Molina's the man, but Cards seek a backup plan
Anderson, Cruz and Hill bring different strengths to competition
PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. -- The opportunity to back up catcher Yadier Molina is, well, hardly laced with opportunities. And perhaps that is why little outside attention is being directed toward the Cardinals' ongoing competition for that spot on the roster.
Koyie Hill, Bryan Anderson and Tony Cruz are plenty aware of the effect Molina's durability has had on the Cardinals' No. 2 catcher in recent years. The job of backing up a catcher who has started 82 percent of his team's games since 2009 -- the highest such percentage in the Majors -- finds itself lacking in glamour.
But to assume it has diminished all interest in earning the chance to sit behind Molina on the Major League depth chart would be to marginalize the focus and intensity that all three have brought to camp this spring.
Both Cruz and Anderson are products of the Cardinals' Minor League system, though their paths and pace upwards has differed. Hill is the outsider, but also the one that carries the experience card.
Their differences in ability and upside make for an intriguing comparison, and the Cardinals have, to this point, provided little hint as to which of the three is the early favorite.
"I think the biggest part of that position is the consciousness of not just understanding the game better, but to understand the staff better and to win over their respect, more so than anything else," manager Mike Matheny said. "That backup catcher needs to come in here and show these guys that it's not about him."
That was an aspect of Anderson's game that Matheny and others have been emphasizing for a while. Aside from two brief trips to the Majors in 2010, Anderson has been toiling in Triple-A. He's hit well in the Minors, but it has been Anderson's inability to gain the confidence of his pitchers that has prevented him from getting a longer look.
"I think it has just taken time," Anderson said. "I had to get familiar with guys and also grow up, myself. Just growing up and learning how to talk to them has helped."
Though Anderson's Major League experience is limited, he does have familiarity with much of the Cardinals' pitching staff. Almost anyone who hasn't worked with Anderson in the Minors has done so in Spring Training. He's been a regular participant in big league camp for years, though his strongest impression has come this spring.
Anderson picked an opportune time to make that impression, given that this is the first spring in which he entered with a legitimate shot at an open roster spot.
"I've seen more improvement in Bryan Anderson from last season to this spring than I have ever seen at any other point in his career," Matheny said. "He's making a conscious effort [with] what it takes with the communication aspect with these guys. It's neat when you give those guys something [to work on] and they come back and they make an effort to fix it. That's rewarding."
Cruz would bring the Cardinals versatility, though that's not something the club is likely to tap into if Cruz is chosen to back up Molina. A former third baseman, Cruz is doing all his work behind the plate this spring and has already advanced far enough defensively to move past learning and onto refining.
He's put particular focus on becoming more adept at blocking pitches, noting that is an aspect of his defensive game that he wants "to be perfect at." He has also been able to renew his attention to hitting, something that took a backseat to defensive work during his first few years at the position.
After batting .220 and posting an on-base percentage of .281 in 2009 -- his first full season as a catcher -- Cruz watched those totals climb to .282/.352 and .262/.315 in subsequent years.
"I think the more comfortable I've gotten, the offensive side has gotten a little easier," Cruz said. "You're always trying to separate the two, but as far as finding a better balance with the two, yeah, I'm doing better."
Cruz, like Anderson, has gotten a taste of the Majors, albeit a brief one. He appeared in 16 games last summer while Gerald Laird nursed a broken right finger.
Hill has the extensive Major League experience that both Anderson and Cruz lack, though the Cardinals have said that experience alone won't trump all else in this competition. Hill inked a Minor League deal with the Cardinals after having spent years admiring the organization from afar, most recently from Chicago.
Being able to stay in the National League Central and work under a manager who once caught were also selling points as Hill mulled various offers.
"I have had some success implementing game plans and executing approaches in this division," Hill said. "I thought this would be a great opportunity, not to just watch one of the best [Molina], but to be around and pick the brain of another [Matheny]. It would be a way to expand your catching horizons."
Hill, who made his Major League debut in 2003, was the Cubs' primary backup catcher each of the last three seasons. He understands the nuances that come with playing sparingly, though he never did have any sustained success on the offensive end. Hill is a career .211 hitter.
More indicative of his contributions is that the Cubs posted a .576 winning percentage when Hill started.
"Our job is to make sure that you're getting the best out of those guys," said Hill. "You want that pitcher to have 100 percent confidence in you back there. If you ever come to a crossroads out there where you don't know what to do, you want to be able to trust your catcher."
It's been three years since Hill arrived in Spring Training and had to compete for a job.
"The way I view it is, especially when you're in the same clubhouse, competition is something that is healthy," Hill said. "We're all pulling on the same rope, or we should be. If you're not, then you're probably not going to win the job anyway, because it's going to be transparent. I feel like you've got to compete with yourself to be as good as you can possibly be."
Jenifer Langosch is a reporter for MLB.com. Read her blog, By Gosh, It's Langosch, and follow her on Twitter @LangoschMLB. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.