Going in to spring training, Nieves was locked in battle with a more senior player, former Diamondback Rod Barajas, for the job as Miguel Montero's occasional replacement. It was a job which had been held by Henry Blanco previously, but Nieves had also done well after being dropped by the Colorado Rockies the previous August, and signed by Arizona. However, the team first offered the job to Barajas, and allowed Nieves to walk as a free-agent. After the veteran declined, Nieves was signed, and after not securing a position elsewhere, Barajas came back and took a minor-league deal here.
Both showed decent offense in Cactus League action. Barajas hit.290, with five doubles and two homers, and Nieves batted .345 with only one extra-base hit, but it was likely Wil's defensive edge that secured him the job. As was well-documented, Barajas was utterly awful at stopping the running game in 2012, and was released on March 25 - though spring wasn't a total bust, as he did find his 2001 World Series ring. That proved to be Rod's last hurrah, and he retired thereafter.
Nieves was likely busier than expected, appearing in 71 games this season for the D-backs, only one off his career high. His busiest month was August, when he started 18 times, due to Montero's back issues requiring a stint on the disabled list, and performed well in the role: overall this season, Nieves hit .309 as a starter, including his only home-run of the year, which came off Troy Patton on August 12. Overall, Wil his .297, but like Willie Bloomquist, it was a fairly empty average, with little in the way of walks or power to boost his overall offense. Nieves' OPS for the season ended at only .690.
What was perhaps surprising is the defensive numbers for Wil weren't all that good either. 13 out of 18 stolen-base attempts against Nieves were successful, a 72% rate (admittedly, still likely better than Barajas would have managed), and in 380.2 innings of work, Nieves allowed a remarkable 33 wild pitches. Every other NL catcher with that many WPs, had at least 900 innings behind the dish; it was also the most wild pitches by any major-league catcher with less than 500 innings played there, since Sandy Martinez with the 1995 Blue Jays (he allowed 38 during his 472.2 innings).
There isn't exactly any prospects in the pipeline who might be challenging for a spot on the roster. Our #3 catcher last year was Tuffy Gosewisch, and while it's always nice to see a story like his, with a career of minor-league effort being rewarded with major-league playing time, a 29-year-old rookie with a career OPS of .676 in the minors isn't going to be part of the plan. When John looked at our top 100 prospects in September, the only catcher above A-ball who was mentioned was Rossmel Perez, all the way down at #72, dismissed with the terse "not enough stick." The likes of Stryker Trahan or international prospect Jose Herrera are still a long way off, if they ever make it.
It was interesting to read the other day that the team have apparently been talking to Henry Blanco, about the possibility of him returning to the Diamondbacks, this time in a coach's role. It was notable that our defense at the position has been significantly weaker, virtually across the board, since Blanco left - he spent 2013 with Seattle, but refused a minor-league assignment last month, and opted for free agency. Now Henry is 42, his playing days have to be numbered, but he certainly seemed to have a good effect on Montero when here, and I'd not mind at all if he was employed outside of the 25-man roster.
As we did with the corner infielders, let's also list the potential free-agents. I would imagine we would prefer a right-handed bat, to provide a platoon with Montero, though we'll be hoping Miggy can return to the Iron Man form shown in 2011 and 2012, in terms of playing time at least. Here are all those who fit, for now, regardless of any playing time considerations.
|Player||2014 Age||2013 Salary||PAs||OPS|
While the supply of top tier right-handed hitting catchers this year might be slight - the leading names at the position are either switch-hitters like Jarrod Saltalamacchia or left-handers such as Bryan McCann - there's certainly no shortage of wily veterans available. Many of the names above can probably be had for the spare change collected from behind Clayton Kershaw's sofa.
It's hardly a matter of great importance, but I don't see re-signing Nieves to be in any way vital. While in some ways it'd be nice to have him back (save having to "train" another catcher to work with our pitching staff), those wild pitches appear to indicate his defense was not as good as hoped, and even his batting average was highly dependent on a BABIP of .345. I'd be include to give him an offer, at or maybe slightly below what he got last year, and if he thinks he can do better last year, good luck to him and we'll go after one of the other possible candidates.