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03/03/12 8:00 PM ET
Defense comes first for rookie Mesoraco
By Mark Sheldon / MLB.com
GOODYEAR, Ariz. -- No one has ever accused Reds rookie catcher Devin Mesoraco of not having his priorities in order while on the field. What Mesoraco sees through his mask and does with his glove and arm carries more weight to him that what he can do with his bat. "Hitting-wise, it comes pretty natural, but I put a lot of work into it. The catching is the harder part for me," Mesoraco said. "If I am bad on that end, everybody will see it a lot more, and it's going to hurt the team a whole lot more than if I struggle for a week hitting-wise. Somebody else can pick me up. Defensively, I have to be good every single day." The Reds' top prospect and a 2007 first-round Draft pick, Mesoraco led Triple-A Louisville last season in doubles, walks, total bases and was tied for the team lead in hits. He batted .289 with 15 home runs and 71 RBIs in 120 games.
Mesoraco was also rated by field managers as the best defensive catcher in the International League. A September callup at the end of last season, he batted .180 in 18 games with 13 starts.Reds manager Dusty Baker is expected to split catching duties between Mesoraco and veteran Ryan Hanigan. No matter how many games Mesoraco plays, he will be shouldering a lot of responsibility for a 23-year-old. "You hope he realizes what his position is and not his age," Baker said. "I talked to him about it. The one thing that I liked is that when he came up, he was more concerned about the ERA when he's catching and the score of the game than his own offense, which has probably been his strong point." This year's edition of Spring Training has brought a different vibe for Mesoraco, who is no longer an extra prospect for catching bullpens or getting his feet wet in a big league clubhouse like he has been in the past couple of years. Instead of having a high uniform number that places his locker around other kids in the clubhouse, Mesoraco's No. 39 uniform has him around more veteran players and pitchers. There is no question that he is going north with the club, assuming he stays healthy. "I'm just a lot more comfortable," Mesoraco said. "As far as interacting with all the pitchers, it's being here and being one of the guys instead of a newer guy like I was in the past. I can be somebody to help this team out throughout the year." But first, Mesoraco has to get to know his pitching staff. It was a process that started in past camps and accelerated last September. He's caught some of the pitchers in the Minors. There are some, like Bronson Arroyo, who have been paired almost exclusively with Hanigan the past few years. Others, like ace Johnny Cueto, worked with predecessor Ramon Hernandez, who was not re-signed to make way for Mesoraco. Then there is new pitcher Mat Latos, who no one on the team has caught in a game. During a recent bullpen session, Baker flip-flopped a pairing so Mesoraco could catch Latos since Hanigan had already caught him once this spring. "You try to have it where you can catch everybody this spring, so if something happens to Hanigan, it's not foreign to him during the season or vice versa," Baker said. "You make sure they're familiar with as many guys as possible." Mesoraco believs he has gradually found a comfort level with several Reds pitchers. Some more than others. "I feel the guys I've caught the most I am most comfortable with. Mike Leake would be one guy that I feel very comfortable with," Mesoraco said. "I caught him back when he was drafted. We seem to get matched up a lot in Spring Training over the years. It's something that takes time. It won't be a problem to get on a same page with anybody else. It's about putting in the time back there, figuring out their sequences and what they like to do on the mound." For the first game of spring on Saturday vs. the Indians, Leake started for two innings and had Mesoraco behind the plate. Mesoraco was 1-for-2 with an RBI single. "I like him," Leake said. "If I could choose my catcher, I would definitely choose him. We seem to know each other pretty well. He's not afraid to call certain pitches and he likes to use my changeup, and I like to use it as well." Of course, no true rapport between pitcher and catcher comes solely from a few innings caught in Spring Training. It will come over time and repetition and experience. If everything goes according to plan this season, Mesoraco will get all of the above. The degree of how much he will get remains to be seen. "He has a lot to learn in a short period of time," Baker said. "You hope he can be Buster Posey. There aren't a whole lot of Buster Poseys, but he also has Hanigan as a tandem here. If things don't work, how long do you stick with Mesoraco? You hope he's ready. You don't really know until you give him a chance."