Rangers overflowing with depth behind the plate

Rangers overflowing with depth behind the plate

Rangers overflowing with depth behind the plate
SURPRISE, Ariz. -- Unlike past years, the Rangers' catching situation seems set going into Spring Training.

Manager Ron Washington made that clear right before the first workout for pitchers and catchers on Thursday morning. Yorvit Torrealba is the club's No. 1 catcher.

"Unless he breaks something," Washington said.

The Rangers have alternatives if that happens. They have alternatives regardless of the situation. What they don't have is the usual tedious debate at the beginning of camp about what will happen at the position in the next six weeks.

That has always seemed to be the case since 2002 in the post-Ivan Rodriguez era that began with Einar Diaz and included -- among many others -- Rod Barajas, Gerald Laird and Jarrod Saltalamacchia. The one constant during that time was nobody ever seemed really thrilled about the playing arrangement and nothing seemed permanent. Somebody could be the Rangers' catcher of the future one day and be on the way to Oklahoma City the next.

Rangers catchers 2003-10
Top 10 Rangers catchers in games started from 2003-10
Catcher GS Years
Gerald Laird 334 2003-08
Rod Barajas 313 2004-06
Jarrod Saltalamacchia 157 2007-10
Einar Diaz 95 2003
Taylor Teagarden 87 2008-10
Matt Treanor 67 2010
Bengie Molina 50 2010
Todd Greene 49 2003
Sandy Alomar Jr. 34 2005
Max Ramirez 30 2008-10
There will be some question as to who gets more playing time as the backup catcher between Matt Treanor and Mike Napoli. But as to who is the No. 1 catcher, that is Torrealba.

"I certainly like what he brings as a catcher and the way he works to help a pitching staff," Washington said. "For me, that's what catching is all about. He can also help us on offense."

Two years ago, the Rangers appeared loaded with catchers with Laird, Saltalamacchia, Taylor Teagarden and Max Ramirez all on the roster. They were so confident with what they had, they traded Laird to the Tigers for two Minor League pitchers.

That confidence proved to be a mirage. Now only Teagarden is still with the Rangers. Their catching situation became so tenuous last year they had to trade pitchers Chris Ray and Michael Main, a former first-round Draft pick, to the Giants for Bengie Molina.

Molina and Treanor, acquired late last Spring Training from the Brewers for a Minor League infielder, took the Rangers to the World Series. But the Rangers' first major acquisition in the offseason was Torrealba, 32, a 10-year veteran who was the Rockies' No. 1 catcher when they went to the World Series in 2007. He signed a two-year, $6.25 million deal.

Torrealba was also with the Padres last season and their 3.14 ERA with him behind the plate was the lowest for a catcher (minimum 81 games) since 2003. His 3.63 catcher's ERA over the past two years is the third lowest (min. 1,000 innings caught) in the Majors.

He has already gone to work watching video of the Rangers pitchers from last year. He and C.J. Wilson discussed his findings for about 15 minutes on Wednesday.

"I saw most all of the pitchers," Torrealba said. "I saw [Neftali] Feliz, I saw C.J., I saw Colby Lewis. I saw quite a few of them. I even saw Cliff Lee. I have a decent idea of what they do and what they are going through when they struggle.

"I just want them to trust me and build their confidence so when they get to the mound, they don't think too much. They just throw what I put down. If it doesn't work out, blame me."

After the Rangers signed Torrealba, they secured his backup by re-signing Treanor. He led Rangers catchers last year with 67 games started (81 overall) and they were 42-25 with him behind the plate. His pitchers also had a 3.92 ERA with him back there, fourth lowest among AL catchers with at least 80 games caught.

"Last year was a year I'll never forget and I've forgotten a lot of years," Treanor said.

Top 12 catchers in 2010
Top 12 in catcher's ERA during 2010 (minimum 81 games played)
Catcher Team ERA
Yorvit Torrealba SD 3.14
Yadier Molina STL 3.23
Kurt Suzuki OAK 3.27
Carlos Ruiz PHI 3.31
Brian McCann ATL 3.68
Bengie Molina SF-TEX 3.71
Joe Mauer MIN 3.81
John Jaso TB 3.87
Rod Barajas NYM-LAD 3.87
Miguel Olivo COL 3.89
Matt Treanor TEX 3.92
A.J. Pierzynski CWS 3.95

Treanor, who turns 35 on March 3, signed with the Rangers knowing that he would play a backup role behind Torrealba. He's not dropping suggestions that he should be given a chance to be the No. 1 guy.

"I'm not trying to trick anybody," Treanor said. "That's what has helped me in baseball is that I know my role. [General manager Jon Daniels] has been up front from the beginning about my role. Things evolve over the course of the season but they were pretty much straight forward about me coming back."

Napoli is the wild card. The Rangers' catching situation appeared set late in the offseason with Torrealba and Treanor but they threw Napoli into the mix when they acquired him from the Blue Jays for reliever Frank Francisco on Jan. 25. That deal came four days after Napoli was dealt to Toronto by the Angels.

The Rangers did not get Napoli to replace Torrealba. The primary reasons in acquiring him were his offensive clout and his versatility. He can catch, play first base and possibly DH on those days when Michael Young is playing in the field. Napoli hit .238 with 26 home runs and 68 RBIs in 140 games for the Angels last year. His career .492 slugging percentage is the highest for any active catcher -- including Joe Mauer -- with a minimum of 200 games caught.

"He has always been a tough out," Washington said. "He always seems to keep an inning going. He's a hard-nosed kid and a grinder. He's the kind of guy we want on the Texas Rangers."

Napoli also played 67 games at first base. He had been a catcher ever since making his debut with the Angels in 2006 but the Angels moved him to first base at the end of May after Kendry Morales went down with a broken left leg.

"I love catching but I will play anywhere," Napoli said. "I'll be glad to be in the lineup anywhere. I like catching but I'll do what they want to do."

Napoli is used to a time-sharing arrangement at catcher. He and Jeff Mathis shared the position for the Angels since 2006. Napoli started 359 games and Mathis started 296 during that time while the Angels won three division titles in five years.

"Jeff and I are best friends," Napoli said. "We lived together, did everything together. We both wanted to be in there every day but we're still friends. We'd talk baseball every day.

"This is a good situation for me. I'm happy to be here. This is my first day so I don't know everything, but it seems to be a pretty good group of guys. I'm going to catch my bullpens and learn the pitchers, know what they like to do. That's my mindset, that's why I'm reporting with all the other catchers."

Teagarden, one of several in the past few years designated as the Rangers' catcher of the future, now finds himself in a completely different situation. Instead of being one of the favorites to make the team, he faces a steep uphill climb this spring.

"That's the easy way to say that," Teagarden acknowledged. "The Rangers want to win a world championship and this year they are stockpiled in a lot of positions. It's all about performance. I just need to go out and play as good as I can and embrace whatever challenge is given to me."

The Rangers still like Teagarden's defense. There was some consideration to keeping him on the postseason roster last year because of his ability to control the opposition's running game. But he hit .155 last season and has a career average of .218 with 201 strikeouts in 492 at-bats. His .218 career average is second lowest in Rangers history among catchers with at least 100 games played.

"I had a lot of success as a hitter throughout the Minors and in the Majors my first year," Teagarden said. "The last two seasons I have not lived up to my expectations. At this point, they've got guys ready to play. I've just got to get back to my old self."

Right now Teagarden is likely to begin the season at Triple-A Round Rock where he could be in his own time-sharing arrangement with veteran Kevin Cash. Signed early in the offseason as a non-roster player, Cash has spent all or parts of eight seasons in the big leagues as a backup with five different teams. He has two World Series rings, playing for the Red Sox in 2004 and the Yankees in 2009.

Behind him is Jose Felix, a good-looking prospect who was the organization's Minor League Defender of the Year while playing at Class A Bakersfield and Double-A Frisco. He is the next Rangers catcher of the future.

There have been a lot of those lately. Right now Torrealba has the job with Treanor as his backup and Napoli willing to play anywhere the Rangers ask. The Rangers at least begin Spring Training with their catching situation clearly defined.

T.R. Sullivan is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Postcards from Elysian Fields and follow him on Twitter @Sullivan_Ranger. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.