Donnellon: For Phillies' Knapp, job might be in the bag

Andrew Knapp batting March 4 2017
Phillies' catcher and first baseman Andrew Knapp watches his seventh-inning RBI double against the Atlanta Braves during a spring training game on Saturday, March 4, 2017 at Spectrum Field in Clearwater, Fla.

CLEARWATER, Fla. - Two things you notice quickly upon arrival at the Phillies' spring training complex: There are a ton of ex-managers here, and a ton of catchers and ex-catchers, too. On any given sun-splashed morning, you are likely to see Charlie Manuel and Larry Bowa in animated storytelling on the infield grass, waiting for the players to arrive; Juan Samuel involved in some detail work as well; Ernie Whitt down by the batting cage.

A roving instructor with the Phillies, Whitt's an ex-catcher and, after Canada's elimination from the World Baseball Classic, an ex-manager, too. John McLaren, once the Mariners' manager and now the Phillies' bullpen coach, is an ex-catcher, too. Out by first base, there's Tommy Joseph, once projected as the Phillies' catcher of the future, more recently a surprise answer to life beyond Ryan Howard.

Bryan Holaday is here as a nonroster invitee, as is Ryan Hanigan. They have 11 big-league years in the books between them, all as backup catchers. You know how they once told you as a kid that the best route to the big leagues was to catch? Well, the coaching rosters and roster carousels this time of the year are your living proof.

Squeezed into this landscape is Andrew Knapp, catching prospect. Or these days, catching prospect with an asterisk. If Knapp makes this team, and the numbers are oddly in his favor, it will not be because he tore up the Grapefruit League or handled the pitching staff with aplomb. It will not be because of any catching or hitting characteristic at all.

"If you would have told me a couple of years ago when I was playing first base at Cal that that could potentially help me get into the big leagues, I would have told you that you were crazy," Knapp was saying by his locker over the weekend. "I'm a catcher."

Well, not entirely. Seems that back when he was a freshman at the University of California, the same sort of thing that's happened this spring happened then. The drafted catcher he was recruited to replace decided to return for his senior season. Unexpectedly relegated to the bench at the start, Knapp, who had played only catcher in high school, became the team's regular first baseman after the starter tore up a shoulder.

Guess how he feels about that season now?

"Awesome," he said. "Having that versatility helps a lot. Being able to play multiple positions adds value. And being able to switch-hit adds value, too."

"So the more I'm able to do off the bench all the better."

There you have it, a 25-year-old rookie already embracing a role that no second-round draft pick imagines when he first signs. But as previously noted, the Phillies' system is top-heavy with catchers, and if organizational dreams become reality, Jorge Alfaro will get one more season of seasoning at Triple A before at least sharing the job with Cameron Rupp in 2018.

Where does that leave Knapp? Right now, somewhere between first and home. He played winter ball to get ready for this utility role, and there's been talk that he could eventually work some outfield into his bench role someday. The plan now, though, is to back up Rupp at catcher and spell Joseph at first, especially against righthanded pitching.

Joseph hit .248 against righthanders last season. But he was .295 against righties after July 1. Knapp's struggles this spring - he's batting .083 over 24 at-bats - will test Mackanin's long-held contention that spring is about honing approach more than it is amassing numbers.

And that's exactly what's keeping Knapp from gnawing his arm off, as well.

"What can I control?" he said. "That's what I focus on. I can control my attitude. I can control my work ethic. Body language on the field. But when it comes to the X's-and-O's of the manager and the GM, there's really not much I can do other than what I have done on the field."

Already part of the 40-man roster, he will get plenty of opportunities in the two weeks left down here. With first baseman Brock Stassi beating up spring-training pitching, the Phillies really want - no, need from a roster standpoint - for him to take advantage of them.

He does, too, of course, maybe too much so. In the moment, players rarely admit they are trying too hard. Only when they've returned to the player their resume says they are do they concede that. Rupp hit .183 over 18 games after being promoted as a 25-year-old late in 2014. Two years later he belted 16 home runs and 28 doubles in 105 games behind the plate, became a clubhouse leader, changed his long-range narrative.

Knapp is already well aware that things can change quickly.

"I'm excited for the opportunity," he said. "Just being in the big leagues and having the experience of being there would help me. You watch the game. Being able to work with Cam. The guy's been here three years now. He knows the staff . . . There are a lot of guys here who have a lot of big-league time and can shed a lot of knowledge. So it would definitely be beneficial."