The Rockies have never had a superstar catcher in their history, as evidence by having only one backstop -- Chris Iannetta -- eclipse the 5.0 fWAR barrier during his entire tenure with the team. It doesn't appear that the lack of star power behind the plate is about to change anytime soon, but that doesn't mean there aren't interesting -- and potentially impactful -- parts in the positional equation.
Wilin Rosario is coming off a pair of 20-plus-homer seasons and just turned 25 on Sunday. His 3.5 career fWAR already ranks third in Rockies history and he's second all-time among Colorado catchers with 52 home runs. So why isn't he considered a budding superstar? There are a couple of reasons.
The main one is his defense. Rosario got better behind the dish in 2013 after a disastrous 2012 campaign in which he allowed 21 passed balls and committed 13 throwing errors. However, his overall defensive game is still lacking. Rosario, despite having a cannon for an arm, gunned down just 19 of 72 potential base stealers. In addition, he was second-to-last in all of baseball at pitch framing in 2013, coming in at 19.3 runs below average.
Also of concern is his undisciplined approach at the plate. Rosario's walk rate dipped from 5.9 percent in 2012 to 3.2 percent in 2013 while his strikeout rate remained roughly the same at 23.4 percent. Sure, strikeouts are up in baseball these days, but the league average is a hair under 20 percent, so Rosario clearly has some work to do and won't improve much upon his .309 career on-base percentage if he fails to get better.
There's a lot to like about Wilin, but the Rockies made it clear by their attempt to sign free-agent Brian McCann and their discussions about moving Rosario to first base or right field that they're not comfortable with him as their catcher of the future.
The Rockies declined to re-sign veteran catcher Yorvit Torrealba and appeared to be comfortable with Jordan Pacheco as the backup catcher, but then the team made an interesting move, bringing Michael McKenry back into the fold. McKenry made his big-league debut with the Rockies in 2010 before being shipped to the Red Sox. He found a home in 2012 as the Pirates' primary backstop and managed a 108 wRC+ while displaying top-shelf power. McKenry struggled while Russell Martin positioned himself as the Bucs' starter a year ago, leading to the team's decision to non-tender him. The Rockies were happy to scoop him up, and he has a real opportunity to break camp as the team's second catcher.
One big reason for that is Pacheco's inability to establish himself at a position. The Rockies have converted him back into a catcher, and it's there that he'll need to become at least an above-average defender to make up for his offensive shortcomings, which proved to be an issue in 2013 when he hit .239/.276/.312. Simply put, Pacheco has a lot of work to do and not a lot of time to do it. He can probably be a useful big-leaguer, but there's a pretty good chance it won't be with the Rockies.
On the farm
Tom Murphy made the near-unprecedented leap from Low-A to Double-A in 2013 and held his own, finishing the season with a total line of .281/.376/.571. Murphy had a little bit of a plate patience problem that was exploited while at Tulsa, but he still handled the jump extremely well, all things considered. The performance, along with his intangibles, has the 22-year-old New Yorker on the fast track to the big-leagues, according to Patrick Saunders of the Denver Post. Murphy has the tools to soon be a solid regular at the highest level, and that's a big reason why the final sentence of the previous paragraph holds some merit.
The Rockies had a pair of catching prospects at High-A Modesto, which might have contributed to Murphy skipping the level entirely. One emerged from the season regarded much higher than he was the year before, while the other scuffled to the point where he created doubt about his future as a prospect. Ryan Casteel had a breakout year, hitting .270/.352/.523 with 22 home runs and vaulted himself ahead of Will Swanner, who was considered by many as a top-10 prospect in the organization before stumbling to a .239/.324/.425 line. While we certainly haven't heard the last of Swanner, he might be due for a repeat year in the California League, with Casteel likely advancing to Tulsa.
The organization seems to be fairly enamored with Matt McBride, who has been a solid utility player in Triple-A for the past couple of seasons since arriving in the Ubaldo Jimenez trade. He missed the latter half of last season after undergoing neck surgery. He was known as an intriguing prospect as an offensive-oriented catcher before being moved off of the position, but now that he's a few years older, I'm not sure if that tag still applies even if he's moved back behind the plate on a full-time basis.
Dustin Garneau was given a pretty healthy dose of reps during Arizona Fall League play and responded with solid power numbers, but he's probably an AAAA guy at best. Wilfredo Rodriguez and Jose Briceno are among other intriguing catching prospects in the system, but both are too far away from the majors to be worth diving into in this context.
Who's available in the event of a catastrophe?
Nick Hundley is a free-agent after the 2014 season, though he does have a $5 million club option for 2015. The Padres have Yasmani Grandal, who has been a good MLB player despite injury and suspension issues, and top prospect Austin Hedges isn't far from breaking into the majors. Thus, the 30-year-old Hundley could be the odd man out. Hundley hasn't been able to replicate a terrific 2011 campaign in which he posted a 132 wRC+, but he did hit 13 home runs in a little more than 400 plate appearances last season.
Sure, there are some caveats here, mainly that he plays for a division rival and will make $4 million this season. However, if the Rockies are in contention and suddenly Rosario gets injured and McKenry is ineffective, they might need a guy like Hundley to bridge the gap and avoid rushing Murphy, who may or may not be ready by that point.