GOODYEAR, Ariz. - It’s fairly safe to say that no player is more important to the Reds’ fortunes this season than Devin Mesoraco.
Mesoraco fills three big roles: Catcher, middle-of-the-lineup bat and emerging leader.
Mesoraco, of course, missed nearly all of last year with impingement in his left hip. He had surgery on June 29. Getting him back at full strength would be a boost.
“A big boost,” Reds manager Bryan Price said. “He’s an All-Star performer, a run producer, a guy that worked his way into the middle of the lineup. He impacts us offensively and defensively. It’s nice to have someone that you think will be out there five out of every six, six out of every seven days behind the plate and able to influence our pitching staff the way he did in 2014. I just think he’s kind of ready to break out and be one of the premier catchers in the league.”
He has to be healthy to do that. Mesoraco thinks the injury is fully behind him.
“Honestly, at this point, I really don’t expect it to be a factor,” he said. “I’ve done all kinds of catching stuff and it was fine.”
Mesoraco, 27, spent the winter in Cincinnati, working with catching coach Mike Stefanski.
“We really put it to the test,” Mesoraco said. “Blocking, throwing. We were down there at least an hour and an hour and a half a day. We put it through the wringer. Everything went very smooth.”
Mesoraco began workouts with the rest of the pitchers and catchers on Thursday. There is one big hurdle left to clear: Playing in a game. He has not caught in a game since the first week of the 2015 season.
“I would say until you really get in a game there’s going to be a question,” he said, “But I honestly don’t have to think about it at this point. If I have to block, I’ll go down and block. There hasn’t been any hesitation.”
Last year was a frustrating one for Mesoraco. He was coming off his breakout year. He made the All-Star team in 2014 and hit .278 with 25 home runs and 80 RBI. He was finally living up to the potential the Reds saw in him when they picked him in the first round of the 2007 draft.
But the hip problem started in the fifth game of the year. He would not catch again. He had 18 more appearances as pinch-hitter or designated hitter. He even tried taking balls in left field with the hope that he could play there. But that aggravated the condition. He shut it down in early June.
It was a lost year, a frustrating year.
“Especially coming off the year I had in ’14, to miss last year, not to be help the (Anthony) DeSclafanis and (Raisel) Iglesiases at the beginning of their careers - that was something I really looked forward to doing. I wasn’t able to do that. It kind of sucked," he said.
“There were situations where I was watching and saw where I could have helped out. It was definitely a frustrating thing. Hopefully, we’re beyond that.”
Price is counting on Mesoraco to do the bulk of the catching. But he won’t be catching five of six days from the beginning.
“I can’t say that would start from Opening Day,” Price said. “I have no reason to say that is not a possibility. No one has given me any reason to be discouraged about his ability to get back and be a regular, primary catcher at this level of play. That’s our goal. Unless there is a reason for me to have concern, I fully anticipate him being the primary guy catching a lot.”
The Reds are also counting on Mesoraco to fill a leadership void. Todd Frazier, the most vocal position player, was traded away.
Price thinks Mesoraco can step up in that regard.
“There’s a lot to be said about the way he goes about his business,” Price said. “He’s a professional. Winning matters. It’s the most important thing, and doing a great job for the pitchers is a primary concern for Devin. We need that type of character on the club.”
Mesoraco is ready for that, ready to lead a young pitching staff, although it is a new role. In 2014, the Reds had a veteran starting staff.
“It will be different,” he said. “In the past, I’ve had the least amount of experience as far as pitchers and catchers go. We had Bronson (Arroyo), Johnny (Cueto) and Mike (Leake). It will be a different situation. I’m looking forward to it.
“Things I learned from those guys I can pass on to these younger guys, help them out, help them to prepare for the game, learn how to make changes in the middle of the game.”
John Fay is freelance sports columnist. This column represents his opinion.