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March 25, 2017

Is Andrew Knapp still a lock for Phillies' Opening Day roster?

CLEARWATER, Fla. – On Sunday afternoon inside a conference room at Spectrum Field in Clearwater, a who’s who of Phillies decision makers (manager Pete Mackanin and his staff, general manager Matt Klentak and his top lieutenants) will attempt to hammer out a workable Opening Day roster.

The Phillies still have a full week to make their final decisions for Monday, April 3, when they open the regular season at Cincinnati’s Great American Ball Park for the second consecutive year. But with 39 players still in camp and little (if any) flexibility on their 40-man roster, there is still a lot of work to be done.

One of the tougher decisions they face is deciding whether or not catching prospect Andrew Knapp is ready to be a major league back-up catcher.

Since camp opened, it’s been widely assumed that Knapp was the frontrunner for the job. And the reasons behind those assumptions were fairly simple: the 25-year-old Knapp, the team’s second-round pick in 2013, when they took J.P. Crawford in the first round, spent all of 2016 at Triple-A and was added to the 40-man roster in November.

Knapp is one of just three catchers on the 40-man roster with starter Cameron Rupp and fellow prospect Jorge Alfaro. The former is in line for the bulk of big league starts once again while the latter, one rung behind Knapp in climbing through the minor league system, needs to work on consistency behind the plate and plate discipline as a developing slugger.

But Knapp has failed to impress in a month’s worth of Grapefruit League games, hitting .147 (5-for-34) with 15 strikeouts.

“It’s (been) a rough spring – he wanted to talk to me the other day,” Mackanin said after a recent game. “He basically told me, Pete I know I’m not hitting right now but I want to let you know that I haven’t lost confidence in myself. I know I can hit. I said I know you can, too. Just be aggressive.”

It’s also at least debatable whether his defensive skills are up to par for a big league catching job, although he’s ahead of Alfaro in that department and minor league catching instructor Ernie Whitt did give him a vote of confidence earlier in camp.

Is it possible the Phillies could carry three catchers? Possible, but obviously not ideal since it would eat up a 25-man roster spot that would go to someone like Chris Coghlan, Daniel Nava, or Brock Stassi.

“It’s a possibility,” Mackanin said. “We discussed it in the last meeting and we’ll discuss is again on Sunday and try to come up with the best plan for when we break. A lot of it has to do with the (40-man) roster. If we make moves, somebody has to come off. That’s an issue.”

Another scenario that Mackanin and the front office have at least “talked about” was the possibility of carrying just four bench players and eight relievers.

“[Knapp's] been very good [behind the plate]. I don’t dislike what I see. He’s handled himself well. I think he's going to be OK"

In that scenario, only one of the above non-roster, non-catching bench players (Coghlan, Nava, Stassi) would make the team, with say, Ryan Hanigan (who caught Jerad Eickhoff on Saturday and is hitting .389 this spring) winning the backup catching job. But how would a Knapp/Alfaro combo work at Triple-A if both need the reps behind the plate?

There are no easy answers for the Phillies, who are staring at a 40-man roster stacked with prospects who are near-big league ready but in line to spend at least the first few months at Triple-A.

One more observation on the Knapp front: he has started at catcher in only four of the 29 exhibition games the Phillies have played this spring (and has been behind the plate in nine games overall).

Is his defense or game-calling an issue?

“He’s been very good,” Mackanin said of Knapp’s catching ability. “I don’t dislike what I see. He’s handled himself well. I think he’s going to be OK.”

If you read between the lines, that sounds a lot more like a manager who perhaps isn't quite sure and is a little bit concerned with the lack of flexibility on the 40-man roster.

"Let’s just wait until Sunday," Mackanin said.

Perhaps Sunday's meeting – and the decisions that follow – will provide more clarity. 

Follow Ryan on Twitter: @ryanlawrence21

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