Maggie Wiggin, ContributorThe role of backup catcher is rarely an exciting one. However, as the Mets look ahead to building a team in 2014, it’s a role that can provide a lot of value to this team, and John Buck may be the best fit for a variety of reasons.
Coming into 2013, the expectation of John Buck was that he would be the everyday catcher for a month or so while Travis d’Arnaud got some final polishing in Triple-A, and then serve as a mentor and backup to the young catcher in his rookie year. D’arnaud’s injury threw a wrench in this plan, though, and Buck was pressed into everyday service for the entire season.
After a historically hot start, he has provided limited offensive production as well as struggling to some extent with defensive skills such as pitch framing and blocking. At age 33, it’s likely that his performance is suffering from playing everyday. His backup, Anthony Recker ended up on the roster by default, and is, by many measures, one of the worst offensive players in the league, so days off for Buck are limited.
Despite an overall less-than-stellar 2013, Buck has some strengths that should not be undervalued. Though it’s clear that he is not a consistent enough hitter to fit into a winning lineup on an everyday basis, his 15 home runs show he still has some pop. Additionally, though his defensive games has some very visible holes, he has been highly touted for both his ability to call games and his ability to “manage” pitchers.These skills are hard to measure and are largely subjective, but they are a vital part of what makes a good catcher, especially one working with a young staff.
There’s little doubt that d’Arnaud will fill a significant offensive need for the Mets and he’s already shown some defensive skills, but managing pitchers and calling a game at the major league level is not easy and it can often be the difference between a good catcher and a great one – to say nothing of its effect on a pitching staff. The Mets were keenly aware of this challenge when they acquired d’Arnaud and they specifically asked that Buck be included in the deal, in large part so he could provide guidance to their catcher of the future.
Re-signing Buck in the offseason as backup would serve a couple of purposes. This mentoring relationship could actually come to fruition and Buck’s experience with the young anchors of the rotation can help d’Arnaud learn to work with them effectively and continue the development that has shown so much promise. Harvey in particular has been very vocal about the benefits of his partnership with Buck. While this is a dependence that should not go on indefinitely, it won’t hurt to make the transition a gradual one, allowing Harvey to work with Buck early next year could help avoid a potential sophomore (or junior) slump. D’Arnaud is an essential component of the team’s plans to compete on the foundation of elite pitching and it would be unfortunate if he had to learn the ins and outs of catching at this level over the course of one month rather than six.
As a backup catcher, Buck’s offense profiles much better. He can provide some power and won’t be overexposed by playing everyday. The improvement he would provide over any of the Mets backups from the past few years would be considerable. Additionally, in the event of an injury, Buck would be able to return to an everyday role without costing the team as much as if d’Arnaud’s backup was more of a Recker type. Though I think d’Arnaud’s reputation as injury-prone is overstated, the team would be prudent to plan for this, especially if they hope to be competitive all season.
The main questions are whether Buck would want a backup role and if the Mets would consider one of Buck’s pedigree to be a worthwhile investment, as they would almost certainly have to pay him more than average for a backup. But if the offer is fair, the opportunity to work with an extraordinary group of young talent and to serve as a veteran leader on an exciting and competitive team could be enough to convince Buck to take on a role that could be subtly influential for years to come.