Around the Horn: Catchers
Rangers have options with talent, but haven't named a starter
The following is the first in a series of weekly stories on MLB.com examining each Major League club, position by position. Each Wednesday until Spring Training camps open, we'll preview a different position. Today: Catchers.
ARLINGTON -- His name is Felix Perez. He is 19 and he is from Mexico. He is a catcher and the word is he is extremely talented with tremendous upside potential.The Rangers signed him as an amateur free agent this offseason and he'll likely be the starter for their Arizona Rookie League team next summer. The massive stockpiling of catching prospects continues nonstop for the Rangers. The Rangers aren't sure who their Opening Day catcher will be, but the annual mid-winter position-by-position examination of the organization shows that the talent and depth at the catching position is unusually high. It's the obvious place to start, both from what's happening at the Major League level and in the farm system. "If you look at the industry and the quality of catching at all levels -- big league, Minor League, amateur -- it's all over the place," Rangers general manager Jon Daniels said. "For us, it's a strength. Some people may look at it as a logjam or that we have decisions to make, but I look at it as you can't have enough of a good thing." The biggest decision, though, is what's going to happen at the Major League level between Gerald Laird and Jarrod Saltalamacchia. And there are a number of ways of viewing it. Daniels prefers to view it as both competition and depth. Unsettled or wide open could also be used and the word controversy might also come into play. But why rush into things before Spring Training actually gets here. Overall, though, the best way to put it is that the situation is quite intriguing, mainly because of a decision made by the Rangers after last season. At some point the Rangers decided that Saltalamacchia will concentrate strictly on his work behind the plate and not alternate between catcher and first base as he did at the end of last season. "There were a couple of things at play there," Daniels said. "One is his passion, that's what he wants to do. That's also where his value is greatest. He's a switch-hitting catcher who is capable of hitting 20 to 25 home runs. That kind of offensive production is more valuable behind the plate rather than first base. Not many teams have that. It could be a competitive advantage for us." Laird has made it quite clear that he wants to be the No. 1 catcher, a job that he has had before but just quite hasn't been able to hold on to for a full season. A torn thumb ligament cost him the job in 2004 and he had to wait two more years before he could wrestle it away from Rod Barajas. He hit .296 in a part-time role in 2006 and that was good enough to get the job back full time in 2007. But he dropped to .224 last season while struggling to satisfy manager Ron Washington's demands that he take charge of an injury-racked, performance-challenged pitching staff. "He just needs to be more consistent than anything else," Daniels said. "Gerald has shown flashes of what he can do on a baseball field and one of the areas he has been consistent is his throwing. But there are other areas: consistent at-bats and working with the pitching staff. We want him to be a more well-rounded catcher. He's got the ability, but we just want to put it all together." Laird's future suddenly became murky on July 31 when Saltalamacchia was one of five players who were acquired from the Braves for Mark Teixeira. Saltalamacchia was clearly one of the centerpieces of the trade, but Daniels said the Rangers have not made a decision as to who the starter will be on Opening Day. "People have formed opinions but we want those guys to come in and compete," Daniels said. "That's the message that both Gerald and Jarrod got at the end of last year. There are still a number of ways to go, but they are two athletic players who can both impact the game on both sides -- offensively and defensively -- and they are both young. We don't have to make that decision this winter."
Saltalamacchia has a reputation for being an offensive threat, but still seems raw as a defensive catcher. He threw out just six of 43 attempted base stealers last season, including one of 17 while with the Rangers. Laird gunned down 39.8 percent of those trying to steal off him, the third highest in the Major Leagues.Obviously there is much more to defense for a catcher than just throwing out base stealers and the Rangers want to see what they can do with Saltalamacchia at that position. Matt Walbeck, a former Major League catcher who was hired as third-base coach, was brought in specifically to work with both Laird and Saltalamacchia on their defense. "Jarrod just needs experience," Daniels said. "Our guys feel he can catch. Matt Walbeck is going to work with both guys. If at some point we need to move Jarrod we can, but it's easier to move a guy to first base rather than move him back to catcher. But right now we're trying to put our guys in their best position and our guys feel Jarrod can catch." Actually, the Rangers best defensive catcher could be Chris Stewart, who was Laird's backup for most of last season and could be again if the decision is made that Saltalamacchia needs more work in Triple-A Oklahoma. Otherwise, Stewart will be at Triple-A in a farm system that is loaded with catching prospects. The Rangers could be in a position where they have a legitimate catching prospect at all four full-season Minor League teams. It may not happen right away but they could have Taylor Teagarden at Triple-A Oklahoma, Max Ramirez (acquired from the Indians for Kenny Lofton at the end of July) at Double-A Frisco, Manuel Pina will be at Class A Bakersfield and Santana will be at Class A Clinton. "Catching certainly is the strength of our organization," Daniels said. "We'll just let it play out. In Taylor, we've got a true catcher in every sense of the word. He's leader and he's been a winner at the amateur level [at the University of Texas] and his bat has come around more than we thought it might. "Max takes a lot of pride in his catching, but he's more of an offensive type of guy who can really hit. Pina is more of an athletic, catch-and-throw type of guy who has become better working at pitchers and Cristian has as much upside as anybody. He's just had some injuries but he has huge raw ability." Maybe Perez will be better than any of them.
T.R. Sullivan is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.