Around the Horn: Turnover at backstop

Around the Horn: Catcher

For years, catchers have reported to Spring Training with pitchers earlier than the rest of the team. And this year that's especially a good thing as many teams have new No. 1 backstops who will need to learn new pitching staffs -- and vice versa.

It stands to reason that baseball's most demanding position should see more turnover from one season to the next than most roster spots. Even so, 2007 shapes up as one of considerable change at catcher as at least 13 and perhaps as many as half of the 30 teams will begin the season with a starting backstop who was not that team's Opening Day starter last season.

This is not your routine changing of the shin guards. Several prominent veterans have new addresses and a crop of up-and-coming youngsters who earned the inside track to No. 1 status last season led to shuffling behind the plate on a scale not seen in recent years.

Three former All-Star catchers have changed teams since last season ended -- Johnny Estrada is in Milwaukee after spending last season with Arizona, Mike Lieberthal left Philadelphia for the Dodgers and Mike Piazza moved north to Oakland from San Diego.

Other starters or part-time starters who found new teams this winter include Rod Barajas (Phillies), Jason LaRue (Royals), Bengie Molina (Giants), Paul Bako (Orioles) and Toby Hall (White Sox).

In the National League West, all five teams could open the 2007 season with starting catchers who weren't in the lineup on Opening Day 2006: Chris Snyder with the Diamondbacks, Josh Bard or Rob Bowen with the Padres, Russell Martin with the Dodgers, Chris Iannetta with the Rockies and Molina with San Francisco.

Molina's departure from Toronto left the No. 1 spot open to holdover Gregg Zaun, while Estrada's move from the Diamondbacks to Milwaukee left a clear path to the top spot for Snyder in Arizona and bumped long-time starter Damian Miller to backup status with the Brewers.

Last winter, Zaun believed he was the Blue Jays' primary catcher as late as February, when Toronto then decided to switch gears shortly before pitchers and catchers reported to Spring Training. The Jays signed free-agent Molina -- immediately pushing Zaun into a backup role.

This time Zaun has a two-year, $7.25 million deal in hand from Toronto.

"This is always where I wanted to be," said Zaun, Toronto's starter during 2004-05. "I can't tell you how much I feel at home here.


Remaining Schedule
Catchers: Turnover at backstop
Corner IF: Infusion of youth at third
Middle IF: Lots of new combos
Outfielders: Revolving doors
Starters: Many seeking to rebound
Bullpen: Closers eye comebacks
DH/Bench: Depth can deliver success

"This is where my career turned around. I was kind of just spinning my wheels as a Major League player for a long time. I got an opportunity to get out there [with the Jays] and really find out what kind of player I could be. I always thought I had an idea, but it wasn't until I became a Blue Jay that I really knew."

Zaun's situation is not the only catching change that didn't involve a change of teams.

Miller, 37, will be backing up for the first time since 1998.

"At this point in my career, I knew it was only a matter of time before my load would change," Miller said. "I just didn't expect it to happen so fast. Johnny's going to catch. That's the deal. It's a different mind-set, that's for sure. The last seven, eight years, I've gone to camp as the No. 1 catcher. That's nice. You walk around knowing your role, and you have a lot of confidence. Now it's going to be different."

At first, Miller was angry about the trade. But then, as he put it, he began to "dwell on the positives" and accept the change.

"Maybe it's time to let the kids play," he said. "I still feel like I can play, but I understand where [club officials] are coming from. They're not just thinking about next year, they're thinking about the years beyond that and into the future. The competitor in me couldn't help but be disappointed because my playing time is going to be cut way back. But I'm trying to look at the positives. I still want to play every day and I think I can play every day, but the role might be good for me and for the team."

Molina's arrival in San Francisco came as a result of Mike Matheny's lingering post-concussion symptoms. With Matheny's status uncertain for 2007, the Giants decided to sign the 32-year-old two-time Gold Glover to a three-year deal worth $16 million.

Molina hit .283 with a career-high 19 homers and 57 RBIs for the Blue Jays, and the Giants feel he's the right man for guiding a young pitching staff.

"The chance to get somebody with experience and the ability to drive in runs was very attractive," Giants GM Brian Sabean said. "It's an important position, and he gives us a comfort level with the young pitching staff. He's a clutch hitter."

Piazza, the all-time home run leader among catchers, moves on to Oakland, where he will serve as designated hitter since the A's have Jason Kendall back behind the plate.

With Kendall and Piazza, no team will have more combined experience at catcher than Oakland.

Kendall, who batted .295 as Oakland's primary leadoff man in 2006 and led the club in multi-hit games (47), has started 287 games behind the plate in his two seasons with Oakland and doesn't plan to slow down anytime soon. He'd like to break Hall of Famer Carlton Fisk's all-time record for games caught (2,226), and with 1,493 games under his belt, Kendall need average only 123 games per year over the next six seasons to pass the original Pudge.

New A's manager Bob Geren, a former big-league catcher himself, doesn't plan to curtail Kendall's workload.

"He wants to play a lot, and he does a tremendous job for us," Geren said. "So I don't see anything changing much."

Adam Melhuse is expected to be Kendall's backup, and the emergency catcher will be Piazza, who has caught 1,629 games over 15 years but was signed to a one-year deal to replace Frank Thomas as Oakland's full-time DH.

Piazza is gone but the Padres believe they are set at catcher with Bard and Bowen.

"Those two guys were outstanding, offensively and defensively," San Diego GM Kevin Towers said. "They really came through for us."

Others who didn't begin the 2006 season as the no. 1 catcher but came through so well upon arrival they are front-runners to be their respective teams' Opening Day starters in 2007 include Pittsburgh's Ronnie Paulino, Cincinnati's David Ross, Martin of the Dodgers and Mike Napoli of the Angels.

Not every team overhauled their catching, and a few stood pat for obvious reasons.

Kenji Johjima is back for a second year at Seattle after the Mariners struck gold with the Japanese star last season. The three players who tied for the most RBIs among catchers last seasons -- Jorge Posada of the Yankees, Victor Martinez of the Indians and Brian McCann of the Braves -- are back with their respective teams. Other stars returning for another run are AL hitting champion Joe Mauer (Twins), Michael Barrett (Cubs), Ivan Rodriguez (Tigers), Paul Lo Duca (Mets), A.J. Pierzynski (White Sox) and Jason Varitek (Red Sox).

Jim Molony is a writer for This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.