Short List of Catchers Battle Behind the Plate
INDIANAPOLIS - With Francisco Cervelli and Elias Diaz expected to handle catching duties in Pittsburgh, four backstops will serve as insurance in the event of injury. Those alternatives could gear up for the Indianapolis Indians throughout the upcoming season. Three of the four names below have appeared in the major leagues, bringing established talent, especially on defense, to Indy for the 2018 campaign.
Jin-De Jhang: Jhang is a three-time All-Star in the minor leagues who filled the primary catching role for Double-A Altoona in 2017. His 576.2 innings behind the plate marked the highest total by far at the position. The 24-year-old from Taiwan turned it on the second half of the season, recording his best month of the season in July (.289 average, 22 hits, 10 runs scored, .723 OPS) and batting .270 after the All-Star break. Hitting from the heart of the lineup, Jhang's shining moment last season came when he rocked a three-run, go-ahead triple in the deciding game of the Eastern League championship series. His defensive prowess was on display consistently throughout the season as he turned in a .993 fielding percentage and gunned down nearly half of the runners who attempted to steal on him. All in all, Jhang's 2017 performance resulted in his second straight trip to Bradenton for Pirates spring training as a non-roster invite.
Ryan Lavarnway: The Bucs had experience in mind when signing the 30-year-old Lavarnway to a minor league contract. A non-roster invite spot this spring gives him playing time with his fifth major league team, and to date he's 4-for-12 with a home run and two RBI through five appearances this spring. The journeyman has also had six stints in the International League. With Nashville in the Pacific Coast League last season, he made six errors in a team-high 61 games at catcher, preventing 12 potential stolen bases while allowing seven passed balls. Lavarnway proved a reliable seven-hole hitter (27 hits, 17 RBI, 12 walks drawn, 14 runs scored), pitching in toward his .239 season average and .327 on-base percentage for the year. He did reach top-five team totals in walks (31) and games (82) for Nashville, but the veteran presence and defensive ability Lavarnway brings to the organization gives him the best chance at making consistent appearances for the Tribe in 2018.
Jacob Stallings: The Kansas native is the only catcher on this list who joins Cervelli and Diaz on the 40-man roster. So far this spring, he's hit .300 (3-for-10) with two doubles, two walks and three runs scored to justify his inclusion. Stallings spent 142 of his games over the last two seasons with the Indians, but also made 10 appearances for the Pirates. Last year, the 6-foot-5 backstop compiled two double-digit hit streaks, smacked 76 hits with runners on, and batted a career-high .301. That clip marked the highest for any batter in Indy with over 200 at-bats. Stallings' play down the stretch, especially in August (.393 average, 15 RBI, .998 OPS) proved critical in Indy's run at the postseason, and in 528 innings on defense, he suffered just two errors and a single passed ball. He led the club in games behind the dish en route to MiLB.com 2017 Organizational All-Star honors. If he doesn't crack Pittsburgh's roster out of camp, Stallings appears to be the front-runner to suit up for Indy on Opening Day.
Jackson Williams: Williams is another option with extensive minor league experience, as well as two trips to the majors. Even though he's played 869 minor league games in his career, his only time within the Pirates organization came last season, playing in 55 games. The Oklahoma native started hot for Double-A Altoona last season as he notched a hit in the first six games, also drawing five walks. He caught fire again in June with a nine-game hitting streak, his longest of the year. Normally batting from the last two spots in the order, Williams struck out 44 times in 2017, tied for his lowest total in a full season. The 31-year-old demonstrated solid defense a season ago, committing a team-low two errors in Altoona and letting just one passed ball sneak past him. He also cut down 17 runners trying to steal. Williams received his eighth career non-roster invite to spring training this year. So far, in his pursuit of a spot among the Tribe's Opening Day catchers, he's played in five games with two hits in six at-bats, including one double.
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