Pinto was something of a late bloomer in terms of his prospect status with the Twins. After signing out of Venezuela in 2005 as a 16-year old, he displayed some power but largely wasn't a player who you would have pegged as a future top 10 prospect in his own organization.
Of course he turned things on their head in 2012 by hitting .295/.362/.482 between Advanced and Double-A, and then .309/.400/.482 in 2013 to earn himself a September callup to the Twins. Those two years created such a successful run and created such a momentum that we considered for most of the winter whether or not Pinto would be the Twins' primary starting catcher in 2014.
Pinto made the roster out of spring training but was the backup to Kurt Suzuki. He homered in his first game of the year, announcing his presence with authority, and in spite of some obvious struggles at the plate he posted a .730 OPS through June 8 (.222/.323/.407) including seven homers (second on the team behind Brian Dozier at the time). He wasn't sent back to Triple-A because of the undisciplined approach at the dish, but because he was positively terrible defensively as a catcher. At the time of his demotion, baserunners were 16-for-16 in stolen bases with Pinto behind the plate.
He went to Rochester and, predictably, hit well, posting a triple slash of .279/.376/.457 in 60 games. He caught in 34 of those games and caught just four of 22 base runners (18%), but his talent was enough to earn him a September callup. Pinto made four appearances as a pinch hitter, DH'd twice, and started at catcher in eight games. While he batted just .206/.282/.324, that wasn't and shouldn't be anyone's concern; catching base runners, just one, would be the primary thing to watch.
Pinto didn't catch any of the four guys who tried to steal a base in September, meaning he was 0-for-20 on the season.
Catcher: Kurt Suzuki, Eric Fryer
Designated hitter: Kennys Vargas, Joe Mauer
The Twins are fortunate that they don't need to scramble to find a catcher this winter, considering Pinto clearly still needs a lot of work behind the plate, but in terms of a roster spot it's doubtful that Fryer (or minor leaguers like Mitch Garver or any other catcher higher up the minor league chain) will be giving him any real competition. Pinto's biggest competition will be his own weaknesses as a player, because as promising as his bat is, it's not good enough for him to get a lot of playing time if he doesn't improve as a catcher. Getting plate appearances for Mauer and Vargas will be too important to shunt many token opportunities around to other players.
Minor league track record
We touched on this in the introductory paragraph, but over the last couple of seasons Pinto has shown that he has the talent to give the Twins some punch. If that punch can come as a catcher, that's even better.
Pinto has played 119 games at Double-A, and in 505 plate appearances hit .307/.406/.490. Those are numbers we'd be ecstatic to see from Byron Buxton this year. In 317 Triple-A plate appearances he's hit .288/.366/.464. Between those levels he has a walk rate of 12.4% and an isolated power mark of .181.
How did he do catching base runners in the minor leagues? In nine seasons, from '06 through '14, he's caught 139 of 430 (32%). We already mentioned how he did in Triple-A this year, which certainly wasn't encouraging.
What's his role for the 2015 team?
There's already been speculation that the Twins could look for another catcher in free agency to back up Kurt Suzuki. Ryan Doumit is on the market, as are targets from last winter A.J. Pierzynski and John Buck. Russell Martin will be sought after and want starter's money and playing time. Unsurprisingly it's not a very inspiring market.
If the Twins were to go that route, Pinto could be sent back to Triple-A to work on his defense. The alternative would be for Terry Ryan to package Pinto in a trade, which is something that wouldn't surprise me. A catcher who can't catch is going to be impossible to roster with the guys the Twins have in-house. That's a good problem to have.
But if the Twins don't bring in another catcher, then Pinto will once again be the backup catcher on the Major League roster and we'll need to hope against hope that his footwork and mechanics improve to the point where he's not a total defensive liability. While it's not an impossible task it's still a lot to hope for at this point in Pinto's development. He'll turn 26 as the Twins break camp next spring, and if you're still working on the basics of a defensive position by that point then chances are the guy is probably just not going to be that good. I hate to make a Matt LeCroy reference, but...it's a situation that does remind me of Matt LeCroy. Except this time, there isn't an opportunity to slot the bat into the lineup.
There's upside to Pinto's bat in terms of the production it can provide, but until we know how the Twins can find him plate appearances and until we find out whether or not he should be allowed to play defense, his chances of being a long-term player for the organization are up in the air.
Let's just hope that he finds a way to be a passable catcher. I like that option.