The start of the baseball season is less than a month away. Every weekday until opening day, we'll be counting down, from No. 20 to No. 1, the most important Mets players for the upcoming 2010 slate. Today, No. 20, catcher Josh Thole.
Josh Thole has a problem, but it is only a temporary one. You can make a strong argument that the 23-year-old catcher is currently fifth on the depth chart, behind Rod Barajas, Omir Santos, Henry Blanco, and Chris Coste (no one is still quite sure why the Mets have so many catchers, but, yet, they do). But if you have to be fifth on a catching depth chart, this is the right team to do it on: All four of the men above Thole are on one-year contracts. Everyone's waiting on him.
Mets fans saw Thole at the end of last season, when he batted .321 in 17 games, and perhaps the most memorable thing about him was his exaggerated, almost comic choking-up on the bat handle (he almost looks like he's bunting). He's relatively new to the catching game, having just picked it up in 2008, and he still has some work to do on his defense. If he'd started a year or two earlier, it's possible none of those other four gentlemen would be on the roster, because he'd be starting right now — his bat is ready. He has an excellent batting eye and impressive walk rate, which help make up for his relative lack of power. He'll start the season in Triple A Buffalo, but he's almost certainly going to be the Mets starting catcher for the next few seasons. It's all a matter of when his defense is ready, and when the Mets have a slot for him.
And that's why he's No. 20 on our list. At some point, Thole's going to be back in the Major Leagues, starting again, being prepped for his close-up — the question is when. That is to say: When the Mets decide this season is no longer winnable, and the race is lost, that's when you'll see Thole in the lineup full time. The earlier you see him, the more in trouble the Mets are. Sometimes, when things are collapsing, you want to see the future as early as possible.