Injured Mesoraco creates problem with no easy solution for Reds
The Reds’ decision to keep injured catcher Devin Mesoraco on their active roster finally paid off on Tuesday night. Having battled the Braves to 3–3 tie, Cincinnati got the tying run on base against Jason Grilli in the bottom of the ninth via a single by Brayan Peña. That brought up the pitcher’s spot and a natural pinch-hitting opportunity for Mesoraco, who pulled the first pitch he saw from Grilli into the leftfield corner to score pinch-runner Michael Lorenzen all the way from first base to give the Reds a 4–3 win.
That hit came just two days after Mesoraco went 2-for-4 with a triple as the Reds' designated hitter against the White Sox—his first extra-base hit of the season and evidence that his hip is feeling better. While the catcher has played in just 17 games this year and hasn't made a start since April 11 due to a left hip impingement that could require season-ending surgery, Mesoraco told the Cincinnati Enquirer on Tuesday that he has been feeling better “in the last week or so.” He added that some of the treatments he has been doing have “taken hold and helped” and that he is “optimistic” about having an increased role on the team.
Exactly when or how that role will increase remains to be seen however. Mesoraco has been unable to catch for the last month due to his injury, which prevents him from squatting. He last played the position on April 12 and told the Enquirer a week ago that he hadn’t even attempted to squat since. Unfortunately, catcher is the only position Mesoraco has ever played as a professional. He’s blocked at first base by the team’s best player, Joey Votto, who has made a strong return from his own injury issues. As a National League team, Cincinnati doesn’t have the designated hitter available regularly, and though Mesoraco did recently purchase an outfielder’s glove and has been shagging flies, he considers himself an emergency-only option there due to his inexperience.
Still, Mesoraco has become a more frequent participant in Cincinnati’s games of late. Following his last appearance at catcher on April 12, Mesoraco played in just four of the Reds' next 18 games, but has now appeared in seven of their last nine, albeit all as a DH or pinch-hitter. Still, one has to question his optimism regarding his return to catching given his comments in that same conversation about playing first base.
“That would be a challenge,” Mesoraco told the Enquirer’s C. Trent Rosecrans. “The closer you are to home plate, the more squatted you are. So throw me as far as out there [as possible]—as least of a squat as I can possibly get in.”
That doesn’t sound like a player who is close to catching. It does, however, make Mesoraco’s experiments in the outfield more compelling. Given that Mesoraco has no problems running or hitting, one wonders just how quickly the Reds will try to get him in the lineup as an outfielder. In sharp contrast to Votto, who jokingly told Mesoraco not to think about trying to take his position after Tuesday’s game, the Reds' outfielders are in no position to argue against the encroachment on their playing time. The starting trio of Jay Bruce, Billy Hamilton and Marlon Byrd has thus far hit a combined .195/.274/.355, with Byrd’s .209 batting average and .282 on-base percentage leading the trio. Mesoraco’s batting line on the season is far worse at .143/.250/.229, but he was the team’s best hitter last year at .273/.359/.534 with 25 home runs in 114 games. He has also swung the bat well in his last two games, possibly benefiting from both his improved health and more frequent plate appearances.
Giving the righthanded Mesoraco a spot start against a lefty in place of scuffling southpaw Bruce would seem like an obvious place to start, even if Bruce does have a reverse split in the early going. The Reds are facing lefties Wednesday (Atlanta’s Eric Stults) and Friday (Giants ace Madison Bumgarner), and the latter game is at home in an outfield that should be more familiar to Mesoraco regardless of how often he has actually shagged flies there. Another option would be trying Mesoraco in the outfield in Mike Leake’s starts, as Leake has thus far induced the highest ground-ball rate (53.9%) of the Reds' starters so far. Leake is hardly an extreme ground-ball pitcher, but Mesoraco would be less likely to be exposed with him on the mound. The third option would be to spot Mesoraco for Byrd in leftfield when a favorable pitching matchup presents itself. Having Mesoraco replace the 37-year-old Byrd, a sub-par fielder at this point in his career, would do the least harm to Cincinnati's outfield defense.
The Reds and Mesoraco will have the benefit of getting the DH next week as they travel to Kansas City and Cleveland, but after that, they will have just two more games under AL rules for the remainder of the regular season. At some point soon, Cincinnati—which is currently just 1 1/2 games out of a wild card spot—will have to lift the lid on Schrödinger’s catcher. The Reds must find out if they have a player who can contribute for the remaining four months of the season as no worse than a part-time or platoon starter, even if those starts have to come in the outfield. If not, Mesoraco might as well have the surgery he has thus far worked to avoid, as the four-month recovery time could stretch into spring training if he waits until the end of the season.