NL holds the future of the backstop
Martin, McCann lead way for the next generation of catchers
Given the relative recent fortunes of the Major League's two circuits, one would expect National League teams to be ready to consult Dr. Phil.In the era of American League supremacy, the NL has to hear all about losing 11 straight All-Star Games, losing seven of the last 10 World Series (and 34 of the last 50 World Series games), losing Interleague Series, even losing marquee players. However, in at least one instance the NL can proudly step up to the plate. Or, rather, squat behind it: When it comes to the new generation of catchers, NL clubs are ahead of the curve. The art of receiving is at a transitional stage, dissolving from a decorated group of venerable catchers, whose hair is turning gray, to the new crop. While AL clubs are holding onto the past, the NL has already stepped into the future. In the AL, the position is star-studded, still headlined by a trio of 36-year-olds who have defined it for most of the last decade: Detroit's Ivan Rodriguez, the Yankees' Jorge Posada and Boston's Jason Varitek (who'll turn 36 within the first two weeks of the season). In the NL, the position is fuzzy-cheeked, featuring youngsters who have already made their marks and others about to be given the stage. The vanguards of the new wave are Atlanta's Brian McCann and the Dodgers' Russell Martin, two guys in their early 20s already with cases full of awards. In the NL, when a catcher turns 36 he is asked to mentor his successor -- as is Brad Ausmus in Houston, where 24-year-old J.R. Towles is expected to take over (as is Geovany Soto, 25, for the Cubs). In the AL, at 36 you get another four-year contract -- as did Posada from the Yankees. Yet it was entirely sensible for the Yankees to embrace and enrich Posada, who has always been indispensable and in 2007 became indescribable. At an age when catchers typically begin to decline, he authored a career season (his .338 average, 42 doubles and 171 hits were all personal highs). Most impressive in a peer sense, Posada's .426 on-base percentage was 44 points higher than the second-best figure among the league's regular catchers, Minnesota's Joe Mauer. Varitek's matching importance to the Red Sox is merely another feature of the fierce rivalry between the AL East rivals. He exemplifies the intangibles that typically make a catcher's value transcend the numbers, yet his importance to Boston's fortunes can actually be documented.
Blessed are the teams able to count on an undisputed No. 1. But becoming more prevalent are teams counting on catching tandems, hoping to exploit the individual assets of multiple receivers.These include the Mets (Ramon Castro and Brian Schneider) White Sox (A.J. Pierzynski and Toby Hall), D-backs (Chris Snyder and Miguel Montero), Phillies (Carlos Ruiz and Chris Coste), Angels (Mike Napoli and Jeff Mathis), Marlins (Mike Rabelo and Matt Treanor), Rangers (Gerald Laird and Jarrod Saltalamacchia) and Reds (David Ross and Javier Valentin). According to at least one insider, the trend is more indicative of quality depth than of a shortage. "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." For every member of the new wave -- which will also include Kurt Suzuki in Oakland -- there is a veteran washing up on a new shore. Such as durable Jason Kendall, who is the only big league catcher to start 130-plus games each of the last five seasons and has moved to Milwaukee, and Paul Lo Duca, who after a frustrating free agency has landed in Washington. Turned away by the Mets and given only cursory looks by other teams, Lo Duca's ego may have suffered the same hits absorbed a year ago by Bengie Molina. Perhaps Lo Duca will discover that beating expectations, and the other teams, is the best revenge. Molina did -- finally taken in by the Giants, he muscled up for career highs of 19 homers and 81 RBIs, emerging as a middle-of-the-order candidate in their revamped 2008 lineup. Nationals GM Jim Bowden has seen Lo Duca "beat every team I've been with for years because, with the game on the line, he gives that at-bat. He wants to be there with the game on the line. He's a winner."
Tom Singer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.