Devin Mesoraco — Reds’ 2011 version of Homer Bailey, Jay Bruce, et al

Mesoraco's mother distributed shirts with his name on it (MEZ) when the Reds visited Pittsburgh, near his hometown in PA. Talk about rookie hazing.

The beauty of a small-market team is the focus on scouting, drafting and developing in the early stages of a player’s professional career. The horror of a small-market team is the work put into these players only to watch them develop beyond said team’s budget. For the Cincinnati Reds, catching prospect Devin Mesoraco is 2011’s most anticipated September call-up. Hailing from Punxsutawney, PA, “the Groundhog” (as dubbed by manager Dusty Baker) made an impact in the month he was with the big-league club. Next year looks promising for Mesoraco, but Reds fans were wise to curb their enthusiasm this season while welcoming their next top prospect.

Flashback to June, 2007. Homermania was in full force in the Queen City. Homer Bailey, the Reds’ top pitching prospect of the time, had been summoned from triple-A Louisville to come save the team from another losing season and to lead a shaky rotation as its God-given ace. As Bailey made the two-hour drive from Louisville north to Cincinnati, he saw his face plastered on billboards on I-75. “Homermania” it said, next to a picture of a 21-year-old kid who hadn’t thrown a pitch yet in the majors. Let the dry heaves begin.

Four years later, after fixing some personality issues and finally being completely healthy, Bailey looks like he is getting it together as a major league pitcher. I don’t want to say the hype doomed him in his early career, but I’m also saying it couldn’t have helped. Let’s move ahead to 2008, where the Reds welcomed their best prospect since Austin Kearns to the big leagues.

Jay Bruce exploded onto the scene when he made his debut in May, 2008. Bruce reached base in his first six at-bats in the majors, including a dramatic walk-off home run against the Braves. In his rookie year, Bruce shared an outfield with his childhood hero, Ken Griffey Jr. He was supposed to replace the aging Kid as that left-handed power hitter with above-average defense. But again, these things take time. These things take work. These things don’t happen overnight. That year, Bruce finished fifth in Rookie of the Year voting behind teammates Joey Votto and Edinson Volquez. Sidebar: I’m still bitter about the voting that season. No way should Geovany Soto have won over Votto just because the Cubs went to the playoffs. He was like 29 his rookie year. Anyway, after his initial tear, Bruce has been nothing if not streaky. Bruce is a three-time Player of the Week and was named Player of the Month this May. He was named to his first All-Star game this year, mainly due to his hot month of May.

The sky’s the limit for Bruce, but I’d be lying if I said I haven’t given up hope on him from time to time. When he reaches base twice a week I want to see him work it out in the minors, but I tend to forget he’s a week younger than I am and I strike out in softball.

So three years later, after watching Bailey and Bruce develop into big-league players in their own way, we now have the opportunity to welcome Mesoraco to the club. “Mez”, as some like to call him (including his mother, see picture above), was highly touted throughout his minor-league career. He’s a defensive catcher who can hit for average and call a good game in the process. With Ramon Hernandez unlikely to return next year, Mesoraco looks to be the starting catcher in 2012, with Ryan Hanigan backing him up.

Catching prospects are like gold for organizations. Probably the most underrated position on the field, these masked men have the most profound impact on each and every game. So have Reds fans learned their lesson by not getting caught up in the hype of a long-awaited September call-up? Or do we not care because he’s “just” a catcher? I’d like to think the former. Young players clearly take time to develop in the big leagues and they can’t do it fermenting at triple-A. So with a month of major league baseball under his belt, the Mez is poised to enter spring training with a big-league mindset and should focus on leading his pitching staff to a winning season in 2012.

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