49 catchers have been worth more than 0.0 WAR over the duration of the 2017 season, according to FanGraphs. To be clear, that number includes every single catcher who has approached the plate at a minimum one time. The Astros’ Juan Centeno is included, ranked 39th with 0.3 WAR in just eight plate appearances.
WAR, or Wins Above Replacement, attempts to quantify a player’s contributions on the field into one simple evaluation. Offense, defense, base running — it’s all factored in the counting stat, which means more playing time equals more opportunity to accrue more WAR.
The Nationals’ starting catcher Matt Wieters, one of six catchers league-wide who currently qualify for the batting title, also makes the cut. At 43rd. With 0.2 WAR. Tangentially but not quite too tangentially for this article, the Nationals are also a near lock to make the playoffs.
You see, Devin Mesoraco, the catcher for our Reds who are a near lock not to make the playoffs, also falls on the list at 17th with 1.0 WAR. He doesn’t qualify for the batting title so small sample size arguments can be made, but still, nearly a full win ahead of Wieters.
The Reds should trade Devin Mesoraco, either this month before the trade deadline or this offseason before 2018, but he shouldn’t be on the 2018 Opening Day roster. My point in the preceding paragraphs is that if the Reds should trade Devin Mesoraco regardless, now—a time with potential buyers like the Nationals, Red Sox (Sandy Leon, 37th, 0.3 WAR), and Diamondbacks (Jesus Sucre, 33rd, 0.4 WAR) at the ready—is far and away the best time to do so.
But first an argument for why Devin Mesoraco should be traded before 2018 Opening Day:
- He’s owed $13 million next year and the Reds won’t contend before he hits free agency.
- If he does anything in the next month or three to show he’s gotten past his injury, then he’s infinitely more valuable to another club than he is to a still rebuilding Reds team.
By 2018 Opening Day, Devin Mesoraco will be a catcher just shy of 30 with one good season to his name. The Reds took a calculated low risk, high reward gamble on Mesoraco after his 2014 breakout, and I think it’s fair to say now that it didn’t pay off.
A couple days ago. Matt Habel took a deep dive into Mesoraco’s stats, trying to find the catcher lost since 2014. His findings —
“While his production has continued to increase, his plate discipline and K% show he might be heading towards some regression”
— leave little to get excited about, and his conclusion —
“There is still much to be seen regarding the future of Devin with this club, but given the other issues Reds fans have to worry about right now, there is no reason not to be optimistic”
— reeks of false hope in the face of the hierarchy of needs.
The best compliment Reds’ fans can give Mesoraco at the moment is some version of “he’s not the problem.” He’s also not the solution. Maybe I’m writing him off too soon, but Mesoraco at best is a serviceable catcher, which in a league lacking star backstops is nothing to scoff at.
What I’m getting at is this: The Reds could keep Mesoraco and everything would be fine. The rebuild would continue its slow shuffle off this mortal coil, and the club would toil in the mid-bottom of the NL Central until some young pitcher decided to finally put it together. A catcher will not make or break a rebuild.
But, and here’s the kicker: If the Reds choose to deviate from their norm and perhaps follow Jason Linden’s advice to increase payroll and do some early birthday shopping, shedding Mesoraco’s $13 million contract gives them a lot more breathing room without much production loss. Would a full season of Tucker Barnhart (13th, 1.1 WAR) in exchange for a Yu Darvish contract, or perhaps the chance to land Michael Pineda, Tyson Ross, or dare I say Johnny Cueto really be that bad?
In fact, in my humble opinion, if the Reds trade Devin Mesoraco, raise payroll, and go get a stud starting pitcher (let’s say Darvish for simplicity’s sake), then they have the chance to compete next year. The rotation would be better if not formidable, the lineup would still rake without Mesoraco in there, and depending on who the Reds got back for Mes, the farm might even improve a bit more.
There’s the counterargument that the Reds can get Darvish without shedding Mesoraco’s contract, and if contention next year looks iffy by the trade deadline, move him then. I agree, that’s a valid course of action. But, if Mesoraco can show something in the next month that he has the potential to return to 2014 form, a year and a half of a serviceable catcher brings greater return than three months.
It’s also entirely likely that Mesoraco could hit 30 home runs between now and October, cementing his status as the Reds catcher and making this post look foolish. But I doubt that will happen. Instead, Mesoraco will finish with a line maybe slightly better than what he has, pop between 15-20 homers, and do just enough behind the plate. Serviceable, like I said. Expendable too.
Assuming my version of events becomes reality, there would be takers for Mesoraco during the offseason, but there would also be Jonathan Lucroy, Matt Wieters, and Wellington Castillo on the open market. Diluted opportunities never helps return.
If the Reds seize the moment now and put on their best salesman’s cap, Mesoraco would likely be the best catcher available at the deadline. Would the Nationals flip Victor Robles, their top prospect, for Mes? Probably not, but I could see their seventh-ranked prospect Austin Voth head our way.
Devin Mesoraco will no longer be a Red after 2018 because resigning him long term would be foolhardy (assuming the previously mentioned 30 home run burst does not occur). Flipping him now or this offseason is the best way to keep the rebuild on track or perhaps even jump start it.
Which leads to the question: “If not Mesoraco, what do the Reds do long term?”
If you believe in Tyler Stephenson, then there’s your answer. But in this alternate reality where the Reds take risks and the rebuild has a “win-now” timeline instead of a “maybe next year, every year” one, Stephenson is too far away and too raw to fill the gap.
The Reds should trade Devin Mesoraco, and then hedge their bet by taking another plunge: Trade for the Cardinals’ Carson Kelly or a catching prospect like him (Chance Sisco? Zack Collins?).
The best catching prospect in perhaps all of baseball, Kelly is raking at AAA and expects to see the Major Leagues, well, never. The Cardinals can’t move Yadier Molina because of his contract and because of his entrenchment with the fanbase. They could move Kelly to the outfield or a corner spot, but that’s akin to taking a hunk of gold and using it as a paperweight. It works sure, but everyone else hates you for it.
The Cardinals need a lot of things to be a good team again, but they will never tear down. The Reds should take advantage of that singular mindset with one of two options.
- Hope the Cardinals see the writing on the wall for their entire starting rotation and entice them with a couple of the Reds’ pitching prospects. Robert Stephenson and Tyler Mahle for instance. Cody Reed and Luis Castillo maybe. Whoever the Reds don’t trust and the Cardinals might. The Redbirds’ 2018 rotation suddenly has one youthful new face along with current prospects Alex Reyes and Luke Weaver, their rotation fleshed out by Mike Leake, or Lance Lynn, or Michael Wacha — whoever’s name looks the best after Carlos Martinez really — and one bullpen arm or sixth starter ready to go in time of injury.
- Trade Eugenio Suarez for Kelly straight. Open the hole for Nick Senzel, get a promising young catcher behind the plate, and ta-da, the Reds once again have a young core (Senzel, Kelly, Peraza, whichever pitchers are still around) poised to breakout.
I recognize this hypothetical is well past the simple “trade Devin Mesoraco” premise, but it’s not too far-fetched even if it is horribly unlikely.
Assuming the Carson Kelly situation doesn’t happen but Mes does go, Tucker Barnhart becomes the starting backstop for 2018 and the Reds have exactly one year to figure out a catching alternative. By 2019, the rebuild is long past due, that word just a recycled narrative justifying mid-tier ambivalence.
If the rebuild is to come to fruition, trading Devin Mesoraco is by no means the final step. But it’s a step that should be taken for its precedent — that the Reds are finally willing to kick this into high gear instead of waiting it out. Free up money for a big signing, go after the franchise-changing prospect, just do something to prove that 2019 will be the year.
Devin Mesoraco isn’t the problem, but he needs to be traded all the same.