2015 Rockies Position Preview: Catcher

New catcher Nick Hundley chats with pitcher Jhoulys Chacin at Rockies spring training. Photo Credit: Darron Cummings, The Associated Press via The Denver Post

From now to the start of the regular season, I am going to be primarily focused on doing positional previews for the Rockies. We’ll start with the catchers and work our way up from there, taking a look at the starter(s), backup(s), and some potential options available in the minor leagues in case of injury, poor performance, or perhaps a breakout season from a minor league player forcing his way onto the Rockies. Without further adieu, let’s take a look at the catchers, where we’ll find one of the very few new faces among position players to start the season.

The Starter

With the Rockies apparently over the Wilin Rosario-as-a-catcher experiment, Nick Hundley comes into Spring Training expected to see a majority of the plate appearances at catcher after signing a 2 year, $6 million contract with the club this offseason. Hundley, 31, has a career slash line of a meager looking .238/.294/.416, though much of that is due to his time playing home games in San Diego, as his career wRC+ of 88 is much more respectable.  For comparison, Josh Rutledge had an 88 wRC+ for the Rockies last year slashing .269/.323/.405.  Hundley is coming off a 2014 season split between the Padres and Orioles when he slashed just .243/.273/.358 (75 wRC+) in 233 PA. However, the primary reason Hundley was brought in was his defense, which will be significantly better than Rosario’s by just about any measure. The most significant difference will be his ability to prevent passed balls and wild pitches. Since 2012, Hundley ranks 6th out of 50 catchers with at least 1,000 defensive innings in a stat called RPP, which essentially measures a catcher’s ability to prevent passed balls and wild pitches. In that same time frame, Rosario ranks 50th out of 50, with no other catcher even being particularly close to him. It’s also thought that Hundley will be better than Rosario at smaller things that are more difficult to quantify like framing pitches, calling games, and generally handling a pitching staff. After watching Wilin the past few years, it would be hard to argue that he won’t be an improvement. The Steamer projection system is projecting Hundley to hit .260/.309/.416 this season (85 wRC+) with his ZiPS projection just slightly less optimistic at .259/.306/.410 (82 wRC+) and all told, I expect him to get about 60% of the reps behind the plate, at least in the early going.

The Potential Backups

After Hundley, the Rockies could choose to go a few different ways for a backup catcher. One is to stick with Rosario, giving him more reps and practice time to see if he can either improve or increase his trade value. Personally, I don’t see how watching him continue to flounder behind the plate would make any team want him more and he has been given ample time to show at least some signs of improvement, which he unfortunately hasn’t been able to take advantage of. I would prefer to see the Rockies use him in a different role. The other option for the Rockies would be to use Michael McKenry, who absolutely tore the cover off the ball in 2014, as Hundley’s backup/timeshare. In McKenry’s 192 PA’s in 2014, he amassed a slash line of .315/.398/.512, good for a 141 wRC+. His .381 BABIP from a year ago is 82 points higher than his career mark of .299 and almost certainly unsustainable, although he will get somewhat of a boost on that career number due to playing his home games in Coors Field. Even if he does fall back closer to his career numbers, he’ll still be roughly a league average hitter. His career wRC+ is 97 and Steamer projects him at exactly 100 this season, though his ZiPS projection is much more optimistic at 112 wRC+.  He has also hit well on the road with a 143 wRC+ last season and a 108 wRC+ in his career. If I was the man in charge, McKenry would be the Rockies’ backup catcher to start the season, with Rosario only around for emergency duty. Either way, I expect the non-Hundley catchers to get 40ish% of the reps from the outset.

Minor League Options

The AAA catcher for the Rockies is likely going to be Dustin Garneau, a 27 year old who has never cracked the Major Leagues and put together a rather unimpressive .240/.327/.395 slash line last year between AA Tulsa and AAA Colorado Springs. If there’s an injury to a catcher (or probably two out of the three of Hundley, McKenry, and Rosario) early in the season, it’s possible Garneau will be called up and see some action. The top catching prospect for the Rockies, however, is Tom Murphy. Murphy stormed onto the scene in 2013 as a 22-year old, posting a 167 wRC+ in 415 PA between single-A Asheville and AA Tulsa. Last year was spent in AA for Murphy as well, but injuries limited him to just 109 PA and his wRC+ dipped to 113, still above average but not the gaudy numbers we saw from him in 2013. There have also been some questions about his ability to stick behind the plate, but as of now it appears the Rockies believe he’ll be able to handle it. If he’s able to get off to a strong start in 2015, there’s a good chance we see him in the Big Leagues as either an injury/trade replacement or a September call-up this year.

That wraps things up for the catchers. Be sure to subscribe, follow View from the Rooftop on Facebook and Twitter, and check back on Thursday, March 5 for the next installment 2015 Rockies Position Preview: First Base.

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