SURPRISE, Ariz. -- The Rangers have a mantra for Spring Training: whatever is in the best interests of the team to help us win. That's why there is extreme competition on the pitching staff. That's also why their catching situation is up for grabs going into the first workout on Friday. That's why Jarrod Saltalamacchia will have to fight off Taylor Teagarden, Toby Hall and others if he wants to be the Rangers' No. 1 catcher again. "That's what we're basing the club on: what's best for the team and our ability to win," Rangers general manager Jon Daniels said. "We have to apply that here as well."
So, for the third straight year, Saltalamacchia comes into camp having to win a job and there is still a possibility the Rangers could sign free-agent catcher Jose Molina. They have had discussions with his representatives and he still hasn't signed. "It has been presented to us as competition, so I'm going to prepare myself to do what it takes to win the job," Saltalamacchia said. "I still believe it's a team game and we have to do our job working with the pitching staff and do what it takes to help them." Manager Ron Washington met with Saltalamacchia and Teagarden last month in Arlington and told them the job was open. "I'm ready for them to do battle," Washington said. "There is nothing wrong with a little competition." The job is open because of the uncertainty about Saltalamacchia's shoulder. He came down with thoracic outlet syndrome in August and had surgery in September to have a rib bone removed that was causing pain and numbness in his right throwing arm. The Rangers expect full recovery, but he did have one offseason setback when he tried to return too quickly to play winter ball. "We're not certain about his health," Washington said. "He just has to show us he can play. If he can play, he's got the job." The two competed last year in Spring Training and Saltalamacchia won the job. Teagarden was his backup and stayed in that role even after Saltalamacchia went down with a shoulder injury in August. The Rangers acquired Ivan Rodriguez from the Astros on April 17 to be Teagarden's backup down the stretch but instead took over the position. Now Teagarden, 26, gets another chance to show he can be a front-line catcher after hitting .217 with 76 strikeouts in 198 at-bats last year. "If it's a competition, then it's time to do it," Teagarden said. "'Wash' wants to put the best team out there. I don't know if I'm looked at as a young player anymore. I have a year-plus of service time. I want to put myself in a position to help the club going forward." The Rangers were happy to a point with Saltalamacchia last year. He came out of camp strong and thrilled the Rangers with his defense. But once the weather grew hot and his shoulder problems developed over the summer, his defense became a concern. "I thought Salty did an excellent job the first two months until his shoulder started bothering him," Washington said. If working with the pitching staff is the ultimate measure of a catcher, then the Rangers catchers had a good season in 2009. Rangers pitchers finished with a 4.38 ERA, eighth best in the league and a huge jump from a 5.37 ERA in 2008. It was the biggest improvement by a pitching staff in the Majors. Rangers catchers also had the fourth-highest success rate (27.2 percent) of throwing out basestealers in the league and the fifth fewest passed balls. They did, however, lead the league in errors, but part of that was Saltalamacchia's shoulder. He had one error in his first 45 games and six in his last 38 games. To protect themselves, the Rangers signed Hall, 34, to a Minor League contract with an invitation to Spring Training. He was a front-line catcher for the Rays from 2002-06 before spending two seasons with the White Sox as a backup to A.J. Pierzynski. But he missed all of last season because of torn labrum in his right shoulder that required surgery in May. "If I wanted to play three or four more, I had to get through that surgery to keep playing," Hall said. "Anything now is a bonus. If I can come in and help this staff and these young catchers, I will. I just want to get out there and get back on the field playing. At the end of March, we'll see what the plan is." Hall is in camp but still in the process of completing his throwing rehabilitation program. He is still a week or two behind everybody else in his throwing. Saltalamacchia is 100 percent but still building up stamina. That's what the Rangers are still looking for catching help and may sign Molina. "Clearly Salty and Teagarden are more talented than the [free agent] guys out there," Daniels said. "But it's such an important position, we don't want to be caught short. There are still some unknowns. We're confident both guys can handle it, but there are some unknowns."
T.R. Sullivan is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.