospects last offseason. Despite the offensive downturn at AAA, Knapp still represents a similar offensive option to Holaday and Hanigan.
As a prospect, the biggest knock on Knapp has been his defensive profile with some questioning whether he would be able to stick at catcher long-term. Meanwhile, Ryan Hanigan, in particular, has a reputation as a quality defensive catcher especially when it comes to framing. During his peak with the Cincinnati Reds from 2009 to 2012, averaging nearly 20 framing runs per season during that span.
Let’s take a look at the defensive numbers across all levels from 2016 for each of the three in the three main components of catcher defense that Baseball Prospectus tracks–blocking pitches, catching runners stealing bases, and presenting pitches:
|Blocking Runs||Throwing Runs||Framing Runs|
Knapp actually acquitted himself quite well in 2016, but it should be noted that those numbers represent a bit of an outlier for his professional career. That could be due to the development of his defensive skills or just a fluke. I haven’t seen any scouting reports raving about his defensive development, so I’ll err on the side of the latter.
Hanigan’s numbers are surprising as they fly in the face of both his reputation and his statistical record throughout his career. However, he is getting older as 2017 will be his age-36 season and his numbers–particularly with regard to framing–have been in decline for some years now. This could just be what he is defensively at this point in his career. Holaday has never suited himself well by defensive metrics and 2016 fits right in line with what he has been throughout his career.
While, I expected Knapp to look bad by diving into these catcher-specific defensive numbers, he actually comes out quite well, though it should be noted that he had over twice as many framing chances as either of Hanigan or Holaday as well as more blocking and throwing chances. That will, of course, bump up his numbers in these counting categories. Even so, he looks better across the board.
Entering his age-25 season coming off a difficult adjustment to AAA, it’s very possible that the Phillies would like to see Knapp conquer minor league pitching before promoting him to the majors. In a vacuum, that approach would make a lot of sense, but, as we know, these decisions never occur in a vacuum.
With Alfaro all but set to start 2017 as the starting catcher in Lehigh Valley, Knapp is going to be put into a backup role wherever he goes. So, wherever he goes, he’s not going to get the same volume of work he had in 2016. Maybe the organization believes that Knapp isn’t ready for major league pitching quite yet, but that decision has to be made with the knowledge that he’s not going to get regular at bats in AAA. Unless the Phillies determine that exposing Knapp to major league pitching in April will significantly hamper his development, he is going to make the major league team. The organizational depth chart has basically forced him out of the minor leagues, ready or not.
In other words, the only thing that can prevent Knapp from breaking camp as the Phillies backup catcher is Andrew Knapp. It may not be, strictly speaking, the best scenario for his development, but with Alfaro at AAA, there truly is no realizable best scenario for Knapp. Hanigan and Holaday will be battling for the AAA backup role with the slim possibility that Knapp plays himself out of a major league role.
This series will return Wednesday with a look at the battle for bullpen lefty.