D-backs catcher Gabriel Moreno learning on the job, Carson Kelly nears return

Jun 5, 2023, 8:20 AM

Gabriel Moreno #14 of the Arizona Diamondbacks gets ready in the batters box against the Milwaukee ...

Gabriel Moreno #14 of the Arizona Diamondbacks gets ready in the batters box against the Milwaukee Brewers at Chase Field on April 11, 2023 in Phoenix, Arizona. (Photo by Norm Hall/Getty Images)

(Photo by Norm Hall/Getty Images)

PHOENIX — Arizona Diamondbacks veteran catcher Carson Kelly is playing in rehab games for Triple-A Reno as the team is nearing a healthy group of backstops for the first time this season. 

Gabriel Moreno and Jose Herrera have held down the fort with Kelly on the injured list after fracturing his forearm in spring training on a hit-by-pitch.

The 23-year-old Moreno is the league leader in throwing out would-be base stealers with 14 and entering Sunday is seventh on the team in WAR by Baseball-Reference at 1.4.

Meanwhile, the D-backs are 12-7 in Herrera’s starts.

Manager Torey Lovullo said the team will cross the bridge of playing time when Kelly is ready. The skipper did not rule out the idea of keeping three catchers, although that would be difficult given the D-backs’ depth at other positions.

“I don’t know exactly what the breakdown will be … I do know that Gaby has done a wonderful job and has been thrust into a situation where a very young catcher has grown every single day,” Lovullo said on Friday.

“We aren’t where we are today without Gaby, we’re aware of that, but Carson will be a welcome addition to this team. We’ll figure that out in the coming weeks. Carson needs to get healthy, get strong.”

Bench coach Jeff Banister, who works closely with the catchers as a former catcher himself, credited both Moreno and Herrera for their ability to learn, especially considering all the changes Moreno went through last offseason.

The D-backs acquired him in the Daulton Varsho deal with the Toronto Blue Jays in December. At 23, the Venezuelan catcher was faced with a new organization, different teammates and suddenly a starting spot as of Kelly’s injury.

But his physical tools were quickly on display, and he has been studious learning to work with Arizona’s pitchers and how to command the game, Banister said.

Lovullo said Moreno was not fazed to start.

“Great adaptability, and I speak on that because it’s probably the most challenging part of a young catcher’s growth is how to call a game, how to have the leadership skills with your pitching staff, phrases and things to say when you walk out to the mound and talk to your pitching staff and then in between starts to connect with your starting pitchers,” Banister said on Saturday.

“They’re so willing to absorb information and are open-minded yet stubborn enough because it takes some stubbornness to be in this position, to be able to go out there and be the leader that you need to be behind the plate.”

Moreno is an athletic catcher improving as a blocker.

Offensively, he’s shown promise with a .746 OPS over his first 34 games, although he’s hit a rut lately. He’s been a singles hitter with a .282 average, but his above-average exit velocity and hard-hit percentage show signs of more if he lifts the ball.

Moreno said that his learning process in MLB began last year, as he made his debut with the Blue Jays and played in 25 games. The Blue Jays had a logjam at catcher, giving the D-backs the opportunity to add a potential staple behind the dish for the foreseeable future.

“I prepared, I worked very hard,” Moreno said, translated from Spanish. “The work that I have been doing, I’ve been doing behind the plate and things have turned out well.”

Moreno has started 41 of Arizona’s first 60 games at catcher. The most games he’s started as a catcher in a pro season has been 67 last year between Triple-A and the majors, according to FanGraphs.

Lovullo said Kelly will bite into Moreno’s playing time in some capacity, but he acknowledged the days of Pudge Rodriguez catching 145-105 days are no more.

“We want to be strong in August. We plan on playing meaningful games in August and September, and I want everybody playing well and staying strong right now to be that strong at that time of the year,” Lovullo said. “That’s up to me to manage workloads.”

With Kelly back in the mix, Banister said he felt the young catchers could learn from the veteran just as Kelly could pick up valuable information from them. The incumbent starter is in his fifth season with the D-backs after coming over in the Paul Goldschmidt trade.

Kelly hasn’t been on an island this whole time, Banister joked, coming to Chase Field to spend time around the team.

“He’s been watching, but also there are things that our guys have been doing with these pitchers that they’re going to be able to translate to Carson to give him a leg up as we integrate him back into the lineup,” Banister said.

“On the flip side of that, here’s a guy who’s been around … Any time you have a veteran player who goes out and plays there’s a certain sense of calmness, but there’s also ways that he may call game, he may approach a pitcher, how he communicates with certain pitchers and why and when … those are all things that can be learned from a guy who has been there.”

Kelly played in his fourth rehab game on Sunday, and there is still some runway before the D-backs may make a decision with the roster.

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