Not much has changed for the Rockies at catcher entering 2016, as Nick Hundley remains the team's primary starter after starting 100 games for Colorado behind the plate in 2015. There will, however, be some changes when Hundley is not the Rockies' backstop, as Michael McKenry and Wilin Rosario, who started 33 of the 62 games Hundley did not, are both gone. The remaining two catchers from the 2015 Rockies, Dustin Garneau and Tom Murphy, should battle it out for the backup job to Hundley in Spring Training, and the victor of that battle could affect the starter as well.
This will be the second season of the two-year, $6 million deal Hundley signed with the Rockies prior to 2015, and the 32-year-old figures to be the Rockies primary catcher once again.
Hundley had a strong season offensively in 2015, hitting .301/.339/.467 with 10 home runs in 389 plate appearances over his 103 games. His park-adjusted offensive numbers were solid as well, as his 103 wRC+ was his best since 2011.
Conversely, Hundley had some issues defensively last season, especially when it came to pitch framing. Now, he was not a butcher on the level of Wilin Rosario behind the plate, the numbers suggest that Hundley was still a particularly poor pitch framer in 2015, as Purple Row's Eric Garcia McKinley noted in this article from late last season. Hundley's issues with framing pitches mostly came with those near the bottom of the strike zone, not good for someone playing at Coors Field.
Put it all together and Hundley was about a 2 WAR catcher in 2015, a number that puts him solidly above average among starters. Barring a large change in his playing time, it would seem reasonable to expect similar production from him in the upcoming season.
One of the better position battles this spring at Salt River Fields at Talking Stick should be for the backup job to Hundley, as Garneau and Murphy will be vying for one roster spot. Both players made their big league debuts late in the 2015 season, with Garneau starting 19 games to Murphy's 10.
The more veteran of the two players, Garneau was a 19th round pick by the Rockies in the 2009 draft out of Cal State Fullerton. He spent nearly seven full seasons in the minors before his major league debut on August 20 last year, a week after his 28th birthday.
After hitting .274/.335/.475 with 15 home runs in 340 plate appearances at Triple-A Albuquerque, Garneau hit .157/.224/.286 with a pair of homers in his big league work. That said, Garneau's offensive prowess is not his calling card, as he is known much more for his glove work behind the plate, which is off sufficient quality that it could earn him a big league job.
Murphy made an unexpected MLB debut last season after Hundley went down with a neck injury in September. It was the third level the 24-year-old played at in 2015 after hitting a combined .256/.314/.490 with 20 home runs in 105 games between Double-A New Britain and Triple-A Albuquerque.
Murphy played in just 11 games with the Rockies in 2015, retaining his rookie eligibility and earning the No. 10 spot on this winter's PuRPs list. Murphy impressed in his brief time with the big club last year, going 9-for-35 with a trio of home runs, four walks and 10 strikeouts. Perhaps more importantly, he has earned rave reviews from the team's talented young pitchers, including Jon Gray and Eddie Butler, which could mean the Rockies decide to be aggressive and give him a shot in Denver to start 2016.
If Garneau earns the spot, expect Hundley to be, essentially, the full-time starter with Garneau getting a start or two a week in day games after night games and such. However, if Murphy makes the team, look for something closer to a 50-50 time share, as the club will not want a highly-touted prospect wasting away on the bench.
On the farm
Aside from Murphy, there was just one catcher among the top 30 PuRPs, which was 20-year-old Dom Nunez. Nunez played his first year of full-season ball in 2015 at Low-A Asheville, hitting .282/.373/.448 with 36 extra-base hits, including 13 home runs, in 104 games and earning the No. 13 spot on the most recent PuRPs list, with scouts raving about his glove as much as his bat.
Who's available in the event of a catastrophe?
If the Rockies have need of anyone other than Hundley, Garneau and Murphy in 2016, there are internal options in the form of Jackson Williams, who has some major league experience, and Ryan Casteel, a veteran minor leaguer who could get the call as Garneau did last season. Both are slated to start in Albuquerque according to Rockies Roster, with Casteel likely seeing time at first base, as well. If they go outside the organization, their first call would likely be to McKenry who as of now is still a free agent.
Hundley is likely still the present for the Rockies behind the plate, but a strong showing from Murphy in the first half of the season, whether in Albuquerque or Denver, could motivate the Rockies to move the veteran and hand the reins to their top catching prospect in 2016.