When the Twins dealt away Wilson Ramos in exchange for Matt Capps at the 2010 trade deadline, the after-effects could hardly have been more unfortunate. The Twins fizzled out in the first round of the playoffs, with Capps unable to make any real impact. The next season, Ramos emerged as a Rookie of the Year contender for the Nationals while Joe Mauer's future behind the plate fell into doubt amidst debilitating lower-body injuries.
The ill-fated swap had left the organization with an overpriced mediocre closer and no heir apparent should Mauer need to transition away from catcher. Fortunately, the latter ceased to be an issue last year, when the former MVP set a career high in both games played while mostly serving as a backstop. Yet, after being placed on the disabled list this week with concussion symptoms resulting from the beating he took while crouching on Monday night, the wisdom of keeping Mauer at his present position has once again become a topic of discussion
Back at the time the Twins traded Ramos, Josmil Pinto was a 21-year-old with a sub-600 OPS in Low-A. He had previously shown some promise in rookie ball, but his failure to adapt to full-season competition in 2010 and 2011 had the Venezuelan looking like a non-prospect.
Over the last two years, however, Pinto's bat has really emerged. He entered the 2012 season with a .256 career batting average, but went on to hit .295/.362/.482 with 14 homers between Single-A and Double-A. Those numbers were mostly accumulated in Ft. Myers, causing some skepticism regarding their significance (he was, after all, older and more experienced than much of the competition), but he backed them up by posting a sterling .308/.411/.482 line in 107 games at New Britain this year, earning a promotion to Triple-A earlier this month.
He's the rare example of a prospect who has improved offensively as he has moved up the ladder; his .896 OPS in 119 games at Double-A dwarfs his production at any other level outside rookie ball, and he demonstrated very good plate discipline along the way with 81 strikeouts against 68 walks in New Britain. Since being bumped up to Rochester, he has gotten off to solid start, with a .302 average and five extra-base hits in his first 15 contests.
There are still concerns about his defensive chops, but at the very least Pinto's bat looks to be nearly ready.
The Aggressive Route
Drew Butera is gone. Chris Herrmann is catching less and less. Ryan Doumit is among the worst defensive backstops in baseball. The Twins have a fairly immediate need for a quality backup to Mauer -- and perhaps more than a backup depending on what they decide about his workload behind the plate going forward.
Could Pinto be up to the task? It would behoove the club to find out. The 24-year-old might not be an all-world defender but it's tough to imagine he's a whole lot rougher than Doumit or Herrmann, and he possesses plenty more upside than either at this point. There ought to be ample playing time available at catcher in September, because even if Mauer returns quickly the team would be foolish to keep sticking him back there often (or, really, at all) for the rest of this season.
Pinto is already on the 40-man roster, so bringing him up would be easy enough. Depending on what he shows during his short audition, he could be positioned to claim a spot on next year's roster, serving in a Doumit-like role where he splits his time between catcher and DH.
The Conservative Route
The problem with the above approach is that Pinto is still a developing player, and relegating him to a part-time role in the majors when he has only minimal experience at Triple-A could prove detrimental. While his initial production in Rochester has been decent, he has nine strikeouts and one walk, a far cry from the impressive strike zone control he displayed in Double-A. And, of course, he'll benefit from everyday reps behind the plate as he looks to refine his defensive game.
I like the idea of Pinto eventually assuming a Doumit type role on the big-league club, but of course Doumit will still be around to fill that role himself next year, at least early on. With that being the case, it makes more sense to start Pinto back in Triple-A, where he can accrue more experience against high-level pitchers while also getting in his needed work at catcher. If he produces, it would make Doumit all the more expendable, and would also give the Twins a nice option to fall back on should anything happen to Mauer.
The Likely Route
A good argument can be made for aggressively pushing premium prospects like Miguel Sano and Alex Meyer to the majors, but Pinto is not on that tier, and not particularly close. Up until last year, he wasn't really much of a prospect at all, and he still only has his success in Double-A to lean on. Pinto needs extended time in Triple-A to prove that he is ready for the big leagues both offensively and defensively.
At the same time, the precarious Mauer situation throws a wrench in this thing. If the Twins were to decide that their franchise cornerstone should be moved away from catcher for his own good, there's no better candidate in the organization than Pinto to replace him as starter long-term.
But that brings us back to the issue of player development. It simply doesn't seem prudent to throw Pinto straight into the fire. More than likely he will open the 2014 season back in Rochester and will remain there until he clearly demonstrates his readiness and a need becomes apparent. Should that need become apparent before he's ready, the Twins will probably have to find a placeholder in free agency.
Eventually, the hope is that Pinto will make fans forget about Ramos. Certainly Bill Smith would appreciate that.