Take a stroll down memory lane with me for a moment. The year is 2009, and the great Catcher Wars are raging. Whether you were on the side of incumbent Yorvit Torrealba or the rising newcomer Chris Iannetta seemed to say more about you as a person than it did as an analyst, that is, depending on who you were disagreeing with on which should be the primary catcher. The debate ended when Torrealba left before the 2010 season, but it was an uneasy peace.
We could have another iteration of Catcher Wars on our hands, as the Rockies are set to break camp with two very talented yet very different catchers ready to split time as the primary catchers in 2017.
Gone (to the relief of many) is Nick Hundley. Despite the protestations of some, there is no Matt Wieters walking through that door. Instead, Tony Wolters and Tom Murphy (No. 6 PuRP) stand as the tandem ready to serve as the everyday catchers.
The story of Tony Wolters on the Rockies is pretty fantastic. Claimed off waivers from the Cleveland Indians right around the start of spring training in 2016, Wolters suprised many when he hit well enough to earn a spot on the Opening Day roster. While he struggled to hit in the early season (he was hitting .179/.289/231 on May 27), his defensive abilities were turning heads. He finished in the top ten in Baseball Prospectus’ all-encompassing catching metrics, despite having fewer than half, or even a third, of the opportunities as other catchers on the list.
Tom Murphy took a more conventional route. Drafted in the third round in the 2012 Amateur Draft, Murphy has been high on the PuRPs lists for some time and he was expected to take over the back-up job out of spring training last year. But an anemic spring performance kept him off the roster, then some time on the disabled list only kept him far from The Show. His inability to avoid the strikeout (24% in Triple-A) made it difficult if the approach would ever catch up with the talent at the plate.
Then, in July, both players’ bats turned it on. For the rest of the season Wolters hit a Cargoian .307/.353/.496, though in just 44 games. Murphy went on an offensive tear, hitting .540/.586/1.079 in July for the Albuquerque Isotopes and eventually earning a September call up. Both proved that they have the ability to to add positive contributions to the team, and, since Wolters hits lefty and Murphy hits righty, they would make quite the duo for a catcher platoon.
Of course, there is no small amount of risk involved with this move. These two players have started a combined 78 games behind the plate in the major leagues and both have serious question marks surrounding whether they can bear a full load behind the plate going forward. This seems to be the plan the Rockies are going with in 2017 and the possibility of a high reward, whether based on Wolters’ defense or Murphy’s power (why not both?), makes it worth rolling the dice.
The major question going into spring training is how will new manager Bud Black split up their time behind the plate: by favoring the right-handed slugger, or the left-handed defensive wunderkind? And how will the Purple Row community react?
If Wolters and Murphy do end up with something resembling a 50/50 split in playing time, there won’t be much need for a "backup catcher" in Denver. But due to the inexperience of both players, as well as Tom Murphy’s injury history, it will behoove the Rockies to maintain quality depth.
Drafted in 2009 in the 19th round, Dustin Garneau has been over-matched in the box at the big league level: his .196/.258/.326 line in 151 plate appearances over the last two seasons is enough for a 47 OPS+. Dustin Garneau remains on the 40-man roster, but it is likely that he will spend the season at Triple-A Albuquerque.
On the Farm
The Rockies have one more highly touted prospect waiting in the wings. Dom Nunez (No. 14 PuRP) gained a lot of attention after a big .282/.373/.448 season in Low-A Asheville in 2015. He spent last year with the Modesto Nuts and, though he received great votes of confidence throughout the organization for his defensive skill and maturity, he hit just .241/.321/.362 in 105 games. He will likely continue moving up the organizational ladder, but with the major league catcher position being manned by a two-headed monster of talent, don’t expect the Rockies to press the bat to catch up with the glove.
If Catastrophe strikes
If Wolters or Murphy go on the disabled list, Garneau will slot in nicely as a back up. However, if either of them go out long term the Rockies will be facing a catastrophe.
Anthony Benboom in Triple-A has spent the past five years in the Angels organization, widely considered one of the worst farms in baseball, and was left unprotected in the minor league portion of the Rule 5 draft. His .233/.297/.339 line does not inspire confidence that he would be able to contribute at the major league level. Jan Vazquez, also likely slated for AAABQ, spent 2014 in independent baseball as spent most of last season hitting .230/.335/.309 for the Double-A Yard Goats.
In short, if catastrophe strikes, the Rockies may be forced to bring in someone from outside the organization in order to play catcher.