The Philadelphia Phillies are apparently ready to head into spring training with one of their top prospects designated as their 2017 backup catcher.
Coming into the 2016 season, the Philadelphia Phillies appeared to be gearing up for a battle. The particular battle that I’m referring to here was for their catcher of the future.
The position was being manned at the big league level at the time by Cameron Rupp, who had never distinguished himself. The backup was going to be veteran Carlos Ruiz, who was surely going to be dealt before the season was over.
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Either a poor performance by Rupp, or a trade of Ruiz, or some combination of the two was going to open up an opportunity in Philadelphia. One of two prospect catchers would be racing for the chance to step in if that happened.
Unfortunately for those two backstop prospects, Rupp performed well in the 2016 season. That performance solidified his hold on the catcher position in the short term.
As for the beloved “Chooch”, he was indeed traded away – but in return for another veteran catcher, A.J. Ellis.
ONE CATCHING PROSPECT TAKES A STEP BACK
One of the catching prospects expected to make a run at the big leagues this past summer was Andrew Knapp. He was perhaps the leading contender to get a shot to play with the Phillies.
A native of northern California, Knapp had been the Phillies’ second round pick in the 2013 MLB Amateur Draft out of the University of California.
After hitting well at the system’s lower levels, Knapp broke out in a 2015 season split between High A Clearwater and AA Reading. That year he hit for a .308/.385/.491 slash line with 13 homers, 35 doubles, and 84 RBI.
For the big performance, Knapp was honored with the Paul Owens Award as the Phillies minor league system’s top performing position player.
There were some warning signs, however. Despite an equal number of plate appearances at each stop, most of Knapp’s production had come at Reading, a notorious hitter’s environment.
Knapp did not hit well in the Arizona Fall League last year. Then in 2016 with AAA Lehigh Valley, Knapp produced just a .266/.330/.390 slash. He had eight homers, 24 doubles, and 46 RBI over 443 plate appearances with the IronPigs.
As a result of his own step back, Rupp’s production, and the acquisition of Ellis, there was no promotion to be had for Knapp this season. In fact, by the time it was over, he was passed on the organizational catching depth chart by the other top prospect.
ONE CATCHING PROSPECT STEPS UP
Jorge Alfaro came to the Phillies as a linchpin in the Cole Hamels trade in the summer of 2015. Already a highly rated prospect, Alfaro flourished this past summer in his first full season with the Phillies.
In 2016, Alfaro hit for a .285/.325/.458 slash line. He produced 15 homers, 21 doubles, 67 RBI, and 68 runs scored. He is now widely considered a top 100 prospect in the game. Alfaro is also a top five prospect in the organization.
Playing well, Alfaro leapfrogged Knapp, receiving his first big league promotion. First it was for a quick weekend after Ruiz was dealt to the Los Angeles Dodgers, and before Ellis had arrived.
Then after the minor league season had ended, Alfaro was back. This time he would stay for an actual cup of coffee in September. Over a half-dozen games, four of them starts, Alfaro produced a walk and his first two big league base hits.
As with Knapp a year earlier, there were red flags with Alfaro. First, his production came, as had Knapp’s in 2015, in that positive Reading hitting environment. A second red flag went up in his big league audition. Alfaro struck out in eight of his 17 plate appearances.
HEADING INTO THE 2017 SEASON
Rupp will enter spring training as the firmly entrenched starter behind the plate. The 28-year-old hit 16 homers with 26 doubles and did a nice job handling the young pitching staff.
As the Winter Meetings drew to a close yesterday, it was announced that Ellis had agreed with the Miami Marlins on a one-year contract. That would appear to open up the backup catching job for one of the youngsters.
Knapp is likely to receive the first shot at that role. The 23-year-old Alfaro is clearly the better long-term prospect. But the 25-year-old Knapp is better served in filling a backup role at this point.
Rupp as the starter will get anywhere from 400-450 plate appearances over 110-120 games. Alfaro needs to play every day. He also needs those regular at-bats against more advanced AAA pitching away from the Reading environment.
That leaves Knapp, older and slightly more advanced in his minor league development, as the more obvious and natural backup catcher.
VETERAN BACKUP NOT OUT OF THE QUESTION
The Phillies could still ink a veteran to serve as the backup behind the dish. I don’t believe that is likely. It would not surprise me if they invited one or two journeymen to spring training, however.
“I don’t think we need a veteran backup catcher. If it works out we’re open minded to that,” general manager Matt Klentak said, per Philly.com’s Matt Breen. “But Andrew Knapp just finished age 25 season in Triple-A. He has a full year of at-bats in Triple-A. At some point for both he and Alfaro we’re going to have to find out what those guys can do at the big league level. During 2017 we’ll have to find out – not just about those two guys – but others.”
It’s possible that before the 2017 season is out, Alfaro could blow his way past both men and become the starter in Philly for a long time to come. That will be partially up to his own performance, health, and maturity, and the performance and health of Rupp and Knapp.
Barring something totally unforeseen, Phillies fans can expect to see Rupp as their starter when the 2017 season opens. Knapp will be his backup, with Alfaro doing his finishing work at Lehigh Valley.