FORT MYERS, FLA. – The previous Twins baseball administration had made a notable trade for John Ryan Murphy, acquiring the catcher from the New York Yankees for outfielder Aaron Hicks before the 2016 season.
Murphy’s hitting was so feeble that he was sent to Class AAA Rochester and Juan Centeno was installed as the backup to Kurt Suzuki.
Terry Ryan left as general manager at midseason of the 2016 disaster, and Derek Falvey was hired in the fall. The most aggressive move made by Falvey was to sign Jason Castro, a defensive catcher, to a three-year, $24.5 million deal.
There also was a more subtle sign with the catching situation that showed how much differently the new guys saw the roster.
The Twins signed Chris Gimenez, 34, to a minor league deal on Jan. 19, 2017. Gimenez’s transaction page looked more like the itinerary for a new season of Guy Fieri’s “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives.’’
Allegedly, Gimenez was there to compete with Murphy and Mitch Garver to be the second catcher, but you could tell from Day One of spring training, he was on the team.
Falvey knew Gimenez from Cleveland and General Manager Thad Levine from Texas, and they were fully invested in the idea Gimenez would bring a leadership vibe to the dreary, losing clubhouse they had inherited.
Gimenez was out front from the beginning with his big personality. He also started 54 games at catcher, two at first base and one in left field, hitting .220 but also seven home runs.
“We really appreciated everything Chris Gimenez delivered,’’ Levine said this week. “I think we made a lot of what he did off the field, but it should be underscored what he added on the field.’’
Gimenez was ready to return to the Twins. Falvey, Levine and manager Paul Molitor would have liked to have him around again in 2018. In the end, they chose the possibility of a potent bat over Gimenez.
He did OK. Signing late with the Cubs, Gimenez might win a World Series as Yu Darvish’s designated catcher. Yet, the Twins’ logic is undisputable, as stated by Levine:
“Mitch Garver is a 27-year-old prospect who we didn’t necessarily want to relegate him to going back to Triple A. … We felt somewhat honor bound to give him an opportunity.’’
The Twins aren’t declaring Garver to be set as the backup catcher. Assuming good health, it’s also hard to imagine what would prevent the Castro-Garver combination.
Garver signed out of the University of New Mexico as a 22-year-old in 2013. He’s entering Year 6 and it’s past time to see if that righthanded bat plays in the big leagues.
Garver’s grandfather, Bill, was a fast-pitch softball catcher of note in Albuquerque, N.M. He gave his grandson a catcher’s mask when Mitch was entering T-ball. He’s been behind the plate since, while acknowledging this:
“I’ve been tagged as an offense-first catcher since the beginning. The Twins have pushed me to improve with receiving and my work with pitchers. I’ve always had a strong arm. That was never the issue.’’
Receiving is blocking pitches, staying on balance, and not jerking the glove around the zone (Josmil Pinto-style).
Once the Twins ended the charade and gave Gimenez the backup job in 2017, Garver wound up sharing catching duties with Murphy at Rochester. Garver hit; Murphy didn’t.
On July 27, Murphy was traded to Arizona for lefthander Gabriel Moya. Three weeks later, Robbie Grossman was injured and Garver was called to the majors for the first time. He made a late-night call to Grandpa Bill with the news.
“He was excited,’’ Garver said. “We all were.’’
Garver made four starts at catcher, three at first base, one in left field and two as designated hitter. He was 9-for-46 with a double, an unlikely three triples, and three RBI. The .196 average in that brief time tells zero of what Garver might provide in 2018.
Chad Allen is entering his sixth season as a hitting coach in the Twins’ organization and third in Rochester.
“I love him,’’ Allen said. “First time I saw him in minor league camp, four years ago, his bat path to me was special. And the more I saw, his power for a catcher … wow.
“Not many catchers can drive the ball out of the park the other way. Mitch can do that. The way he gets the bat through the zone, allows him to stay on the breaking ball. I’m a big believer in him.’’
There’s enough Garver belief here to have said goodbye to a player and personality the Twins loved in Chris Gimenez.