"Growing up as a catcher, I used him as my role model and tried to play like him, and catch like him, and hit like him." —Travis d'Arnaud
The source of Travis d'Arnaud's admiration? Mets and all-time baseball great Mike Piazza. Saturday evening against the San Diego Padres, d'Arnaud will be crouching behind the plate in the shadow of his idol. With the Mets having had relatively little in the way of offensive output from the position in the near-decade since Piazza last suited up for them, continuity would further link the two in the annals of Mets history. As Phillies scout Jim Fregosi Jr. tempered people in the past , "I wouldn't say that he's going to be Mike Piazza. That's a lot to put on anyone's shoulders." But d'Arnaud certainly has all of the tools to become a great player in that vein.
Born in Lakewood, California on February 10, 1989, d'Arnaud played his way onto the Lakewood Lancers, his high school baseball team, where his skill at all aspects of the game quickly began attracting the attention of scouts. In the 2005-2006 school year—his junior year—Travis hit .426/.481/.659. In his senior year, he hit .413/.476/.779, more than tripling his home run total from the previous year, from two to seven.
The youngster was no mere one-dimensional player, either. Nearly every aspect of his defensive skill set received rave reviews: he possessed an accurate arm, with above-average strength. He moved well behind the plate, and had soft hands and good instincts. He worked well with pitchers, and had an intimate knowledge of the game. d'Arnaud was an impressive baseball talent. A first-round talent.
In the 2007 Major League Baseball Rule 4 Draft, the Philadelphia Phillies selected d'Arnaud in the supplemental first round with the 37th overall draft pick. Already committed to Pepperdine University, the youngster elected to void his commitment and sign with the Phillies, who happily inked the backstop to an $832,500 contract. He was quickly assigned to the GCL Phillies of the Gulf Coast League, where he hit .241/.278/.348 in 41 games.
Going into the 2008 season, d'Arnaud began appearing on organizational top prospect lists, albeit relatively low because of his age and lack of professional experience. John Sickels rated the right-hander a C+ prospect that year, and the Phillies' 13th best prospect of 2008. He did not crack the top 10 prospect list compiled by Baseball America, either. Lou Marson's breakout season with the Clearwater Threshers in 2007 (.288/.373/.407) put d'Arnaud well behind his fellow catcher in the organizational hierarchy.
Travis played for two teams in 2008. After sitting out the first few months of the baseball season in extended spring training, the 19-year-old made his season debut with the Williamsport Crosscutters of the New York-Penn League. There, in 48 games, he hit .309/371/.463 and threw out 12 of 53 baserunners who attempted to run against him, a 23% success rate. In August, after playing in the NY-Penn All-Star Game, he was promoted to the Lakewood Blue Claws of the South Atlantic League, where he hit .297/.357/.469 in 16 games, throwing out only 2 of 19 stolen base attempts (11% success rate). In total for the year, d'Arnaud hit a healthy .305/.367/.464, throwing out 19% of all runners who attempted to steal off of him. His performance on the year certainly helped open the eyes of talent evaluators—John Sickels placed Travis 3rd on Philadelphia's prospect list, upgrading him to a Grade B prospect, while Baseball America was a bit more conservative, listing him 7th on their list for 2009.
d'Arnaud played the entire season with the Blue Claws in 2009. For the improvements he made a year prior, the young backstop took a few steps back that year. In 126 games, Travis hit .255/.319/.419. While his offense was seen as something of a disappointment—despite his hitting 13 home runs—his defensive skill stayed at the same level it had the year before. He threw out 40 of 172 baserunners attempting to steal, good for a 23% success rate.
In December 2009, d'Arnaud was part of a major, three-team, ten-player trade that sent the young backstop to the Toronto Blue Jays, along with pitcher Kyle Drabek and Michael Taylor—who was immediately traded to the Oakland Athletics for infielder Brett Wallace—in exchange for perennial Cy Young candidate Roy Halladay and $6 million. Baseball's "ninja GM" saw potential in the young catcher, as he did in the other players he acquired—enough potential that he was willing to give up arguably the best pitcher of this generation for him. Baseball America agreed, rating the catcher as the 81st best prospect in baseball, while John Sickels was a bit more conservative on him, sliding d'Arnaud to a Grade B/borderline B-.
Travis began the 2010 season with the Dunedin Blue Jays of the Florida State League. There, he hit .259/.315/.411. While his numbers were seen as encouraging because he wasn't overmatched by the tougher competition of the FSL, the 21-year-old only played in 71 games, missing time because of bulging discs in his back—something that would become a recurring theme in his career. His ball handling behind the dish improved somewhat, as he threw out 16 of 54 runners, good for a 30% success rate. Baseball America and John Sickels continued to view d'Arnaud differently; the former ranked the backstop as the 36th best prospect in all of baseball going into the 2011 season, while the latter officially downgraded Travis to a B- Grade, citing deficiencies in d'Arnaud's bat that he felt people were either ignoring or making excuses for. One way or another, the 2011 season would be important for the catcher's baseball maturation.
The 22-year-old began the season with the New Hampshire Fisher Cats of the Eastern League. When everything was said and done, the young catcher was the Eastern League MVP, exhibiting major improvements in his offense. In 114 games, the righty hit .311/.371/.542, slugging 21 home runs. Once again, he threw out nearly 30% of all baserunners who attempted to steal against him—he ended the season gunning down 24 of 90 baserunners. Sal Fasano, who was d'Arnaud's coach at the time, later commented that the young catcher's bat speed exponentially increased, leading to his offensive spike. "He was able to snap his wrists like not too many people can", the mustachioed former manager said of his former student. Going into the 2012 season, Baseball America ranked d'Arnaud as baseball's 17th best prospect. John Sickels bumped the backstop up to a Grade B+/borderline A-. Everything was finally coming up Millhouse for the Blue Jays' top prospect, who was assigned to the Las Vegas 51s of the Pacific Coast League to start the 2012 season.
Unlike his 2011 season, 2012 was a mixed bag for d'Arnaud. On one hand, he hit .333/.380/.595 as a 23-year-old in Triple-Al. He once again threw out 30% of all baserunners who attempted to steal against him. He appeared in the 2012 All-Star Futures Game. On the other hand, injuries marred his season. The backstop tore his posterior cruciate ligament (PCL) after appearing in just 67 games, causing d'Arnaud to miss valuable developmental time. The injury was not expected to cause any major lasting damage, and as such, his stock only took a slight hit going into 2013. Baseball America tabbed d'Arnaud as baseball's 23rd best prospect.
In December 2012, d'Arnaud was the centerpiece in the trade between the Mets and the Toronto Blue Jays that sent National League Cy Young Award winner R.A. Dickey north of the border, making it the second time the young backstop was traded for an elite pitcher.
"We viewed d'Arnaud, and I believe the industry views Travis, as the top catching prospect in the game", Sandy Alderson said of his newest acquisition. "In addition, we think his upside is such that he could be a significant player for us over the next many years...Given his ceiling, given his position, and given what we think he can do not just long term for the Mets, we think he can be a difference-maker."
The 24-year-old made an excellent first impression with his new team. In the month of April, Travis hit .304/.487/.554, walking almost twice as much as he struck out, and throwing out 5 of 6 stolen base attempts. An errant foul ball unfortunately broke his foot, leaving d'Arnaud in a medical boot, unable to participate in baseball activities for the majority of the season. He successfully made a handful of rehab starts with the Gulf Coast League Mets and the Binghamton Mets before briefly returning to the Las Vegas 51s. One John Buck baby later, and here we find ourselves, looking back on the long journey to the major leagues.
May it be a long and incredible career.