The day the Wingnuts signed Brent Dean, prior to last season, was also the day he was seemingly disqualified from ever being their starting catcher.
Every catcher Wichita manager Kevin Hooper has used to start a season, including Chris McMurray in 2014, had previous experience in the high minors or the major leagues. Dean topped out in Class A in five seasons with the Milwaukee Brewers organization.
But if Dean earns the job over spring signee John Nester, it won’t be by default. Dean batted .316 as McMurray’s backup, has experience catching the Wingnuts’ top three starters, and possesses a versatility that could keep him in the lineup on days he doesn’t catch.
Nester, who played in Class A for the San Diego Padres last season, seems to have the inside track on the job, but Dean wants to make Hooper’s decision difficult.
The Wingnuts, the defending American Association champions, begin their season Thursday at Joplin and play their home opener on May 26 against Winnipeg.
“I just know I’m going to have an opportunity at some point, whether it’s starting or to prove myself as a bench or role player again,” Dean said. “I don’t really know how it’s going to play out, but I’m here to work and try to prove myself.”
Hooper has broken from tradition in multiple ways with this season’s catching corps.
He’s using two players who don’t possess the experience he prefers at the position but also Hooper also didn’t bring a third catcher, who would have almost no chance to beat out Dean or Nester, to spring training.
After McMurray retired following Wichita’s championship season, Hooper scoured organized baseball’s waiver wire for a player with a similar pedigree but was unable to find one.
So for the first time since Hooper’s first season, 2009, the Wingnuts begin a season without a catcher who has played in Triple-A – the 2009 catcher was Joe Muich, who topped out in Double-A.
“That’s arguably the most important position on the field,” Hooper said. “To be honest, once McMurray decided he wasn’t coming back, there really wasn’t a whole lot out there.… We only brought two catchers to catch because I pretty much knew there’s no reason to bring a third guy in who isn’t going to compete for a spot.”
Dean had 63 at-bats last season but the offense never suffered a drop-off when he played. He hit three home runs and had 11 RBIs while playing about one-fifth of Wichita’s games.
Dean also worked with Tim Brown, Anthony Capra and Jason Van Skike, three returners who will occupy the top three spots in the Wingnuts’ rotation. Familiarity could help increase his at-bats total this season even if he isn’t the starter.
So could his ability to play multiple positions. Dean can handle first base and has been in the outfield during Wichita’s exhibition games. The Wingnuts may have a need there after former major leaguer Luis Montanez retired on Friday.
“I think it’s going to have to be an accumulation of everything,” Dean said about his prospects of staying in the lineup. “Being consistent defensively and staying healthy, and just proving myself every day. I try to work harder than everyone would expect me to and try to be prepared mentally, physically.
“If I’m swinging a hot bat, obviously it’s going to be tough to take me out of the lineup. But I also have to find a solid spot at a position where I can stay in the lineup even if I have a little bit of struggles offensively.”