Catcher is arguably the most demanding position on the diamond. A backstop needs to have a working relationship with each member of the pitching staff, keep everyone’s strategy and arsenal straight, play psychiatrist when his pitcher is struggling, know the opposing hitters’ tendencies, he needs to help control the run game, and he needs to squat behind home plate to call, receive, and frame more than a hundred pitches each night. Oh yeah, and he has to be able to hit worth a lick, too.
Jonathan Lucroy debuted for the Milwaukee Brewers in 2010 and Martin Maldonado in 2011, and for the better part of the last five years that duo formed one of the top catching tandems in Major League Baseball. However both have been dealt away in the last several months as a part of Milwaukee’s rebuilding project, leaving the Brewers to start from scratch at a position that was previously one of their most stable. There doesn’t figure to be a more open competition in Brewers’ camp this year than behind the plate, where three unproven commodities will be vying for to make their first Opening Day rosters:
A former 2nd round pick by the San Francisco Giants back in 2011, Susac was acquired at the 2016 Trade Deadline along with Phil Bickord in exchange for Will Smith. Once considered a top 100 prospect, Susac was never going to get much of a chance behind Buster Posey and will now have his first shot at a real starting job with Milwaukee. He’s shown well during his parts of three seasons in the big leagues, batting .239/.309/412 (99 OPS+) with 7 home runs in 262 plate appearances from 2014-16. He’s thrown out 25% of potential base-stealers in the big leagues, but a much stronger 33% during his five minor league seasons. Susac’s pitch framing in the minor leagues has been well-regarded by Baseball Prospectus, though that hasn’t yet translated during his limited MLB experience. Last season, the 27 year old hit a combined .254/.320/.408 with 8 round-trippers in 294 minor league plate appearances.
Bandy began his career as a 31st round pick by the Angels back in 2011, and from those humble beginnings he’s worked his way up to the big leagues. He debuted briefly for two plate appearances in 2015 and then spent a majority of last season in Anaheim, and the 27 year old owns a career .237/.283/.408 batting line (89 OPS+) across 233 plate appearances. He’s never walked much in the majors or during his time down on the farm, but he puts the ball in play consistently and Craig Counsell and David Stearns have both alluded to him having power potential that hasn’t yet shown up in his stat-lines. Defensively, Bandy is terrific at throwing out base runners (40% in the MLB, 36% in six minor league seasons) but his pitch framing metrics were below-average in the big leagues last year and have been only middling during his minor league career. He was acquired over the winter when the Brewers sent Maldonado and minor league pitcher Drew Gagnon to the Angels.
Pina is the oldest of the trio (he’ll turn 30 this year) and has the least big league experience (98 MLB plate appearances). A journeyman who has played for five organizations during his career, he was originally an international free agent signee with Texas back in 2004. He’s also spent time with the Royals, earning brief forays into the majors in 2011 and 2012, before moving on to the Mariners, Tigers, and now Milwaukee (he was the PTBNL in the 2015 K-Rod trade). Up until a few seasons ago Pina didn’t look like much more than organization depth, when in 2015 while a member of the Toledo Mud Hens he made some mechanical adjustments to his swing that have helped spur a later-career offensive renaissance. During his last two seasons in AAA, Pina has batted .316/.375/.483 with 12 home runs and 40 doubles in 554 plate appearances. He carried that success over into his two-month big league trial down the stretch with Milwaukee last season, posting a solid .254/.346/.394 slash (97 OPS+) with 2 long balls in 81 plate appearances. Pina has thrown out 30% of would-be base thieves during his modest time in the big leagues, but a more robust 36% during his 11 seasons in the minors. His pitch framing, however, has been mostly abysmal per Baseball Prospectus. The only one of the trio without a minor league option remaining, Pina seems to be a good bet to make the Opening Day roster, the only question is how much playing time he’ll receive.
On the Farm
Jacob Nottingham was tabbed as Milwaukee’s "catcher of the future" when he was acquired as part of the return for Khris Davis during the 2015-16 offseason, but he struggled mightily as a 21 year old in AA last season. He could manage only a .234/.295/.347 slash with 11 home runs in 112 games, striking out in over 30% of his plate appearances. He’s not well-regarded defensively, and if he can’t stick at catcher then there’s a major question about whether he’ll provide any value at the big league level.
Offensively challenged veteran minor leaguers Rene Garcia, Dustin Houle, and Fidel Pena will all return to provide catching depth in the upper minors this season...Mitch Ghelfi (.763 OPS at A and A+) and Max McDowell (.704 OPS at A) both played well during their first full seasons as professionals...2016 draftees Nathan Rodriguez, Mario Feliciano, and Payton Henry all showed well during their pro debuts...2015 international signee Jose Sibrian may be ready to make his stateside debut after playing in the Dominican Summer League last year as a 17 year old.
Statistics courtesy of Baseball-Reference and Baseball Prospectus