FORT MYERS, FLA. – Catching is a fine location on a baseball field for a player if he wants to be in a major league camp in February. Catching is not nearly as advantageous if the plan is to be with the major league team when the season starts in April.
There is the tradition of a reporting date for “pitchers and catchers” before the required arrival of the full squad by several days. There was a record 31 pitchers invited to Twins camp in 2016, and that number was equaled this week.
Numerous catchers are needed to handle the bullpen sessions of all those pitchers. Yet, come the season, the overwhelming trend in the past two decades has been to carry two catchers on the 25-player roster.
There were eight catchers in Twins camp last February: Kurt Suzuki, John Ryan Murphy and John Hicks on the big-league roster, and invitees Juan Centeno, Mitch Garver, Carlos Paulino, Alex Swim and Stuart Turner.
There are six catchers this time: Murphy, Garver, projected starter Jason Castro, and veteran invitees Chris Gimenez, Eddy Rodriguez and Dan Rohlfing.
“That’s right … Garver and I are the only catchers who were here last year,” Murphy said. “There are a lot of new guys, but it feels more familiar than when this was a whole new club for me last February.”
Murphy was the Yankees’ second-round selection in June 2009 and spent seven seasons in the New York organization. He made the team out of spring training in 2015 as a backup and righthanded option to starting catcher Brian McCann.
Suzuki had followed an All-Star season in 2014 with a drop-off in 2015. Catcher was a position without a top prospect for the Twins, and on Nov. 11, 2015, they made a trade in the hope of finding competition for Suzuki and a long-term answer:
Center fielder Aaron Hicks went to Yankees for Murphy, then 24 and coming off a big-league season where he batted .277 with three home runs and 14 RBI in 155 at-bats.
“We didn’t have a lot of memories of him other than the Perkins bomb,” Twins manager Paul Molitor said Friday.
That was a reference to Murphy’s three-run shot to distant right-center in Target Field off Glen Perkins on July 25, 2015. That was a blast that triggered Perkins’ post-All-Star swoon.
That also remains the most memorable Murphy moment at Target Field. That one swing in 2015 equaled Murphy’s home run (one) and RBI (three) totals for his 82 at-bats with the Twins in 2016.
Murphy’s woes at the plate started when he had five singles in 36 at-bats (.139) in spring training. And then he cooled off: a 3-for-40 (.075) start to the regular season that got him demoted to Class AAA Rochester on May 6.
“When players transition to a new team, it’s not uncommon to do too much to make an impression,” Molitor said. “He was maybe so caught up in trying to be the guy to learn our pitching staff that his offense was put on the back burner. He started struggling and just couldn’t find it.”
Molitor added this: “I know he had some other things that he was dealing with off the field that weren’t easy.”
There was an illness in his family. Murphy did not want to elaborate, other than to say it was serious but not life-threatening for a loved one. He did admit there was a lot of change taking place in his life — new team, family concern — that made it hard to relax.
Then came the bad spring, the horrendous April, and he was back in the International League for the first time since Sept. 1, 2014.
“We had a talk the other day … just asking him what he learned last year,” Molitor said. “He was very transparent, [saying] it was hard for him to go through that. I don’t want to say a mulligan, but we’re going to clean the slate.
“I think he’s very motivated to find his way back [to Minnesota] from the start.”
The Twins are also motivated to find veteran leadership this spring. Gimenez has a strong endorsement in that area from new baseball boss Derek Falvey. The pair was together in Cleveland.
Bottom line for Murphy: He was a cinch to open last season as Suzuki’s catching partner. He’s an underdog to be the same with Castro this time.
“I analyzed the season as a whole, found some good with the bad, and I’m back here with a clear mind,” Murphy said. “I had never experienced a season like that as a hitter, nothing close.
“I think I’m going to learn a lot about myself in how I respond.”