The first thing you notice about Tommy Joseph is his presence. Its not so much his physical stature because, though 6-1 and rugged, hes not physically imposing. Its more the quiet confidence he exudes and the way he looks you in the eye during a conversation that makes you reach for the media guide to confirm that hes 21, not 31.
He does have a presence and it carries over to his teammates, Phillies' Double A manager Dusty Wathan said. He works hard. Hes mature. Hes a leader. Those are great assets to have as a catcher.
Wathan should know. Catching is his family business. He caught 14 seasons in the minors and got to the majors with Kansas City. His father, John, is also a former major league catcher.
Joseph became Phillies' property six months ago when the team acquired him in the deal that sent Hunter Pence to the San Francisco Giants. It didnt take him long to make an impression. He quickly supplanted Sebastian Valle as the teams catcher of the future. The publication Baseball America confirmed that when it rated Joseph as the teams third best minor-league prospect. Valle, though still valued in the organization, did not appear in the Top 10.
There will be many interesting dramas to watch in Phillies spring training camp next month. The health of Roy Halladay, Chase Utley, Ryan Howard and even Cole Hamels will be paramount. Darin Rufs ability to play left field (and the entire corner outfield situation) will be another. How Phillies officials handle their minor-league catching situation might pale in comparison to the aforementioned storylines, but its intriguing nonetheless.
The Phillies have three catchers Joseph, Valle and Cameron Rupp for two starting spots at Double A and Triple A. It will be interesting to see how this puzzle is assembled and its entirely possibly that someone like Valle could be traded. He was reportedly part of a proposed deal for Houston reliever Wilton Lopez earlier this offseason. That deal was never finalized.
Joseph is aware of the Phillies logjam of catchers, and of the decision that must be made on who plays at Double A and who plays at Triple A. He didnt get skittish and run from the topic when it came up in a recent interview. He didnt throw out that trite I only worry about things I can control response. He smiled comfortably and said, Thats a pretty good decision for them to make. Theyve done a great job building their catching.
For the record, farm director Joe Jordan loves the catching depth at the upper levels of the minor-league system and hes looking forward to a spirited battle for jobs in spring training.
No matter where he opens the season, Joseph seems to be on a good track to Philadelphia, and he could be the eventual successor to Carlos Ruiz, who turns 34 this month and is entering the final year of his contract. Ruiz will miss the Phillies first 25 games while serving a suspension for testing positive for a banned stimulant late last season. Veterans Erik Kratz and Humberto Quintero are expected to fill the catching position while hes out.
Joseph, the Giants second-round pick in 2009, did not catch full-time until he was a senior in high school in Scottsdale, Ariz. Wathan uses that fact to illustrate Josephs potential behind the plate.
Were looking at a guy who has only caught three or four years, Wathan said. Hes kind of learning on the job. Hes in Double A at 21. Thats pretty good.
Joseph threw out 21 of 52 would-be basestealers at Double A Richmond and Double A Reading in 2012. But thats only part of the defensive component that impresses Wathan.
Hes very strong-handed for a young guy, Wathan said. The ball doesnt move a whole lot when it hits his glove. A lot of times thats a thing that comes with maturity and learning how to catch more, but with him I think it comes kind of naturally.
A righthanded hitter, Joseph has good potential in the bat. He hit .270 with 22 homers and 95 RBIs in 514 at-bats in the hitter-friendly California League (Single A) in 2011. Last year, he hit .257 with 11 homers and 48 RBIs in Double A.
Wathan believes theres more in there.
I think 2013 will be a big year for him offensively, Wathan said. He came in and, I think, concentrated so much on his defense and wanted to show everybody that he could catch that I think he put offense on the back burner. Hes one of those guys who is happy if we win a ball game and he doesnt get any hits and he called a good game, which is a very important asset in a catcher, especially a young catcher.
Joseph confirmed: His work behind the plate comes before his work at the plate.
Growing up I was all hitting all the time, he said. As Ive grown up Ive learned that catching is more important. Theres more pressure on you behind the plate than there is with the stick, but I know its going to come because Ive worked hard at it.
Joseph is a cerebral catcher and sometimes that detrimentally carries over to the batters box.
I think Ive got a pretty good approach and I think I understand the game, he said with a laugh. Sometimes I just get in my head too much and start thinking, What would I call here? and I think I get in trouble there a little bit. But for the most part I think Im a pretty good hitter and I know what Im doing out there.
Big-league camp opens Feb. 12 and Joseph will likely be there. The team always invites extra catchers to camp. Surely they will want their catcher of the future there.
Joseph looks forward to watching Ruiz. He admires the bond that Ruiz has with Phillies pitchers.
Thats a superstar staff and hes their guy, Joseph said. Those pitchers love him.
Someday, Phillies pitchers might feel the same way about Joseph.
E-mail Jim Salisbury at email@example.com