Reds catching prospect Devin Mesoraco has the distinction of living less than a half mile from everybody's February buddy, Punxsutawney Phil. For those in the dark, Phil is the groundhog that tells America if winter will continue. If the little weather hog sees his shadow February 2, it means winter isn't over.
Mesoraco went to Punxsutawney High School where he played baseball for the Chucks. After having Tommy John surgery as a sophomore, Mesoraco fashioned a wonderful career behind the plate. He set school records for walks, runs, doubles, home runs and stolen bases. Mesoraco was named the 2007 Pennsylvania High School Player of The Year. His outstanding play earned him a first-round selection as the 15th pick in the 2007 June first-year player draft.
Mesoraco was born in DuBois, Pennsylvania, 91 miles northeast of Pittsburgh and within the shadow of the groundhog. (DuBois is the same hometown of former New York Yankees pitcher Sparky Lyle.) The 6-foot-1 200-pound right-handed hitting Mesoraco grew up admiring former Pirates and current Royals catcher Jason Kendall.
In high school, while Mesoraco was athletic in build, he looked skinny compared to his strong and stocky, prototypical catcher's body today. His lower body is much, much bigger now, as he has added weight and muscle over the years. One of the concerns about Mesoraco is his tendency to use too much upper body without getting those strong, thick legs and his entire back end behind his swing. It's a mechanical issue to be discussed later in this piece.
Unlike some players that make an immediate impact as a professional player, Mesoraco had difficulty adjusting to playing minor league baseball. He had a fairly miserable first season in the Gulf Coast Rookie League. He hit only .219/1/8 in 137 at-bats. The Reds moved him to Low-A Dayton of the Midwest League in 2008. The results were better as he hit .261/9/42 in 306 at-bats. Mesoraco moved up in 2009 playing at High-A Sarasota in the Florida State League. The wheels seemed to come off a bit as he struggled, hitting .228/8/37 over 312 at-bats.
2010 saw a complete change in Mesoraco. He began employing a more patient approach at the plate, with an emphasis on making good contact and trying to take pitches where they were thrown. More often than not, however, Mesoraco used his pull side when he put balls in play. His strikeouts dropped but so did his bases on balls. He had begun to hit more balls in the air with an uppercut swing that was made for hitting the ball over the fence. Over three classifications (High-, Double- and Triple-A) last season Mesoraco slammed 26 home runs. His career was back on track. He was named the Reds' Minor League Player of The Year.
Mesoraco finished last season at Triple-A Louisville where he hit .231/3/13 in the last 14 games of the season covering only 52 at-bats.
At the conclusion of the 2010 campaign, Mesoraco played in the Arizona Fall League where this scout had an opportunity to see him over a number of games. It seems Mesoraco carried his season ending statistics at Louisville directly to the AFL. He hit .242/2/11 with an OPS of .705 over 18 games and 66 at-bats. The numbers don't reflect the power he flashed. There were countless balls hit by Mesoraco that backed the left fielder to the fence or just missed the gap in left-center. I was impressed with his bat, but not his defense.
In Arizona, his defense was far less polished than his bat. He made four errors that were recorded, but his footwork and plate blocking were below average. He probably could have been charged with additional miscues. He had 10 passed balls in those 18 games. That's a scary statistic and it didn't get past the many scouts and baseball types watching games. Still, there was enough ability in his offense to keep Mesoraco on the radar screen.
To date this season, Mesoraco has improved his offensive game. He has continued his uppercut swing that results in long flyballs. His weight shift from back to front is subtle and he still doesn't use enough of his trunk and lower body/legs in his swing. He has lowered his hands in an attempt to get to the ball quicker. I believe he'd have much more success hitting if he went from foul line to foul line, taking pitches where they're thrown and going back to raising his hands a bit. Because he's very slow, Mesoraco won't be able to count on beating out “leg hits” to help his average.
This season, Mesoraco has the following line for the AAA Louisville club of the International League:
.315/8/46 with an OPS of .920.
Defensively, Mesoraco has a very strong arm with a quick release. In 2008, he had 15 passed balls. Last season, Mesoraco had 13 passed balls over his three levels of competition. To date this year, he has only four. That's the type of improvement the Reds must see to promote him to the major leagues, and it's much better since the Arizona Fall League.
While it's unlikely Mesoraco will ever make Reds fans forget superstar Johnny Bench, it is likely their fans will certainly accept the power Mesoraco will bring to Great American Ball Park.
The Reds are happy with their duo of Ryan Hanigan and Ramon Hernandez behind the plate. Their abilities provide the Reds an opportunity to be certain Mesoraco finishes his development and is ready before promoting him to the big club. Hernandez is a free agent after this season, while Hanigan isn't eligible for free agency until 2014. Might Mesoraco be Hanigan's partner behind the plate next season? It certainly seems that could be the case. In fact, Hernandez is being discussed in trade talks with clubs that need catching such as San Francisco and Boston.
Mesoraco is heating up with the bat and he wants to return to Punxsutawney High School reunions as a major league ballplayer. He won't mind seeing his groundhog buddy Phil in early February, but then he wants to go to Reds' spring training camp as a big league player. Back home in Pennsylvania, I think he's a guy that will cast a very long shadow.