We’re on the home stretch; it’s Day 24 – the 80% mark – of my 2014 MLB Season Preview Series, and today I round out my AL Central coverage by looking at the Minnesota Twins. Having yesterday called a breakout performance from Kole Calhoun given his new role as the Angels’ everyday right fielder, I am once again focusing on a player who could shine if given the appropriate chance. After a flash of his offensive potential in September, and the cautionary move of incumbent catcher Joe Mauer to first base, Josmil Pinto should this year get his opportunity to shine.
As Aaron Gleeman prefaced in his Twins essay for the 2014 Baseball Prospectus Annual, “Prospect lists are considered pornography in the state of Minnesota.” Everyone knows the names by now; Byron Buxton, Miguel Sano, Alex Meyer, Kohl Stewart, the list goes on – together, the jewels of Minnesota’s stacked farm system are expected to be the backbone of the next great Twins team, a group capable of dominating the AL Central for years upon years. Such a possibility doesn’t seem too unrealistic either at this point, making it easy for Minnesota fans to largely ignore whatever happens in 2014 and simply dream of the future. They might want to pay attention however, to one of the less heralded products of their minor league system; after making his MLB debut last September, Josmil Pinto will be competing in Spring Training to fill the recently-vacated position of Joe Mauer as the Twins’ Opening Day catcher.
At 5’11 and 210 pounds (he has apparently “packed on 15 to 20 pounds of muscle this offseason” as if to provide a perfect #MuscleWatch example), Pinto possesses the prototypical stocky build of a catcher. Signed by Minnesota as a 16 year old way back in 2006 however, the native Venezuelan only began playing full-season ball in 2010, and attracted little attention from prospect aficionados until his breakout 2013 season ( this despite his being added to the Twins 40-man roster after the 2012 season in order to protect him from the Rule 5 draft). Considered by scouts to be little more than organizational filler prior to last year, Pinto proceeded to hit .309/.400/.482 across Double-A New Britain and Triple-A Rochester, bashing 48 XBH (including a career high 15 HRs) in 128 games while also displaying a patient offensive approach that belied his youthful power (66 BBs to 83 SOs). While his production was still dimmed by the numbers of Buxton, Sano, and alike, the Twins saw fit to give him an opportunity at the top level; called up to cover for (you guessed it) an injured Mauer on September 1st, Pinto immediately set about staking a claim for the full-time job, batting .342 over 83 PAs, and continuing to show off his power potential with 5 2Bs and 4 HRs.
With Mauer’s injury struggles officially forcing him to first base this past offseason, it appeared Pinto’s offensive display had done enough to secure the role of everyday catcher going forward. What may hold him back, at least to start the season, is not his bat but glove; though he still represents an considerable upgrade from the since-released Ryan Doumit, the 24 year old profiles as only a passable receiver (at best) for the moment, and will now face competition from the freshly signed Kurt Suzuki in camp. Though he has the arm to deter runners – he threw out 5/11 base stealers in his September cameo with the Twins – there is still work to be done on his mechanics and game calling, presenting Minnesota management with a dilemma; as ESPN’s Keith Law wrote, “The Twins will face a tough decision this year on how to work Pinto into the major league lineup; he needs to catch every day to improve his receiving — and he’d probably be better off doing that in Triple-A — but he’s also their best candidate to give them some offense behind the plate.”
Sending Pinto back to Rochester for a spell however, or even placing him in a significant time share with Suzuki, makes little sense for a Twins team focused on the future. While the veteran catcher is a fine placeholder, he shouldn’t be taking valuable reps away from the youngster’s development, his replacement level production something the aforementioned Gleeman recently pointed out: “in the past three seasons Suzuki hit .235/.290/.353 while throwing out just 25 percent of stolen base attempts and rating very poorly in pitch-framing analysis. Suzuki hasn’t been a starting-caliber catcher since 2009”. With the Twins rightly waiting for the cavalry to arrive before truly launching their attack on the AL Central, there seems to be little reason to not get the offensively-ready Pinto additional majors experience in the meantime, and see if he can become an at least average defender, rather than wasting his bat down in the minors.
The battle to be Minny’s starter may simply come down to who plays better in Spring Training (though Pinto has already begun inauspiciously by sitting out the last few days with a back injury). He doesn’t need to be a Molina brother behind the plate, but if Pinto can show just a few signs of progress, Twins GM Terry Ryan and manager Ron Gardenhire should give him the chance to shine – and improve some more – everyday. Heck knows, he won’t have the attention as their top rookie for long.