FORT MYERS, Fla. – Brian Navarreto turned 24 in December and probably would have been playing baseball for fun back home in Puerto Rico, maybe in Jacksonville where he graduated from high school, if not for the position that he commands on a baseball field:
There are always an inflated number of catchers in a major league camp, in order to join in sharing bullpen sessions with the sizable number of pitchers that are either on the 40-player roster or invitees.
When workouts started Thursday, there were 38 pitchers on the grounds. All were ready to throw, including Kyle Gibson, who lost 20 pounds during a January battle with an E. coli virus while on a missionary trip to Haiti and the Dominican Republic.
There are six catchers in this camp, with a seventh, Willians Astudillo, hoping to arrive soon after a visa complication. A year ago, Astudillo was new to the Twins’ organization and when he had a visa problem getting out of Venezuela, it attracted minimal attention.
Now that he’s a Minnesota folk hero, Twins officials are being harassed hourly with the media demand: “For goodness sakes, do something. Free Willians.’’
Meantime, the presumed No. 1 catcher, Jason Castro, is being limited in his workload as he comes back after a season in which he played his last game on May 4. He underwent knee surgery a couple of weeks later.
That means Mitch Garver, a lock for the Opening Day roster due to his right-handed bat, and four invitees are on call if the coaching staff needs a catcher for a drill or a serious bullpen session:
Navarreto, prospect Ben Rortvedt and a pair of 27-year-old minor league free agents, Wynston Sawyer and Tomas Telis.
One of the first acts when Derek Falvey took over as the Twins’ CEO of baseball in November 2016 was to sign Castro to a three-year contract. The cliché became this was for his abilities as a pitch framer, although it was assisting pitchers in general that led to a three-year contract.
You can get numerous endorsements for Navarreto in that same category: outstanding in getting the best a pitcher has to offer in this particular appearance.
And that asset has been required to stay employed heading into a seventh professional season, since from the rookie Gulf Coast League to Class AA Chattanooga, Navaretto carries a career batting average of .218 and an on-base percentage of .269.
He’s 24, 6-foot-4 and 220 pounds, a strong-looking athlete and yet has a career high of four home runs and 28 RBI in a season.
Navarreto’s first invitation to big-league camp was in 2018. There were enough positive reviews that it seemed as if he had a shot to start the season at Class AAA Rochester.
He wound up back in Class AA, where he had ended the previous season, and the Twins admitted this was the reason: Navarreto was so good behind the plate that they wanted him working with the younger group of pitchers in Chattanooga.
Lewis Thorpe, Kohl Stewart, Ryan Eades and, later, Tyler Wells were among the prospects that benefitted from being teamed with Navarreto.
Stewart was the fourth overall choice in the 2013 draft. His progress was so spotty that he was unprotected for the Rule 5 draft in December 2017, went unclaimed for the $100,000 fee and made his way from Class AA to eight late-season appearances (four starts) with the Twins in 2018.
“Brian's extremely good behind the plate,’’ Stewart said Thursday. “He’s a big target, he’s mobile, he’s always on top of the game and he throws great. He’s one of the best athletes I’ve seen behind the plate.’’
Navarreto’s hometown is Bayamon, Puerto Rico. He became a catcher “at age 11 or 12,’’ when his Little League team needed one for the second game of a doubleheader. He volunteered, and took to it immediately.
One pitcher that he encountered in Bayamon in his early teens was Jose Berrios. “He was playing shortstop and also pitching,’’ Navarreto said. “The first time I was his catcher, I said, ‘Jose, do not worry about shortstop. You have to be a pitcher.’ ‘’
Berrios, also 24, has made 72 starts in the big leagues and was an All-Star in 2018. And his appreciation remains for his friend Navarreto, just across the way in this spring training clubhouse, but far away in career progress.
“He loves baseball, loves to play,’’ Berrios said. “He is what you need in a catcher. He is a leader.’’
Throwing arm? “Cannon,’’ Berrios said. “Always … a cannon.’’
This was demonstrated last summer in the Southern League, when Navarreto threw out 32 of 56 attempted base stealers (57 percent). This large young man has the goods as a catcher. If only he could hit …
“I played in Puerto Rico and Dominican this winter.’’ Navarreto said. “I changed some things and did better.’’
For instance? ‘’Patience,’’ he said. “I want to be more patient when hitting.’’
In other words, the opposite of this week’s lamented absentee, Astudillo.
“Yes … opposite,’’ Navarreto said. “There is only one Astudillo, who can swing at everything and still hit.’’