In Their Footsteps: The backup catcher

The focus on my column for MLB.com in 2006 was on baseball’s procedural rules, subject matter that was fertile enough to feed a new story idea every week for a full season.  But not more than that.

In 2007 I wrote about a noteworthy trade from Rangers history each week, but since the bit was that each installment would be written on the anniversary of the trade in question, I couldn’t really extend that column into a second year, either.

So we change focus once again in 2008.  This year’s column will mix a look back with a look ahead.  Each week I’ll take one spot on a standard 25-man roster and feature not only the player from Rangers history who stood out most for me in that role but also a prospect or two from today’s deep Rangers farm system who might project to settle in at that roster spot if they develop as anticipated.

The catch is that the backup catcher will really have been a backup catcher.  No cheating by choosing Pudge Rodriguez and Jim Sundberg as the two catchers on the roster.  The bullpen will have one closer, not six.  The long reliever will really have been a long reliever, the fourth starter really a fourth starter, the utility infielder exactly that.

Given the length of the baseball season, which has roughly as many weeks as there are spots on a big league roster, we’ll methodically work our way from the back of the roster to the most important spots.  

Let’s start with what on some teams might not be the 25th spot, but in Rangers history — maybe more so than with any club since Texas joined the league 36 years ago — there’s no question that the last player on the roster has been the backup catcher.  When as a franchise you have a run of 16 Gold Gloves between 1976 and 2002, your second-stringer behind the plate tends to have only slightly more significance than Matt Cassel.

The Rangers, however, have had a bunch of good ones in their history, particularly during the Rodriguez years.  Geno Petralli was the capable caddy in Rodriguez’s first three years in the big leagues.  Dave Valle played sparingly in his two seasons as a Ranger but made a huge impact off the field, especially in August of 1996, when he called the most storied clubhouse meeting in franchise history.

But I’ve never felt better about the second-string Rangers catcher than when Bill Haselman held the job down, and the fact that he had three separate stints in Texas suggests the organization was equally comfortable.  The Rangers’ first-round draft pick in 1987 — a year before the organization signed Rodriguez — Haselman was well prepared to be the lifetime backup he’d turn into, having served as the number two quarterback behind starter Troy Aikman at UCLA. 

In his five Rangers seasons (1990, 1998, and 2000-2002), Haselman amassed what amounts to one full season of at-bats.  Playing sporadically, as backup catchers usually do and Rangers backup catchers in those days always did, he was a solid .273/.317/.419 hitter over 620 lifetime Texas at-bats, with 37 doubles, 18 home runs, and 89 RBI.  He was solid defensively, a leader, a guy who never complained about the scarcity of his playing time and made the most of his opportunities when he got them in a 13-year major league career. 

When Haselman was on the doorstep of the big leagues, Texas had just gotten Mike Stanley to Arlington and had Haselman, Pudge Rodriguez, and Chad Kreuter on the farm.  The Rangers might have had the deepest stable of catching prospects in baseball at the time, a distinction that 20 years later they once again boast.  Jarrod Saltalamacchia, Taylor Teagarden, Max Ramirez, Cristian Santana, Manny Pina, and Leonel De Los Santos are all prospects behind the plate, and though you never want to label a player as a future big league backup, one catcher in the system seems to fit the profile best.

If you were to draw it up yourself, you’d want your number two catcher to offer defense ahead of offense, especially in the American League, where the ability to pinch-hit is less important.  Pinch-run for your starting catcher late in a close game, and that spot in the order may never come up again, but the catcher who replaces him defensively better be able to handle your closer’s nasty stuff, and ideally help control the other team’s running game.

Saltalamacchia is going to be a frontline catcher in the big leagues, or else he’ll end up at first base.  Teagarden is a brilliant defender, but the way his bat has played, he projects to start in the big leagues as well, if all goes as planned.  Ramirez and Santana are hit-first types who could reach the big leagues at other positions, especially if they remain Rangers property.  De Los Santos is a 19-year-old freak of nature, a budding defensive star who is built more like the backup batboy than the backup catcher.

Pina, ago 20, is the player in the Rangers organization who most fits the prototype.  Just a .234/.298/.294 hitter in his three pro seasons, he nonetheless has impressive bat control, striking out only 44 times in 411 career at-bats (including an phenomenally low eight times in 142 second-half at-bats for Clinton last year).  But his game is built behind the plate, where the Venezuelan is aggressive, athletic, intelligent, and fortified with a cannon arm that bounced back well in 2007 from 2006 elbow surgery.  He cut down 38 percent of Midwest League runners attempting to steal last season.

Rangers Director of Player Development Scott Servais, who himself started more than half of his team’s games just three times in a sturdy 11-year big league career behind the plate, acknowledges that Pina has work to do with the bat but is hardly discouraged.  “He’s a legitimate prospect behind the plate, with a plus throwing arm.  He still has things to clean up offensively, but we’re challenging him at Bakersfield this year.”

Good defensive catchers can carve out long big league careers, even if mostly in backup roles.  Pina may not be the Rangers’ top catcher prospect, but his defensive skills are certainly strong enough that he could get to the major leagues whether he hits or not, and once he does there would be no shame in lasting as long as Haselman and Servais did. 

Jamey Newberg is a contributor to MLB.com.  A Dallas lawyer, he has been an insane Texas Rangers fan since the days of scheduled doubleheaders, Bat Nights when they actually handed out a piece of lumber instead of a grocery store voucher, and Jim Umbarger.  He has covered the Texas Rangers, from the big club down through the entire farm system, since 1998 on his website, NewbergReport.com.  This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.   

 

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