2008 MLB Catchers to Watch

The catcher position in baseball is the most physically and mentally demanding position and quite similar to the quarterback position in football. Like a quarterback, it takes a special player to be able to play the position. The years of the power hitting catchers are fading are being replaced with smart, defense-minded catchers who work well with the pitchers. This season there are five catchers to watch out for.

Russell Martin, Los Angeles Dodgers
In only his third year at the Major League level, the Dodgers Canadian-born catcher has found himself as a leader in the Dodgers clubhouse and on the field. Martin, the soft-spoken catcher, climbed his way up the line up in 2007 hitting .293 with 19 homeruns and 87 RBIs while taking care of the Dodgers pitching staff. Martin is following in the footsteps of other great catchers who wore Dodger blue such as Roy Campanella, Mike Scioscia, Mike Piazza and Paul LoDuca.

It is difficult for a young player to come into a Major League ball club and assert himself especially if that young player is a catcher. But when Martin was assured by Dodger management in Spring Training of 2007 the job was his, he stepped and became more assertive with the pitching staff. Rarely did a Dodger pitcher shake him off last year. Former Dodger manager Grady Little stated that Martin reminded him of Red Sox catcher Jason Varitek while pitcher Derek Lowe agreed.

He is one player the Dodgers can not afford to lose in their fight for the National League West division with San Diego, Arizona and Colorado. Martin is a throwback to the days when catchers not only played the position well and managed the pitching staff but also hit in the three, four or five slot in the line-up. Look for him to get better in 2008, hitting around .300 with 15-20 homeruns with 90-100 runs batted in.

Victor Martinez, Cleveland Indians
Originally signed by Cleveland as a shortstop, Martinez converted to catcher in the Indians minor league system and became one of the top tier catchers in baseball. He is coming off a career year in 2007 where he helped lead the Indians to the top of the American League Central with a .301 average and 25 homeruns and 114 RBIs. He is a two time All-Star (2004 and 2007) mostly because of what he does at the plate but one can not forget what he brings to the Indian pitching staff.

He does not have to say much but Indian pitchers feel confident and comfortable when Martinez is behind the plate. The 2007 Cy Young Award winner, C.C. Sabathia, credits Martinez for winning the award. Sabathia told a Toledo, Ohio newspaper “he knows every hitter in the league better than any of us pitchers do. I can’t tell you how much he helps me in every way.”

Like Martin, Martinez’s 2008 outlook is bright. His homerun and RBI totals will probably not exceed 25 and 120 respectively but one could reasonable expect him to hit .300 again with 20 homeruns and 100 RBIs.

Joe Mauer, Minnesota Twins
After a career year in 2006, hitting .347 with 13 homeruns, 84 RBIs and a .936 OPS, the Minnesota Twins gave the American League Batting Champ a new multi-million dollar contract. But the 2007 season was not as kind to Mauer as 2006. He spent the majority of the month of May last season with a strained quadriceps but still managed to hit a respectable .293 with 60 RBIs and a .808 OPS. His power numbers dropped drastically from the previous year but one could argue his leg injury early in the season contributed to the drastic decrease.

Mauer always had been in a position of leadership since high school when he was the quarterback of the football as well as being the catcher for the baseball team. As a quarterback he was the “National High School Quarterback of the Year” in 2000 and turning down a football scholarship offer at Florida State. Two of his high school football teammates have noted that he would have been a first round pick in the NFL Draft if he choose the football route. Being in a position where he must lead a team does not faze the young catcher because he has been there before and succeeded.

The Twins recognized his leadership and ability to keep opposing base runners in check when they decided to trade catcher A.J. Pierzynski to the Giants during the 2003 off-season. Mauer is a lanky 6’5,” 230 pound catcher that sparked criticism that he is too tall and not big enough to be a catcher. But it is his height that allows him to keep the opposing runners from running on him. In his career, Mauer only allowed 99 base runners to swipe a bag while throwing out 43% of would-be base stealers.

Brian McCann, Atlanta Braves
The Braves have a tough young catcher who has proven he belongs in Major League Baseball. McCann was originally called up to the big league to replace injured catchers Johnny Estrada and his back-up during the 2006 campaign. Appearing in 130 games that season, the young 22-year-old made the most of it and hit .333 with 24 homeruns, 93 RBIs and a .960 OPS. With an outstanding first year in the major leagues, McCann’s production dipped a bit during his sophomore season. Last year, he barely hit .270 with 18 homeruns, 92 RBIs and an OPS of .772 in 139 games.

With the trade of Jarrod Saltalamacchia last year, the Braves ensured their future catcher would be McCann. If he can play anywhere between 140-150 games this season, there is no reason to doubt he will hit 20 homeruns and drive in over 100 RBIs during the 2008 season.

Last season his defense was suspect, throwing out just 19 of 89 would-be base stealers, but he came into Spring Training this year with the goal to improve that number. But Atlanta pitchers can not complain when McCann is calling the game. They feel very comfortable throwing to him, which is important for a pitcher-catcher battery to have, says Braves’ coach.

Jason Varitek, Boston Red Sox
He is not a young catcher but he brings a veteran presence to the Red Sox behind the plate for the young guys. Varitek will not produce the same type of numbers that Martin, Martinez or Mauer will put up but if you ask Curt Schilling or Josh Beckett he can call a game with the best of them. He studies tapes of batters with other pitchers during the day and rarely do pitchers shake him off. Schilling once stated that he could not remember shaking Varitek off once during a season.

Even though he has an American League Silver Slugger award, Varitek’s bat is slowing down due to age but the Red Sox will not have it any other way. He brings too much to the pitching staff and behind the plate. The younger pitchers on the staff (Jon Lester, Clay Buchholz and Jonathan Papelbon) feel very comfortable with him calling the pitches behind the plate. The same year he won the Silver Slugger Award, he took home the Gold Glove as a catcher.

Varitek is a career .267 hitter who will hit between 10 and 20 homeruns and drive in 60-80 base runners. Look for him to hit around his average this year with 15 homeruns while driving in 60 base runners.

Keep an eye out for:

Jarrod Saltalamacchia, Texas Rangers
Even though it looks like Gerald Laird will win the starting job for the Rangers, it will not be long before Saltalamacchia is back in the big leagues for good. Look for the young catcher to be brought up to the big club late in the year after playing most of the 2008 season in Triple A.

No comments: