FORT MYERS, FLA. – The timing couldn’t have been worse for someone trying to win one of the few available spots on the Twins’ Opening Day roster.
When spring training games started, Josmil Pinto was slowed because of a right quadriceps strain suffered during a running drill. And running isn’t Pinto’s forte. He was able to play a chunk of the Venezuelan Winter League during the offseason with no issues, but when it was time to head for Twins camp, he broke down and fell behind the other players.
Now he has to make up for lost time.
Pinto made his spring training debut Wednesday in a 5-2 loss to Tampa Bay, going 0-for-2 with a walk as the designated hitter. Now he can jump into the middle of the battle to be Kurt Suzuki’s backup catcher and try to convince the coaching staff he’s worth taking north.
“I’m very excited to be finally playing,” Pinto said. “I can take batting practice again and feel really good. [Injuries] happen sometimes, but I’ll play a couple games and try to make the team.”
Pinto has to go against the grain if he’s going to make the team. Pinto’s best talent is swinging a powerful bat. In 78 big league games over the past two seasons, Pinto has batted .257 with 11 home runs and 30 RBI. He puts on a show during batting practice.
On most teams, however, the backup catcher is a defensive whiz or a master at handling a pitching staff. Those are not Pinto’s best attributes. A hitter who only plays a couple of times a week — like a backup catcher — has to figure how to keep his batting skills from getting dull on the bench.
Eric Fryer batted .213 in 28 games last season but is solid behind the plate. At age 29 and only 50 games in the majors, no one is worried about keeping Fryer’s bat sharp. The other option is lefthanded-hitting Chris Herrmann, whose versatility — he also can play first base and the corner outfield spots — could be a big plus. Herrmann, who played in left field Wednesday, blasted a long home run to right.
Defense or offense?
Twins manager Paul Molitor has to determine what he’s comfortable with in a backup, but Pinto turns 26 on March 31 and might be ready to contribute.
“That’s going to be an interesting competition,” Molitor said. “There’s different criteria you can consider. Do you want the guy that is going to be your best defender for 30-40 games, or you want to have the offense and hopefully have enough defense? I’m open-minded.
“We all know Pinto had a pretty good winter. We see him swing it pretty well at times up here in short stints. Herrmann didn’t get a chance to catch up here last year but we know he’s improved a lot back there. He’s a lefthanded bat. We’ve got Fryer, who a lot of people have a lot of confidence in defensively. You watch him do drills and he’s got that side of the game down pretty well. We’ve got some people to look at and see how it shakes out as we try to put together our team.”
Pinto’s challenge to improve his catching skills is mental as well as physical. He has a strong arm, but opponents were 20-for-20 in stolen base attempts against him last season. The Twins surmised Pinto missed throwing out a couple of runners by a hair. Then he started pressing, lost control of his mechanics and teams wouldn’t stop running on him.
He also needs work on framing pitches, blocking balls in the dirt and calling games. Pressing, the Twins felt, led to breakdowns across the board. Pinto’s inability to smooth out the rough edges in his game probably had some impact on the Twins signing Suzuki to a two-year, $12 million contract extension in late July.
Pinto, from Valencia, Venezuela, played different positions as a kid but felt most comfortable behind the plate.
“You have to be ready for everything, and you are in control of the game,” Pinto said.
He’s gotten help from former major leaguer Raul Chavez, who’s from his hometown and played for six teams during an 11-year major league career. And Pinto said he believes he addressed some of his shortcomings while playing for Aragua of the Venezuelan Winter League, where he batted .321 with two home runs and 19 RBI.
“I think I’ve improved in framing pitches and, in Venezuela, putting down the right signs and communicating with my pitchers,” he said. “Those are parts of my game I need to improve.”
With a little more than three weeks of spring games remaining, Pinto has enough time to show the Twins he’s improved his defense. Hitting a few balls over the fence will remind them of the thunder he could bring in a reserve role, too.
“I’m glad to see that he’s healthy,” Twins General Manager Terry Ryan said of Pinto. “We’re getting deep into this camp, to an extent. We’re hoping to see him come in and see what he’s all about here.”