Catcher has long been a position of strength during the Tim Corbin era of Diamond Dore Baseball, what with such former luminaries as Jason “The Rain” Delay, Spencer “The Gift” Navin, Shea “Boy Wonder” Robin, Phil “The Hit Man” Clarke, and C.J. “Chi Chi the Frame God” Rodriguez donning the #5 jersey through the years. Since Chi Chi was drafted by the Oakland A’s in 2021, though, we have often had catchers who could hit or catchers who could field... but rarely the total package we’d grown so accustomed to.
Sure, Dom Keegan had a thunder stick, but his catching acumen left much to be desired. Jack Bulger was expected to be the next man up—a power hitting catcher with defensive upside—but 2023 saw more valleys than hills from The Bulge, and his inability to control the opponents’ run game makes him a bit of a liability for pitchers without a quick slide step in their arsenal. Has fellow senior Alan Espinal supplanted him as the starter wearing the tools off ignorance? Might there be a young guy champing at the bit? Let’s see.
The Likely Starter
#45 Sr. C Alan “Espy” Espinal
.275/.359/.495 with 5 2B, 5 HR, and 21 RBI in 34 games (25 starts)
Espinal was clearly viewed as the second banana going into 2023, but you couldn’t help but notice the pop in his bat and overall feel for the defensive side of things last year. Now, he’s got a chance at a breakout senior year that can make him an intriguing prospect for MLB scouts. While he’s not the defensive wizard of a Chi Chi Rodriguez, or a middle of the order stalwart like Dom Keegan, I honestly think he can be a useful #5, #6, or #7 hole run producer for this Vanderbilt team. He’s got real thunder in that bat, and if he can improve his hit tool, could very well be my pick for breakout senior.
10-15 HR are not out of the question for Espinal in ‘24, and with power potentially being this year’s team’s Achilles Heel, I can’t see Corbs keeping Espy out of the lineup. Expect a 2 games to 1 weekend split of the catching duties to go in Espy’s favor, with Bulger possibly catching Devin Futrell—who holds runners on base like a young, non-cheating Andy Pettite—on Saturdays. Expect this to be an open competition all year, with Corbs riding the hot hand, but I like the pop I’ve seen from Espy, and think all he needs is more playing time to make a difference in this lineup.
The Top Veteran Competition
#16 Sr. C Jack “The Bulge” Bulger
.240/.348/.370 with 5 2B, 5 HR, and 30 RBI in 42 games (41 starts)
While I do think Espy’s combination of power bat and better overall defensive ability makes him the likely starter, I would be shocked if The Bulge does not get at least one start per week—perhaps even earning a 50-50 split by the time SEC play rolls around.
Though Bulger received more playing time than Espinal in ‘23, Espy had the better offensive numbers. This was relatively surprising, as Bulger was billed as an offensive catcher with great power potential as a recruit. Hell, it was a major coup to get him through the draft, as he was the #4 ranked high school catcher in his draft class, and the #35 ranked high school player overall. Further, it was clear from the jump that Corbs wanted his bat in the lineup, as he tried a (failed) experiment to use Bulger in LF as a freshman. As a sophomore, he split time with Dom Keegan, and was the presumptive starter going into his junior year.
However, he just hasn’t put it all together in his time in gangster pajamas. Last year was a disappointment, as he dropped by nearly 30 points in batting average, 15 points in OBP, and kept his slugging percentage in the “Wait, wasn’t he supposed to have a power bat?” category. Still, The Bulge has a world of potential, and was even seen taking infield fielding practice this year to find ways to get his bat into the lineup on days he’s not catching.
If Espinal, Bulger, or OF/DH Troy LaNeve can put together a senior run akin to Stephen “The Human Fire Hydrant“ Scott, it will go a long way to putting this team in contention for a trip to Omaha. I’m not sure which of the three will do that, but I’m putting my money on at least one going off.
Oh, and just put on some damned batting gloves...
#5 C Logan “The Run” Poteet
Though Poteet saw no playing time in 2023, Corbs did give him the #5 jersey, and I cannot ignore that. I still fully expect Espy and The Bulge to take the lion’s share of catching duties, but it would not shock me to see Poteet back there... especially in late game defensive substitution duties.
#44 C Colin “The Bar-Room Brawler” Barczi
While Barczi is not the star of the 2023 class, he was the #37 ranked catcher, nationally (#385 player overall). He’s likely a candidate to redshirt, but someone to watch for the future, as Corbs will need to restock the Catching Cabinet for next year (*Note: Keep an eye on Aukai Kea, a 10/10 Perfect Game catcher in next year’s class, as we’ll be crossing our fingers that he gets through the 2024 MLB Draft).