Rangers Review: Catcher

Maybe Buck Showalter was right. For years, Gerald Laird sat on the bench as backup catcher, first to Einar Diaz then to Rod Barajas. His early promise had him compared to Pudge Rodriguez, but he never got (or took) the chances he was given. Each time he seemed to be ready to make the step up, some injury would intervene, and for the longest time it looked like Showalter had decided that Laird could never be the starter. But finally, in 2007, Showalter was gone and Laird was anointed the number one, with Chris Stewart as his backup, meaning that Laird would get the lion’s share of the playing time.

And he struggled from day one, never got the bat going, fielded okay, and threw pretty well, but at last Jon Daniels appeared to give up, trading for not one but two catchers in an attempt to improve the position both now and in the future. First Daniels got Adam Melhuse to be the backup, and when he didn’t work out, they went and traded at the deadline, picking up Jarrod Saltalamacchia in the Teixeira trade. At first the reports were that Laird was still the starter, and they wanted to look at Salty at first base as well as catcher, but as time went on Salty played more and more catcher, and in September as injuries hit Laird, Salty was the starter and yet another catcher, Guillermo Quiroz, came up and got in a few games as backup. By the end of the year there were persistent rumors that Laird would be on his way out over the winter, with the Cubs listed as one likely destination.

Gerald Laird summary: Laird couldn’t hit water if he fell out of a boat in 2007, and in the early part of the season he struggled to get his average up and over .200. As time went on he hit better, a little, and ended up managing to get his average to .224 for the year. He was very successful at bunting for a hit though, at one point he had as many bunt hits as all other catchers in the majors combined. His bunting was always good, and his speed was always good, but he just couldn’t swing away successfully. By the end of the season he was ranked among the worst hitters in the league, for people with enough qualifying at-bats, ending with a miserable 62 OPS+. You get the feeling that if there had been a decent backup, Laird would have lost time much sooner. His arm took the opposite route though, starting out the season very well, throwing out enough runners that they began to not try and run on him, but as time went on he slipped more and more, ultimately ending up with a good but not great success rate of 39.8% of runners thrown out. In addition, with the disaster that was the pitching staff early in the season, he wasn’t seen as doing much to help that (of course, Pudge had the same reputation in Texas, but when he went to Florida they raved about his handling of the pitching staff). As time went on, the pitching got better, which is worrying since Laird was playing less and less, and my feeling was that he wore down at the end of the year, having been in more games than he ever had before, but even so he was still only middle of the pack of the regular catchers around the league.

Chris Stewart summary: Stewart was acquired from Chicago in the winter, with the intent he would challenge for the backup job. He won it in spring training, and then sat on the bench for most of the first couple of months, starting just four games in April and six games in May, then one game in June before being sent down on June 9. Didn’t do much when he was able to play, but with Laird being given every opportunity, Stewart didn’t have any chances to get into a rhythm. Finally the Rangers got Melhuse, and sent Stewart back to the minors, where he split playing time with Quiroz in Oklahoma and performed just about the same as he had in Texas.

Adam Melhuse summary: Came over from Oakland in a bizarre deal for cash. Bizarre because he had been worthless for Oakland for years, but somehow Ron Washington liked him and convinced Daniels to trade for him. Once he got to Texas, he had limited playing time at catcher, although slightly more than Stewart had, and ended up playing a few games at third (which tells you how desperate the Rangers were at third, too). In late August the Rangers finally released him, when they realized that he wasn’t going to get to do anything, and he went back to Oakland again, this time in the minors. He was a gamble for a backup, but an unnecessary one, and if anything provided evidence that Ron Washington would prefer someone he knew over someone with ability. The Rangers would have been better off sticking with Stewart, they would have saved the cash they sent to Oakland and gotten the same production.

Jarrod Saltalamacchia summary: Top of the prospect pile in Atlanta, he had grown up as a catcher but when he was brought up to Atlanta earlier this year he played some first base too, to try and fill the hole they had there and to get him into the lineup. They finally decided they needed Teixeira’s bat, and were willing to give up Salty (plus others), so the Rangers got another catcher, or another first baseman. He played both positions, and as time went on played more and more catcher. He says his preferred position is catcher, and it shows: when playing first, his OPS was .582, when playing catcher it was .876 (but with small sample sizes for both). He did not show a good arm, throwing out just 17.8% of baserunners who tried to steal on him, and that is probably his biggest concern. If he doesn’t have the arm to catch, does he have the bat to play first? Of course, Piazza wasn’t a good catcher either, but his bat more than carried him, and if Salty can have a career like that we won’t worry about how many runners he throws out.

Guillermo Quiroz summary: Cups of coffee with other teams in the last few years, and the Rangers signed him to be the AAA catcher just in case of an emergency. Spent most of the year there, without a great bat, but was brought up for a few games in September. Has backup written all over him, although like Stewart is just 25, so could make something of himself one day.

Minor leagues summary: Nothing much happened at AAA, with Quiroz and Stewart sharing most of the time with Miguel Ojeda, none of whom showed much with the bat. But once you go down the system, you realize that the Rangers are pretty well stocked with catchers. Salomon Manriquez and Kevin Richardson at AA both did pretty well, Manriquez having performed better and being a couple of years younger is the better prospect. Star prospect Taylor Teagarden split time at High-A and AA, and split between DH and catching, having come back from injury the year before. Showed great ability with the bat (27 HRs), but is his future at C or somewhere else? The Rangers had traded Kenny Lofton in July for A-ball catcher Max Ramirez, who continued to hit almost exactly the same (.920 OPS) as he had in the Cleveland minor leagues (.923 OPS), and is now probably the number one catching prospect for the Rangers. The others at Bakersfield didn’t do much, and probably won’t get very far. In low-A Clinton, Manuel Pina was the feature catcher, and didn’t do much with the bat, but is still only 20 years old so has the possibility of developing. Short-season Spokane had Jonathan Greene doing very well, while 18-year-old Cristian Santana did very well both there and in rookie ball.

Overall, catcher is one of the strongest positions the Rangers have in the system right now, thanks to trades and the draft. At the top of the minor league tree there isn’t much, but every level below has at least one strong prospect. If Laird is considered expendable, then we should get something decent in return, and still have a good stockpile of catchers. Being loaded at a position is a good thing, because you can choose the ones you want to keep and deal the rest for something you need (a.k.a. pitching). Don’t expect to see even half of these names in a Ranger uniform, or even in the majors, but with luck you might see one or two and see some of the others in trades for someone we will use.

2008: My expectation is that Laird will be dealt this winter, and Salty will be the starting catcher next year. Will Quiroz get the backup job? Stewart? Ojeda? Each is an interchangeable part, except Ojeda is several years older. Or will they look at some veteran catcher to teach Salty? If they could get someone who can sit on the bench with Salty all year and teach him what they know (which is what Sandy Alomar did a couple of years ago), that would be a good deal for the Rangers. Salty has good value as a catcher, but probably below average bat value at first. Will his arm be good enough to stay at catcher, and if not where else does he go? Third?

2009 and beyond: If Salty works out, he could be the starting catcher for several years to come. If not (and he needs to be given enough time to prove not before the Rangers quit on him), then as noted the system is loaded and someone else should come through in a year or two. Perhaps Taylor Teagarden has the best opportunity, if he stays at catcher, but otherwise Max Ramirez should be ready around 2010, right when the Rangers farm should be maturing into a contending team for several years.

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