Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Second Catcher

The Twins spring training is not likely to be very eventful. There are only a handful of roster spots really in play. The first is the second catcher. There are some people who see this as a backup position, but its not. Mauer will likely start about three quarters of the games if he remains healthy. The second catcher will be in the lineup for the remaining quarter. That is about as much as a starting pitcher. Of course the catcher has less impact on the game than the pitcher, but it is still a lot more impact than a backup at other positions will have unless there is an injury.

Defense is the first priority in choosing a catcher. That is because it is the most important defensive position on the field after the pitcher. Like the pitcher, the catcher is involved with every pitch. The mental aspects, the ability to call a game and work with pitchers, are probably the most important parts of this job and almost impossible for fans to really evaluate. Along with that are the physical challenges like blocking pitches and throwing out base runners. And, perhaps most importantly, the catcher has to be durable, capable of performing with lots of minor aches and pains over an entire season. Obviously the latter is less an issue for a guy who only catches every fourth day. Of course the guys who aren't durable are going to get weeded out in the minor leagues and moved to another position. But it is important to remember durability is an issue when people talk about Wilson Ramos. He has not really shown he can do the job over an entire season.

The three realistic candidates for the second catcher job are Morales, Butera and, maybe, Ramos. Each brings something a little different to the job.

I think many people saw Morales as having the job at the end of last year. Mike Redmond was allowed to leave, in part, because the Twins had confidence Morales was ready to step in. Unfortunately, Morales had wrist surgery and may not be ready at the start of the season. The Twins seem to think he will be, Morales sounds skeptical. Morales has had a series of injuries over the last couple years that have set him back. But I am not sure that is really a sign of fragility, it may just be bad luck. Morales bat is pretty solid, although his career numbers are probably misleading. His defense is more in question, but it appears the Twins think it is at least adequate to the task now that he is fully recovered from his ankle injury from a couple years ago.

Even before Morales was hurt, Butera was his main competition for the second catcher position. Butera is a "catch and throw" guy who is valued for his defense. His bat is highly questionable and the only real question is whether it is so bad as to prevent him from playing in the major leagues. If he can hit .225-.250, his defense will probably allow him to make a career for himself as a second catcher. Certainly for a team like the Twins that tend to always rely on young pitchers to play key roles, a quality defensive catcher is going to be valued.  Ideally you would want Butera's defense with Morales bat, which brings us to Wilson Ramos.

There is no question Ramos has a combination of offensive and defensive that are the makings of a major league starting catcher. In any other organization, teams would be looking ahead to the day when he was ready to play in the big leagues. For obvious reasons, the Twins aren't. The problem is not Ramos tools, but whether he is really ready for the big leagues and whether his development would be strunted by spending 3/4 of the year on a major league  bench instead of catching every day in the minors. Ramos has barely over 300 at bats above A-ball. Given the Twins have two other catchers with major league skills, I think it is unlikely they are going to rush Ramos to the big leagues. In fact, its likely he will start the year back at AA if Morales is ready to catch at the start of the season. 

There are several other catchers, not on the roster, who are in camp. That is mostly because they need catchers to work with all the pitchers during spring training. Danny Lehman is the only one of these guys who may have a shot at the big leagues this year. He is probably next in line if Morales and Butera were both hurt and Ramos is deemed not yet ready. But I suspect the Twins would be looking to make a trade if that situation lasted very long. Lehman is really an organization player who would have to be in the right place at the right time to get a major league job even for a short period.

Which  brings us to a final comment. Because of his limited bat, there are people who think Butera has little value. Some even suggested the Twins release him to make room for Orlando Hudson or Jim Thome. The reality is that major league quality defensive catchers are hard to find. In 2004, when Joe Mauer got hurt, it was Henry Blanco a catch and throw guy that was behind the plate as they went to the playoffs. He hit only .206 and the Twins were very happy to have him. He disappointed them when he signed elsewhere after the season. Catching is a defensive position.

1 comment:

Bryz said...

Good point with mentioning Henry Blanco. I think we're spoiled with having Joe Mauer, so we think that a catcher that actually performs like a "normal" catcher is considered to be below average.

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