Behind Mets’ struggles to find an elite catcher since Mike Piazza
Mike Piazza played his last game for the Mets in 2005, completing a nearly eight-season stay with the club during which the importance of developing a catcher from within the organization was minimalized.
The Mets had the Hall of Famer Piazza, after all, and even after he departed could add a veteran such as Paul Lo Duca or Brian Schneider to bridge the gap until the answer arrived through the draft or international signing.
They are still waiting.
Todd Hundley, who emerged behind the plate for the Mets in the early 1990s, could be considered the last frontline catcher developed by the Mets to play for them. Piazza arrived in a trade with the Marlins on May 22, 1998, (happy anniversary) and later signed on for seven additional seasons, before the Mets began their ongoing search at the position.
But the Mets have taken few real shots through the draft. Since Piazza’s departure, Blake Forsythe and Kevin Plawecki are the only catchers drafted by the Mets in the first five rounds. Forsythe, a third-round selection in 2010, spent four seasons in the organization and never emerged as a serious major league prospect. Plawecki, a supplemental first-round pick in 2012, had several major league stints with the Mets, mostly as a backup. He was traded to the Indians before last season and signed with the Red Sox in January.
The Mets didn’t take a catcher last year until the 20th round, when they picked Matt O’Neill from the University of Pennsylvania.
“From a draft standpoint, it’s a high-risk position to draft, especially high school catchers,” said Omar Minaya, who served as Mets general manager from 2005-10 before returning to the organization as an adviser three years ago. “We have not drafted many catchers in the early rounds, a lot of catchers in the major leagues have been converted guys. I think we need to do a better job of that.”
If there is hope within the organization, it’s in Francisco Alvarez, an 18-year-old catcher from Venezuela who is among the Mets’ top prospects. But the Mets could also make the position a high priority in next month’s abbreviated MLB draft, which will consist of only five rounds. Two of the highest-rated collegiate catchers are North Carolina State’s Patrick Bailey and Arizona’s Austin Wells, both of whom are considered potential first-round picks, according to Baseball America. At the high school level, Tyler Soderstrom from Turlock, Calif., and Drew Romo from The Woodlands, Texas, are two of the highest-rated catchers.
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“I’m not making excuses for the Mets here; it is an industry-wide challenge, trying to develop catching,” a talent evaluator from a National League club said. “It is the most difficult position by far to find quality depth. There’s a lot of great outfield prospects, a lot of great infield prospects, there’s a lot of great pitching prospects with strong arms that you can dream on. There’s not a lot of great catching prospects, and the reason for that is nobody wants to catch.
“Kids growing up don’t want to catch. Either they are discouraged from doing it because of fear of injury or fear they are going to lose their speed because of all the squatting or there is too much emphasis on defense, when kids want to hit, and you just see a lot of these young players gravitate away from the catching position.”
The search for a catcher led then-general manager Sandy Alderson toward one of the biggest trades of his tenure with the team. After a 2012 season in which the Mets had used Josh Thole, Mike Nickeas and Kelly Shoppach at the position, Alderson acquired Travis d’Arnaud as the primary piece in a trade that sent R.A. Dickey to the Blue Jays. The Mets also obtained Noah Syndergaard, John Buck and minor leaguer Wuilmer Becerra in the trade, sending Thole and Nickeas to Toronto along with Dickey.
D’Arnaud, a top catching prospect, was about to turn 23 and had completed the season at Triple-A. Mets officials thought they had found their catcher for the next decade. But d’Arnaud spent much of his tenure with the organization on the injured list and showed only glimpses of the player the Mets thought they were receiving. He was released last May and had a strong season with Tampa Bay that earned him a two-year contract worth $16 million with Atlanta.
“It was a lot of things with Travis,” said Adam Fisher, who served as the Mets’ director of baseball operations under Alderson. “It was New York and the expectations, the defensive issues, blocking. There were a lot of factors. Obviously, Travis is really talented, but I mostly would point to the injuries. I know fans don’t look at it that way, but that is part of the package. The idea was to get d’Arnaud and it didn’t work out.”
Wilson Ramos is signed through this season, but the Mets hold an option on the veteran catcher’s contract for 2021. The top catcher who can head to free agency this offseason is J.T. Realmuto, whom general manager Brodie Van Wagenen seriously pursued in a trade before last season. Van Wagenen also tried to sign Yasmani Grandal, who settled for a one-year deal with the Brewers after rejecting the Mets’ four-year offer for roughly $60 million. Grandal signed a four-year contract with the White Sox worth $73 million this winter.
Even if Alvarez emerges as a front-line catcher or the Mets find another solution internally, the fruits likely won’t be evident for at least a few years, extending a developmental drought that dates to Hundley.
“There is not necessarily an overarching issue that has caused it,” Fisher said.
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