Joseph optioned, but catcher optimistic about future
Impressive work behind plate keeps promising prospect in Phillies' plans
CLEARWATER, Fla. -- One play -- one unfortunate play -- can change everything.
For rising young catching prospect Tommy Joseph, it happened on May 4 of last season. He was behind the plate for the Triple-A Lehigh Valley IronPigs against the Indianapolis Indians. It was just like any other game, until the batter fouled a pitch off his face mask. It took a few moments for the full impact to be realized, in more ways than one.
"It's hard to forget it," Joseph said. "I got hit. Asked the umpire for time. It just didn't feel right after that. I tried to play at least another inning. [I] hit, and when I was running, it felt like my brain was getting rattled around in my head. I was taken out, and the rest is history."
Joseph had a concussion. He came back and tried to play weeks later, but the symptoms remained. He was shut down again. His season was over as he tried to recover from the nausea, the dizziness and everything else that went with it.
"My reaction time was behind the eight-ball. I couldn't get up to speed," Joseph said. "I felt like I was moving in slow motion. The rest of the game was going so fast. I felt like I was swinging at pitches when they were already in the glove. It just wasn't good."
Before he was hurt, it wasn't a stretch to imagine Joseph as the Phillies' starting catcher in 2014. The organization talked a lot about wanting to get younger. Incumbent Carlos Ruiz was a free agent who was having a subpar season. Joseph was the key to the deal, which also included Nate Schierholtz and Seth Rosin, when Hunter Pence was dealt to the Giants just before the Trade Deadline in '12.
After Joseph played in just 36 games in 2013 and batted .179 with three home runs and 16 RBIs, though, the Phillies had little choice but to re-sign the 35-year-old Ruiz to a three-year, $26 million deal.
So Friday morning, before the team buses departed for the Grapefruit League game against the Pirates in Bradenton, Fla., the Phillies made a series of roster moves. Left-hander Jeremy Horst and outfielders Tyson Gillies and Zach Collier were optioned. Catcher Lou Marson was released. Left-hander Cesar Jimenez, right-hander Ken Giles and infielder Andres Blanco were reassigned to the Minor League complex. Catcher Sebastian Valle, who had been reassigned, was brought back to big league camp.
And one more: Joseph was called in and informed that he, too, had been sent out.
However, two throws -- two impressive throws -- reminded the Phillies that they shouldn't forget about him.
It happened last Sunday, in an exhibition game against the Twins at Hammond Stadium in Fort Myers, Fla. Joseph entered the game as a defensive replacement in the bottom of the eighth and caught Alex Presley trying to steal second. In the ninth, he did the same to Jermaine Mitchell. And these weren't just routine throws. These were the kind that make even hardened baseball men sit up a little straighter in their seats behind the plate.
"For a young player, there's no question he opened our eyes with those throws," said Phillies senior consultant Dallas Green, who has spent more than a half century in the game. "You know, we've got high hopes for him. He's just had a rough go with the concussions and stuff. But he has to figure in the future.
"It's not only the strength of the throws, but the release. And his release time was very, very good. The quickness and footwork and everything had to go perfectly. And it did. He just executed both of them with the kind of precision we're looking for. I still think [Bob Boone] is one of the best I've ever been around in terms of release and catching and defense and throwing the ball. We haven't seen a lot of [Joseph] in action, so that reinforced what we kind of thought might happen. But you have to have it happen in a game. And he did it."
Yes, Joseph wonders about what might have been. Of course he does.
"Those are things you definitely don't want to think about. But obviously, people around you will put things in your head. Whether it's [the media] or my buddies or whoever. It doesn't matter. It's hard not to think about, but things happen and I can only worry about the situation I'm in right now," Joseph said.
"Last year was very difficult. Obviously, it wasn't what you want when you start a season. But now that it's in the past, we have good things to look forward to in 2014. And I'm excited about it."
Much of that excitement is based on the fact that he's healthy again. Joseph went to see Dr. Micky Collins in Pittsburgh after the season. He went through two days of tests and came back clean, and he was told he had nothing to worry about. It was too late for the Florida Instructional League, so he played a month for Estrellas in the Dominican Republic.
Joseph is still just 22 years old. He made a good impression this spring. With Friday's moves, the Phillies have 44 players left in camp.
Joseph is no longer one of them. His path to the big leagues seems to be blocked. Then again, things can change quickly in baseball. Nobody knows that better than he does.
Paul Hagen is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.