Scottsdale, Ariz. -- Colorado Rockies catcher Dustin Garneau took the long path to the big leagues. Seven minor league seasons, 518 games, and more than 2,000 plate appearances into the journey for the 19th round pick eight years ago from Cal State Fullerton all became worth it on August 20th when Garneau made his Major League debut.
Seventy-six big league plate appearances later, though, the 28-year-old catcher isn't expecting anything in 2016. Just chalk it up to his significant experience in the game and understanding of how the club sees him as a player.
"Eight years in, I know how this game works," Garneau told Purple Row from the Rockies' clubhouse in Scottsdale. "I know the business end of it and I know how players work, so nothing they can throw at me is going to be a curve ball. Wherever I get sent, I still have to play baseball."
With the Rockies employing veteran Nick Hundley as their primary catcher and prospect Tom Murphy as the man likely to take the reins behind the plate soon, it would seem Garneau is destined to live that itinerant lifestyle as "organizational depth." The southern California native approaches it differently, though.
"I just want to give myself the best opportunity to perform at my highest level," Garneau said of his goals this spring. "If I make it with the club or I get sent back down to Albuquerque, I just have to perform my best, and let the cards fall."
Though the cards may not fall Garneau's way for anything more than occasional spurts as a big league backup catcher, those around him have taken notice of his game. Murphy, well-regarded as a promising young backstop, has found himself emulating the low-round draft pick in a way you might not expect.
"He’s been here for a long time and he’s got as much experience as somebody who’s been in the big leagues since they’ve been 25 or 26 or whatever," Murphy said of his teammate and locker room neighbor. "I look at Garneau as the defensive catcher I want to be. He’s an amazing blocker, an amazing receiver, and a really good catch and throw guy. I take a lot learning from him and watching him, and we keep an open line of communication, so he does a great job to give me feedback."
Garneau and Murphy are an interesting pair to compare; after all, 'G' made his big league debut just three weeks before the much-ballyhooed prospect, and each catcher had to lean on each other to learn the ropes in the big leagues after the Rockies' primary catchers both went down with injuries late last season. And although Garneau didn't necessarily impress at the plate in a small sample size—he slashed just .157/.224/.286 in his 22 games—he nevertheless takes away motivation from his month in the big leagues.
"I missed a lot of pitches that I fouled straight back that I should have hit, and that I had been hitting a month before that," Garneau said of his adjustment to the big leagues, "That was the most frustrating part, I was getting my pitches and I was missing them."
Garneau did have a great summer in Albuquerque before his call-up; in 81 games with the Isotopes, he slashed .274/.335/.475 with 16 doubles and 15 home runs in 303 at-bats. Obviously, numbers like that are more than enough offense for a catcher, though the learning curve in the big leagues is significantly steeper than that of the Pacific Coast League.
"In Albuquerque I had a decent season, but then I went up to Denver and didn’t hit like I should have and like I wanted to," Garneau concluded. "That’s where I want to be, not necessarily where I’m hitting homers and doubles, but to where I’m at least a productive out at the plate."
But like most catchers, Garneau recognizes the numbers he puts up beside the plate pale in comparison to what he offers his pitching staff behind the plate—and his main goal this spring as he fights for a spot on the team is to impress the Rockies with his defense first.
"I just need to catch the way I know how to catch," Garneau said. "Run the staff so they get to like throwing to me. That’s number one, by far."
And if he does lose out on a big league job by Opening Day? If Garneau does find himself back in Triple-A to start the season, waiting on a call from Denver whenever he's needed? The San Pedro, California native didn't sound too worried about what would be just another stop in a long minor league journey.
"If you get past the travel [in the PCL] and learn to show up on the road and play, that’s how you learn to play baseball," Garneau said. "That league tests you not just with baseball, but it physically drains you with the road travel and learning how to play through stuff like that. In the big leagues it’s easy, you leave on private planes. But the PCL is a man’s league."
There may be no better man for the job.