Kelly, Joseph prepare for roles as part of Diamondbacks’ catching trio
With spring training of the third year of the Mike Hazen-Torey Lovullo era underway, the Diamondbacks appear likely to again carry three catchers on their Opening Day roster.
And that means a crash course for the two new catchers on the 40-man — Caleb Joseph and Carson Kelly.
“They’re gravitating to some new concepts,” Lovullo said. “We throw a lot on our catchers.”
As a 10-year veteran, Alex Avila has experience with getting the information crash course, including doing so last year with Arizona. Balancing out all the different things that catchers have to handle becomes more challenging when entering a clubhouse for the first time.
“It’s the new-kid-in-school feeling – making friends, getting to know people,” Avila said. “It’s just part of socializing. They’ve been taking in so much information that it’s pretty much just a learning curve and processing that and feeling comfortable.”
In 2018, the Diamondbacks divided the catching duties close to evenly among Avila (61 games, 57 starts), John Ryan Murphy (68 games, 44 starts) and Jeff Mathis (63 games, 61 starts). Mathis, who was highly regarded throughout baseball for his defensive abilities, signed a two-year deal with the Rangers in November.
Cleveland Indians’ Jose Ramirez scores on a double by Kevin Plawecki as Arizona Diamondbacks catcher Carson Kelly stands near the plate during the first inning of a spring training baseball game Thursday, Feb. 28, 2019, in Scottsdale, Ariz. (AP Photo/Matt York)
That left a spot open behind the plate. Arizona acquired Kelly from the St. Louis Cardinals in the December trade of Paul Goldschmidt, with the consistent play of Yadier Molina blocking Kelly’s chances to start at the major league level. Now, as he nears the end of his first month with Arizona, Kelly has found the new and diverse perspectives on catching to be enjoyable.
“That’s the cool part about getting traded, you get to meet all these different guys and all these different techniques and experiences,” Kelly said. “Those are vital in a young player like myself because you can take those and grow and see what works for you.”
Kelly was tabbed by Torey Lovullo to catch Zack Greinke’s first start of the spring and handled it well. But with dozens of pitchers that he’s never caught before in camp, Kelly praised the diverse group of catchers for being collaborative.
“Guys I haven’t caught before that come into the game, I can go up to one of the other catchers and be like, ‘Hey, what does this guy got? What does he like? What does he like in a catcher?’ ” Kelly said. “That helps me. Having those guys and being able to rely on them is a special thing going forward.”
That’s also how Joseph has felt in his first professional spring training with a new organization.
“Being able to figure out how we can improve and being on the same plan to try and maximize potential is a lot of fun,” Joseph said. “If you’re going to have three catchers, it’s going to be a lot of in-and-out, so you try your best to be as cohesive and the one voice and on the same page.”
After 11 years with the Baltimore Orioles, including parts of the last five in the majors, Joseph was not tendered a contract and, after being courted by the team since he was first available, signed as a free agent with the Diamondbacks on Feb. 13. With a profile of being a strong defensive presence behind the plate — similar to the recently departed Mathis — the 32-year-old found the three-catcher system to be part of the allure of signing with Arizona.
Arizona Diamondbacks’ Alex Avila rounds third after hitting a two-run home run off Pittsburgh Pirates starting pitcher Chad Kuhl during the third inning of a baseball game in Pittsburgh, Thursday, June 21, 2018. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)
“Having a really good idea that they are probably going to carry three is huge,” Joseph said. “Nobody truly wants to sign a deal to be in the minor leagues. You’re trying to find the best situation, not only for you but for the ballclub. It seems like a nice fit for me.”
Both Joseph and Kelly have one more option year available, giving the Diamondbacks some flexibility for how they want to utilize their three catchers on the Opening Day roster. The dynamic has made this spring into a competition between the two in the manager’s eyes.
“They’re fighting for playing time right now,” Lovullo said. “They’re going out there to do their absolute best, but they allow themselves to go out and perform the way they have the past couple of years, and that’s what I want from them.”