D-backs opt for familiarity with backup catcher Jose Herrera

Mar 26, 2023, 7:07 AM | Updated: 5:08 pm

C Jose Herrera

With Carson Kelly beginning the season on the IL, Herrera has an opportunity for ad...

C Jose Herrera

With Carson Kelly beginning the season on the IL, Herrera has an opportunity for additional playing time platooning with Moreno. Herrera posted five RBIs in 47 games played last season.

(Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

(Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

Catcher did not look like a contentious camp battle a week ago with Carson Kelly and Gabriel Moreno in position to provide Arizona a high-upside one-two punch.

But Kelly broke his forearm on a hit-by-pitch Monday and will start the year on the injured list. There’s no timetable for a return, and Arizona needed a No. 2 for the 23-year-old Moreno, an offseason trade acquisition from the Blue Jays.

Jose Herrera and P.J. Higgins were the two prime candidates with the former on the active roster and the latter a non-roster invitee to camp.

“We feel like we have some really good internal candidates and we just got to do it right, we got to thoroughly look through the situation and figure out the best combination of two catchers who are gonna help us win baseball games until Carson gets back,” manager Torey Lovullo told Arizona Sports’ Burns & Gambo on Friday.

On Sunday morning, the D-backs announced that Higgins was re-assigned to minor league camp, opening the door for the switch-hitting Herrera to claim the role unless Arizona brings in an external option.

Herrera is familiar with Arizona’s pitching staff having played 47 MLB games with the club last season as a rookie. He’s been in Arizona’s farm system since he was 17 in 2014. He has caught the D-backs’ veteran arms in the majors and young, upcoming hurlers in the minors.

He threw 12 runners out stealing on 28 attempts last year with a pop time in the 72nd percentile of the league, according to Baseball Savant.

However, he did not produce much offensively in the bigs, hitting below the Mendoza Line at .189 in 124 plate appearances. He’s started this year slow at 2-for-32 in spring training.

“Jose is here and he’s part of this culture in this organization and he’s done everything we’ve asked him to from the time he stepped foot in this building and became a big leaguer,” Lovullo told reporters last week.

Higgins was an offseason signee after he spent 2022 with the Chicago Cubs.

He has been the much hotter hitter this spring, slashing .311/.380/.533 in 50 plate appearances with a pair of home runs.

Higgins played 74 games in the bigs last year behind Willson Contreras on the depth chart and had a .693 OPS. He previously crushed Triple-A pitching, though, hitting .338 in 69 games across three seasons.

Defensively, though, the metrics were not favorable for him last year, as he amassed -6 defensive runs saved in 236 innings at catcher. Herrera had -1 DRS in 346.2 frames.

Higgins also played 244 innings at first base and 25 at third, though, giving Arizona some potential versatility. Lovullo said both Higgins and Herrera got reps at first base recently.

“Familiarity and certain comfort levels obviously are important to me, the players, this culture,” Lovullo said. “But we’ve got some really good options that have also been learning and growing every single day since they walked into camp in February.

“So, all legitimate questions, all concerns and things we got to figure out. The front office is unbelievable asking the same questions and we’re feeding in every answer that we know.”

The D-backs are counting on Moreno with a more expanded role than imagined entering camp. He only played 25 games last year in the majors, but Lovullo showed faith the youngster can produce as he has all spring.

Finding the right combination for the position, Lovullo explained, will come down to whom the organization feels will best help the pitchers execute and win games.

“That to, me is the bottom line right now and the key part of this decision,” he said.

The D-backs take the diamond at Chase Field Monday and Tuesday for exhibition tune-up games against the Cleveland Guardians before Thursday’s season opener at the Los Angeles Dodgers.

Arizona had 30 players in camp as of Sunday with decisions remaining regarding the No. 5 starter and bullpen, which may be related.

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