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05/18/09 10:00 AM ET
Votebook: It's wide open for catchers
Balance prevails among potential All-Star backstops
By Tom Singer / MLB.com
The position of catcher has considerably less star power than it did in the early 1990s, when Hall of Famers Carlton Fisk and Gary Carter still were strapping it on, and Mike Piazza and Ivan Rodriguez already were the vanguards for the next wave. Notwithstanding a few high-profile guys, the position today is manned largely by hard-working role players who, in many instances, juggle catching with secondary positions. But they still have ample All-Star power. If anything, the balance at the position should fuel heavy competition at the ballot boxes for the honors of starting in the 80th Midsummer Classic on July 14 in St. Louis.
Each league presents compelling story lines.The American League race shapes up as a dogfight among "part-timers." The top contenders all have seen limited time behind the plate, for different reasons. Minnesota's Joe Mauer -- the 2008 All-Star starter -- had the start of his season delayed by injury. But he's been playing on a different level since being activated at the beginning of this month, batting .429 with nearly as many homers (six) in 56 at-bats as he had last season (nine) in 536. Yankees manager Joe Girardi, a former All-Star catcher (2000) himself, certainly appreciates Mauer's talents. "This is a young man that is an incredible player,'' Girardi said after his team's weekend series with the Twins in the Bronx. "You see what he does with the bat -- two batting titles in the last three years. His defense is very good, he's an All-Star player every day when he goes out on the field." The Yankees' own Jorge Posada, a five-time All-Star and two-time starter, went out with a strained right hamstring about the time Mauer was coming back. But the veteran was extremely productive when active (.312 average, five home runs, 20 RBIs) and could be back before the end of the month. Victor Martinez of Cleveland is batting .401 and also leads AL catchers with his seven homers and 26 RBIs. But with the Indians careful about not wearing out their leading hitter, Martinez has appeared nearly as often at first base (19) as at catcher (21). The Angels' Mike Napoli (.324-6-17) divides his club's catching duties with Jeff Mathis virtually down the middle. The AL's top underdogs are a couple of guys who probably do need an introduction. Oakland's Kurt Suzuki is continuing his obscured development, hitting .323. And Toronto's Rod Barajas, who has been knocking around the Major Leagues for 11 years with four different teams but hasn't often been a regular, has blossomed at age 33 into a .310 hitter and a key member of the surprise of the AL East. Based on their productions, the National League vote should be a family feud: The Giants' Bengie Molina (.304) and St. Louis' Yadier Molina (.296) rank 1-2 in batting average among the league's regular catchers. Bengie, a two-time Gold Glove winner and, at 34, a late-blooming offensive star, has the distinction of topping all Major League catchers with eight homers and 29 RBIs going for him. His younger brother, by eight years, is boosted by his key defensive role on the contending Cardinals, his handling having played a large role in the outstanding pitching that has kept the Redbirds in flight even without injured ace Chris Carpenter. However, the drawback for both Molinas is Rodriguez. The gold standard among catchers for nearly two decades, Pudge rates adding his first NL All-Star start to the 12 he made for the AL. Rodriguez, on the free-agent shelf until he was signed by the Astros on March 20 -- two weeks before the start of the season -- is having a hearty last laugh, batting .286 with good run production (five homers, 19 RBIs). He reinforced his continuing status as a prime-time talent on Sunday by launching his 300th career home run in Wrigley Field, the latest reward for someone with exceptional pride and work habits. "Three hundred home runs on the Major League level is an accomplishment, especially for a catcher," Rodriguez said. "For a guy like me, not too tall at 5-10, to be able to hit 300 home runs ... it's just hard work. I'm a very hard worker every day. Things like this pay off." Rodriguez's other payoffs include being the only player, at any position, in MLB history to own as many as 13 Gold Gloves and a .300-plus lifetime batting average. That certainly might be worth remembering when people talk about willing to dismiss a catcher's offensive contributions in return for defense and on-field leadership. Meanwhile, the Dodgers' Russell Martin -- the '08 starter and one of the perceived leaders of the club with the Majors' best record -- is among several big leaguers who apparently have not paid their electricity bills: His power has been turned off. Martin has yet to connect for a home run in 121 at-bats, after posting double figures in each of his first three big league seasons.
Tom Singer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.