The Mets are set to begin 2012 with Mike Nickeas as their backup catcher. In 69 Major League plate appearances, Nickeas has hit just .190/.239/.254 with one homer, while throwing out four of sixteen base stealers. His minor league batting line of .237/.329/.342 isn’t exactly inspiring either, although he did throw out an impressive 38% of runners. So it seems like the Vancouver native will simply serve as a right-handed alternative to Josh Thole, spelling him against lefties and perhaps coming in for defense. It’s not thrilling, but isn’t that the job of a backup catcher? That got me thinking about some other Mets backup backstops recently…
Todd Pratt: Originally drafted by the Boston Red Sox, Pratt debuted with the Philadelphia Phillies in 1992 and eventually found his way to Queens in 1997. With Todd Hundley smacking 41 homers the previous season and another 30 in ’97, there was virtually no chance Pratt would ever crack the starting lineup. When Hundley got injured in 1998, the Mets opted to use Tim Spehr and Alberto Castillo behind the plate until they acquired Mike Piazza in May. With the perennial All Star now in the Mets lineup, Pratt continued to serve as the team’s backup, and did a decent job in that role. During his Mets tenure, Pratt hit .265/.354/.414 with 17 homers in 640 PA. He also was a solid defensive replacement, throwing out 36.2% of runners. He was traded from the Mets back to the Phils in August of 2001 (for fellow backup Gary Bennett) and would finish his career with the Braves, but not before leaving his mark on Mets history in the 1999 playoffs. Not only did he blast a walkoff homer in the NLDS to clinch the series for the Amazins, but he also stopped Robin Ventura from completing his trip around the bases during the Grand Slam Single.
Vance Wilson: Wilson was drafted by the Mets in the 44th round of the 1993 draft and finally broke into the Majors in 2001. Following Pratt’s departure, Wilson became the team’s primary backup from 2002-4. What made his tenure in Queens interesting was what happened with Piazza during this time. In 2003, Piazza missed a significant chunk of time due to injury, which gave Wilson a chance that most bench players covet (especially the ones who have toiled in the minors): a chance to play on a regular basis, garnering 71 starts. In ’03, Vance hit .243/.293/.373 with eight homers. The following season, Piazza began to play first base, but instead of taking over as the primary catcher, Wilson returned to the backup role, leaving Jason Phillips as the team’s starting catcher. Wilson was shipped to Detroit for Anderson Hernandez in January of 2005, and finished his career in the Kansas City Royals’s farm system before being released in 2010. With the Amazins, Wilson hit .254/.308/.384 with 17 homers in 713 PA, throwing out a ridiculous 44.4% of potential base stealers.
Ramon Castro: With Wilson gone and Piazza returning to behind the plate full time in 2005, the Mets needed a new backup catcher: enter Ramon Castro. Signed as a free agent prior to the ’05 season, Castro was with the team until 2009, backing up Piazza, Paul Lo Duca and Brian Schneider. One of the better hitting Mets backup catchers of late, Castro hit .252/.321/.452 with 33 homers during his 785 PA with the team. Defensively, he threw out 27.1% of runners, so his value lied in his bat. When Schneider got injured early in 2009, Castro split starting duties with Omir Santos, who quickly became a fan favorite. Perhaps as a result, Castro was traded to the Chicago White Sox for Lance Broadway in May of 2009. He’s been productive backing up A.J. Pierzynski, but an injury in the middle of 2011 has rendered Castro’s future unclear.
Henry Blanco: A true journeyman, Blanco has served played for the Dodgers, Rockies, Brewers, Braves, Twins, Cubs, Padres, Mets and Diamondbacks, sometimes starting but mostly serving as a defensive-minded backup. He spent the 2010 season in New York and recorded 144 PA, hitting just .215/.271/.300 with one homer. True to form, he also threw out 11 of 22 base stealers. Entering his second season with Arizona, Blanco figures to always have a job as long as his defense holds up, even at the age of 40.
Ronny Paulino: Paulino was brought in last year to serve as a right-handed complement to Thole, given his reputation of mashing left handed pitching. While Paulino did hit .289/.363/.389 against southpaws last season, that line is well below his career line of .330/.385/.475 (he also only had one home run against lefties in 2011). His defense wasn’t that stellar either, throwing out just 12 of 59 base runners (20.3%). After hitting .268/.312/.351 with one homer in ’11, the Mets non-tendered Paulino this offseason and he went on to ink a minor league deal with the Orioles.
Nickeas falls into the category of defensive-minded backups; more like Blanco and Wilson as opposed to Castro. Given his light-hitting nature, Thole should see the vast majority of time behind the plate, with Nickeas providing days off against lefties, although not all the time. If he can hit adequately against southpaws and provide solid defense, the Mets should be pleased.