Andrew Knizner has moved up on the list of the Cardinals' top prospects, but the organization sees room for improvement in his defensive abilities. (Mark Harrell/Springfield Cardinals) 

By Rob Rains

Andrew Knizner was relaxing at his home in Virginia one day in the summer of 2014, following a successful freshman season as North Carolina State’s third baseman, when his telephone rang.

Chris Hart, the Wolfpack’s assistant coach, was calling to ask Knizner a question. He wanted to know what Knizner thought about becoming a catcher, a position he had never played in his life.

“I don’t know if I heard you right … you said ‘catching?’” was Knizner’s response.

Hart proceeded to tell Knizner that the team didn’t really have any catchers after Brett Austin had been drafted, and that they couldn’t go sign one because recruiting was finished for the year.

“I told him, ‘If you need me to catch, if that’s what the team needs, I’d love to give it a shot,’” Knizner said. “I came in that fall catching every day and rolled with it.”

It was a love-hate relationship with the position at first, Knizner said.

“I liked the position because I liked the mental part of catching and the leadership part of catching, commanding the field,” Knizner said. “Obviously it’s a tough position and you get beat up. That was new to me.”

Four years later, playing the position is still a work in progress for Knizner, who was the Cardinals’ seventh-round pick after his junior year, his second season as a catcher, in 2016. Knizner has spent most of this season as the starter for Double A Springfield.

It has been a quick trip up the ladder in the Cardinals’ farm system for Knizner, 23, mainly because of his offensive success. He posted a .326 average through the first half of this season before this week’s break for the Texas League All-Star game, and in 202 games as a professional has a .313 average.

While his offensive production has moved Knizner into the ranks of the Cardinals’ top prospects, it is some defensive struggles which are still a concern for many in the organization, not unusual for a player still so new to the position.

Somebody who has watched Knizner grow as a catcher is current Springfield third baseman Evan Mendoza, who followed Knizner to North Carolina State as a two-way player and actually pitched the second game that Knizner ever caught, against Davidson on Feb. 14, 2015.

Mendoza also was drafted by the Cardinals after his junior year with the Wolfpack and was promoted to Springfield from Palm Beach earlier this season.

“It’s a cool connection because for a small stint, about two months, I tried catching too,” Mendoza said. “The biggest difference I see is when he was a third baseman he was just a player. Once he moved behind the plate he kind of turned into more of a captain. He had to interact more with the pitchers and build that relationship. I’ve seen it even more here with how competitive the game is here. Defensively I’ve seen improvement every year he has been behind the plate.”

Knizner admits that being able to assume more of a leadership position is one of the aspects of catching that he enjoys the most.

“I was a quarterback all my life into high school and I always have kind of been in that leadership role,” he said. ‘It’s really nothing new to me; I’m just continuing to do what I do. At this point in baseball that’s the number one thing, work with the staff and develop game plans and executing. The ability to be vocal and talk to the guys and come up with a game plan, that’s really big.”

Someone who is paying close attention to Knizner’s progress is Springfield manager Johnny Rodriguez, who is looking for small details in his game that aren’t always reflected in a box score.

“He needs a lot of work defensively; he’s been doing it but it’s going to take a while,” Rodriguez said. “I think in time he will get it.

“He’s smart, he’s got energy and he competes. Everything you like is there, but it’s not next year. It’s going to take a while.”

Knizner is trying to adjust to the grind of catching day after day. He has only caught 148 games in his two-plus pro seasons, more than one-third of them (52) this season.

“He’s a strong kid and he’s a kid who wants to learn,” Rodriguez said. “He wants to get better. That’s a good thing.”

Rodriguez has seen issues with Knizner’s ability to receive the ball and block pitches, especially when he is catching for a third consecutive game.

“He’s going to have to get used to the grind,” Rodriguez said. “His body has to get used to the wear and tear. He calls a good game, which is another plus. It’s just going to take time.”

Some of his defensive issues have shown up trying to slow down an opponent on the bases. Combined between Springfield and Memphis this season , Knizner has thrown out only seven of 36 baserunners.

Knizner knows he still has a lot to learn, and part of his education at the position this season included spending about three weeks in Memphis while Yadier Molina was injured and Carson Kelly was in the major leagues.

“I feel like I’m learning new stuff every time I go out there,” Knizner said. “Getting those reps behind the plate is big for me, catching a lot of innings.

“At Memphis, it’s the same but different, if that makes sense. From the defensive side calling games, you can get a little more in depth because you have guys who have more command of all of their pitches. You are able to set up hitters a little differently.

“Offensively you are facing guys who are a little older and know how to pitch, who are able to throw whatever they want whenever they want so you have to look in one zone or one pitch and stick with that plan.”

One of the challenges for Knizner, as it is with all of the catchers in the Cardinals’ farm system, is to be patient. As much as Kelly wants to be in the majors, and Knizner wants to be in Triple A and then the majors, both are in a holding pattern behind Molina – who doesn’t appear that he will be slowing down any time soon.

Perhaps more so than at any point in recent years, the Cardinals have catching depth stacked up in the organization. Coming along behind Kelly and Knizner are Dennis Ortega and Julio Rodriguez, both 21, at Peoria and Ivan Herrera, an 18-year-old native of Panama, in the rookie Gulf Coast League.

“The main thing for me is just to continue to get reps and innings behind the plate,” Knizner said. “I need at bats too, and just fine tune my game and become consistent and be the same player day in and day out. When I get to that point, that’s when I will be ready.”

Follow Rob Rains on Twitter @RobRains