It’s been treated as almost a foregone conclusion that Anthony Recker will be the Mets’ backup catcher to start the season. With less than a week to go until Opening Day, that still appears to be the case. Recker has the advantage of being both a serviceable incumbent and the only catcher other than Travis d’Arnaud on the Mets’ 40-man roster. That said, journeyman catcher Johnny Monell has had an impressive spring and a strong minor league track record, and deserves at least serious consideration for a job with the big league club.
Monell, a Bronx native, was drafted and signed by the Giants in 2007. He hit at every level of the minors, showcasing a good combination of power and plate discipline. Monell got a brief cup of coffee with the Giants in 2013, then spent the 2014 season with the Orioles’ and Dodgers’ Triple-A affiliates. Last year, the catcher struggled with the bat for the first time in his career, perhaps due in part to irregular playing time; after being traded to the Dodgers in late May, Monell played in only 38 games for the rest of the season, struggling to find playing time over fellow catchers Tim Federowicz and Griff Erickson. Monell signed a minor league deal with the Mets last November with an eye toward reestablishing his value as a player.
Those who have seen Monell like his offensive upside. According to a CSN Bay Area report published when Monell was with the Giants, "scouts will tell you his left-handed swing is legitimate. He has functional major league power." Alex Cora, who managed Monell in the Puerto Rican Winter League, added that "his bat will play in the big leagues.
Monell has shown his offensive abilities this spring. Through 45 plate appearances, the catcher is hitting an impressive .349/.378/.674 with four home runs, nine RBI, two doubles, and nine runs scored. He looks comfortable with the bat and hopes to have a bounce-back year.
Defensively, Monell is considered average at best. Cora noted that, while Monell is "a good athlete," he is just "average behind the plate." Likewise, the CSN report described his "reputation as a spotty defender" with "above average arm strength." Monell’s arm strength could actually be cause for concern. Since 2012, the catcher saw his caught-stealing percentage fall from 34% to 16% in 2013, and down to just 15% last year. This is not ideal for someone hoping to win a job as a backup catcher, a role for which defense is typically emphasized over offense.
Defense is the area in which Recker probably has the biggest advantage over Monell. Recker improved his caught-stealing percentage from 21% in 2013 to an excellent 37% last year. He also compiled two stolen base runs saved, 1.2 passed pitch runs, four defensive runs saved, and a 6.7 Fangraphs defense score in 2014—all very good marks for just over 400 innings of work. He was, however, one of the weakest pitch framers in all of baseball, costing the Mets 7.5 fielding runs by count.
While Recker’s defense has improved, his offense has not. From 2013 to 2014, the catcher’s batting line went from a passable .215/.280/.400 (90 wRC+) down to just .201/.246/.374 (75 wRC+). When he did hit, Recker developed a remarkable knack for doing so in big spots. As Newsday reported, "of his 13 home runs in two seasons with the Mets, nine have either tied the game or given the Mets the lead, including five of his seven last year." Recker’s clutch hitting makes it easy to overlook how poor of an offensive player he was overall. His offensive struggles have continued this spring, as the catcher is hitting just .244/.304/.390 in 46 plate appearances.
Recker’s minor league numbers (.273/.351/.461) were actually slightly better than Monell’s (.264/.347/.448), so there’s no guarantee that Monell would hit any better than Recker in the majors. Still, we now have an idea of Recker’s ceiling as a major leaguer, and it’s not very high. ZiPS projects very similar numbers from each player in 2015:
Monell, at 29 years old, is two years younger than Recker, and his left-handed bat could be valuable off the bench. Given his success both in spring training and in the minors, it would be interesting to see how Monell handles major league pitching. He’s certainly done everything in his power to earn that opportunity this spring.
Monell’s performance has impressed Mets manager Terry Collins. "Johnny’s swung the bat really well," Collins said. "We’ve got to see him catch a little bit more…But, boy, I’ll tell you what, he’s been impressive at the plate." Collins added that Monell would get "a legitimate look" to make the big league team out of camp
If he doesn’t make the Opening Day roster, it’s unclear where Monell fits into the Mets’ plans. Kevin Plawecki is slated to get most of the playing time in Triple-A, and could be called up to the majors as early as this year. At the very least, Monell can serve as organizational depth in the event of an injury to d’Arnaud, Recker, or Plawecki, or should Recker struggle early in the season.
It could make sense for the organization to simply make Monell the backup catcher now. His ceiling is higher than Recker's, and it's unlikely that he'd be much (if any) of a downgrade from the incumbent backup. Moreover, Plawecki's emergence could soon make both players expendable anyway. Wherever he plays in 2015, it would be nice to see the journeyman Monell finally get an opportunity to prove himself as a major leaguer—be that in Queens or elsewhere.