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In the current catching glut, a lesson from the past?

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44 years ago, the expansion Blue Jays assembled a surprisingly deep pool of catching talent, but it didn’t quite turn out as expected

Toronto Blue Jays v New York Yankees Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images

On Friday, the Blue Jays added catching prospects Riley Adams and Gabriel Moreno to the 40-man roster to protect them from next months’ Rule 5 draft. With three talented younger catchers already in Danny Jansen, Reese McGuire and Alejandro Kirk, that makes for something of a glut with five talented catchers.

The question now is how things shake out. Who, if any, emerges as the long awaited Catcher of the Future: an impact regular who is a franchise cornerstone over the long-run. More immediately, that means whether at least one of them is moving this winter, since it’s unprecedented to keep five catchers on the 40-man roster.

Or almost unprecedented. There is actually one other time in franchise history it was the case, and I think it’s an interesting parallel to the current situation in terms of expecting the unexpected. For that, we have to go for a trip down memory lane, back to 1976 and the earliest nascent days of the Blue Jays franchise.


Then as now, it is axiomatic that teams are built from the middle of the diamond out. It is hardest to find players who can produce offensively and handle premium defensive positions behind the plate, on the middle infield, and in centre field. This was especially the case 40 years ago with more traditional and rigid views on what these players had to look like physically.

Not surprisingly then, this was a focus for the fledging Blue Jays and their front office headed by Peter Bavasi and Pat Gillick. The problem was that the other teams prioritized protecting these players, and with the overall talent already stretched and diluted by previous waves of expansion that increased the major leagues by 50% in the previous 15 years, the pickings were pretty slim.

Thus with their first pick in the expansion draft the Jays selected Bob Bailor, a promising shortstop who was stuck behind veterans in Baltimore, but were unable to add much beyond that. Bailor ended up splitting time in the outfield due to injuries, and the other Jays’ middle infielders in 1977 combined for about -5 WAR. That “improved” to -2 WAR in 1978, and it wasn’t until the Jays could swing trades for the likes of Alfredo Griffin and Damaso Garcia that they achieved respectability in this area.

Finding catchers figured to be even tougher, so the Jays started even before the draft. The first player acquired in franchise history was Phil Roof, a journeyman catcher acquired from the White Sox on October 21, 1976, mostly for veteran presence. The Jays bought three more players the next day from San Diego (where Bavasi had been GM and manager Roy Hartsfield was AAA manager), minor leaguers who the Padres risked losing in the upcoming Rule 5 draft. One of those was an out-of-options utility player named Dave Roberts who had started catching in 1976 at Hawaii for Hartsfield.

That gave the Jays some quantity if not established quality behind the plate going into a draft with little talent available. Despite the importance of the position, just two catchers were picked: Seattle picked Bob Stinson from Kansas City with the first pick of the third round; and with the 10th of 12 picks in that round, the Jays took a 25-year old catcher by the name of Leo Ernest Whitt.

Bearing in mind that teams could only lose one player in each round, the ends of the rounds were usually organizations with really weak farm systems and little desirable talent. Whitt’s ability was considered suspect behind the plate, best summed up by James Christie’s quoting Bavasi in the Globe and Mail after the draft: “[w]e didn’t find any good young catchers with strong arms on the draft list.”

One organization that did have talent and depth behind the plate was Cleveland, who protected three catchers on their initial 15 man list rather than risk losing them: veteran Ray Fosse, emerging Alan Ashby (200 career games), and prospect Rick Cerone (45 games).

With their first pick in the second round, the Jays grabbed veteran RHP Al Fitzmorris from Kansas City, who had posted a 3.13 ERA (83 ERA-) in 741.1 innings over the previous four seasons. But at the dawn of the free agency, a 30-year old with the ability to choose the route in the near future had limited value for a team looking to the future, while Cleveland had long coveted him. Thus later on the same afternoon they acquired him, the Jays traded Fitzmorris to Cleveland for Ashby and throw-in Doug Howard.

Now the Jays had their forecast starter behind the plate, “a helluva good young player” per Yankees GM Gabe Paul, whom they viewed as a cornerstone for the future. But they weren’t done yet.

Cleveland was a notoriously poor-run team in those days, and protecting three catchers meant exposure elsewhere. Towards the end of the first round, the Jays nabbed the Beeg Mon, 37-year old DH Rico Carty who had hit .310 in 1976 (career .308 to that point) as Cleveland gambled that expansion teams would not be interested in an expensive player at the twilight of his career on the first round.

That backfired when the Jays grabbed him knowing he would draw significant interest on the trade market. Cleveland had immediate regrets, and a month later at the winter meetings the Jays sent Carty back in exchange for another promising young catcher in Cerone, the 7th overall pick in the June 1975 draft who was a two-time All-America at Seton Hall.


As 1977 dawned, the Blue Jays thus had a surprising degree of quality behind the plate with five catchers on the major league roster — the only other time that’s been the case in franchise history prior to three days ago. So how did that mix end up shaking out?

With the November and December additions, the two acquired before the draft were largely superfluous. Dave Roberts was traded back to San Diego before Spring Training for reliever Jerry Johnson, playing until 1982 as a fringe utility player (0.4 WAR). Phil Roof was kept essentially as the bullpen catcher in 1977, his final season in the big leagues.

That still left three catchers for two spots, though Ashby and Cerone were clearly considered better talents. There were constant reports of trade interest in them, which the Jays entertained given so many holes elsewhere. Ultimately, nothing sufficiently piqued their interest at that point.

As expected, Ashby won the starting job in 1977 but posted a disappointing .581 OPS and struggled in the first half of 1978 and was supplanted by Cerone. The Jays took advantage of a second half resurgence that rebuilt some value to trade him to Houston in the offseason for Mark Lemongello, Joe Cannon and Pedro “Pete” Hernandez (one of Gillick’s few clunkers). He played 11 seasons for Houston and though never a full-time starter was a productive part-time player posting 11 career WAR. Short perhaps of the loftiest expectations in 1976, but nonetheless a solid career.

That left Cerone as the clear starter for 1979, when he played 136 games. But he hit only .239 with little pop, leaving him at .228 (.607 OPS) in 961 career PA though still only 25 years old. After the season, Gillick moved him in a major six player trade in which the Jays acquired Chris Chambliss and Damaso Garcia. Initially it looked like a terrible deal, as Cerone appeared to break out in 1980 with a .277/.321/.432, 4 WAR season for the Yankees and finishing 7th in MVP voting.

That earned him a multi-million extension from George Steinbrenner, but rather than a launching pad to stardom it was a high water mark outlier. Cerone stuck around through 1992 and even posted some good offensive seasons late in his career, but was largely a light hitting complementary player rather than solid or impact regular. The Jays ended up with plenty of value in the Cerone trade, but appeared to have struck out in finding a cornerstone catcher.

But it takes three strikes to be struck out, and there was still one left. Ernie Whitt spent most of 1977 to 1979 on option in AAA, very frustrated at the lack of opportunity and requesting to be traded numerous times. With Ashby and Cerone gone by 1980, he finally got his chance though it was not until 1982 at age 30 that he broke out and established himself. Over the next eight seasons as the strong side of a platoon, he hit .257/.334/.437 and posted 19 WAR. 40+ years later, he remains the best catcher in franchise history.

So of the three young prospect catchers acquired in 1976, it was the least heralded and least desired one who ultimately emerged as the most valuable. While it has no direct bearing on the mix the Blue Jays have currently assembled, it does show that things rarely play out the way might expect. Is Alejandro Kirk (bat-first with non-traditional defensive profile) the next Whitt? Maybe Riley Adams (less heralded, also some defensive question marks with power potential) instead? Is Danny Jansen the modern-day Ashby, about to be overtaken? Reese McGuire most obviously compares to Rick Cerone, does he have a career year like 1980 in him? And does it too happen somewhere else?

It will be fun to see how this plays out, both in 2020 and for the next decade or so beyond.

Poll

10 years from now the Catcher of the Future will have been:

This poll is closed

  • 11%
    Danny Jansen
    (77 votes)
  • 33%
    Alejandro Kirk
    (223 votes)
  • 28%
    Gabriel Moreno
    (191 votes)
  • 4%
    Riley Adams
    (30 votes)
  • 1%
    Reese McGuire
    (8 votes)
  • 7%
    None
    (50 votes)
  • 13%
    Merely invoking the premise is far too bad karmically to answer
    (88 votes)
667 votes total Vote Now