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NL holds the future of the backstop

NL holds the future of the backstop

Given the relative recent fortunes of the Major League's two circuits, one would expect National League teams to be ready to consult Dr. Phil.

In the era of American League supremacy, the NL has to hear all about losing 11 straight All-Star Games, losing seven of the last 10 World Series (and 34 of the last 50 World Series games), losing Interleague Series, even losing marquee players.

However, in at least one instance the NL can proudly step up to the plate. Or, rather, squat behind it: When it comes to the new generation of catchers, NL clubs are ahead of the curve.

The art of receiving is at a transitional stage, dissolving from a decorated group of venerable catchers, whose hair is turning gray, to the new crop. While AL clubs are holding onto the past, the NL has already stepped into the future.

In the AL, the position is star-studded, still headlined by a trio of 36-year-olds who have defined it for most of the last decade: Detroit's Ivan Rodriguez, the Yankees' Jorge Posada and Boston's Jason Varitek (who'll turn 36 within the first two weeks of the season).

In the NL, the position is fuzzy-cheeked, featuring youngsters who have already made their marks and others about to be given the stage.

The vanguards of the new wave are Atlanta's Brian McCann and the Dodgers' Russell Martin, two guys in their early 20s already with cases full of awards.

In the NL, when a catcher turns 36 he is asked to mentor his successor -- as is Brad Ausmus in Houston, where 24-year-old J.R. Towles is expected to take over (as is Geovany Soto, 25, for the Cubs).

In the AL, at 36 you get another four-year contract -- as did Posada from the Yankees.

Yet it was entirely sensible for the Yankees to embrace and enrich Posada, who has always been indispensable and in 2007 became indescribable. At an age when catchers typically begin to decline, he authored a career season (his .338 average, 42 doubles and 171 hits were all personal highs).

Most impressive in a peer sense, Posada's .426 on-base percentage was 44 points higher than the second-best figure among the league's regular catchers, Minnesota's Joe Mauer.

Varitek's matching importance to the Red Sox is merely another feature of the fierce rivalry between the AL East rivals. He exemplifies the intangibles that typically make a catcher's value transcend the numbers, yet his importance to Boston's fortunes can actually be documented.

Catchers

Remaining Schedule
During an 11-year career, Varitek has missed two long stretches with injuries. In 2001, he cracked his left elbow on June 7 and sat out the rest of the season; the Red Sox, atop the division by one game with a 34-24 record when he got injured, went 48-55 the rest of the way and finished 13 games behind the Yankees. In 2006, the Sox were 63-41 and again led the AL East by a game when Varitek tore cartilage in his left knee and sat out 33 games -- of which Boston lost 23 to fall nine games behind.

Do the math, and the Red Sox went 58-78 during those two absences by their captain.

"Transcend" indeed is a word that becomes a cliché when baseball people discuss the giants of the position.

Consider Victor Martinez of the AL Central champion Indians, who flexes much of the relatively little muscle remaining at the position (he and Posada were the Majors' only catchers to clock 20-plus homers).

Already mindful of saving wear and tear on the 29-year-old, Manager Eric Wedge gave him 20 percent of his starts at first base. But Martinez's impact spikes when he settles behind the plate.

"His value to the team transcends his on-field performance," said Cleveland general manger Mark Shapiro. "He's probably the most passionate teammate we have. He's a guy who appreciates, as much as any player on our team, what it means to be a Cleveland Indian. He takes great pride in being on this team, and his passion makes him a leader."

Even with the reduced workload, Martinez was one of only 18 catchers to start 104 or more games behind the plate. In 2008, the Royals will have two of them -- incumbent John Buck has been joined by former Florida starter Miguel Olivo, recently signed as a free agent.

The unequivocal new ironman in this department is Martin, who started 143 games for the Dodgers. No. 2 is McCann, with 130 starts. The AL leader was Seattle's Kenji Johjima, who started 128 games and also tops the league with 2,279 1/3 innings caught the last two seasons.

Martin's and McCann's durability is even more impressive in light of their production; combined with their field presence and smarts, it's a package that has made them invaluable to their teams.

Says Braves ace John Smoltz of McCann, "He's an unbelievable hitter and his knowledge of the game is well beyond his years."

In 2007, Martin (19 homers, 87 RBIs) and McCann (18, 92) had virtually copycat offensive seasons. Between them the last two seasons, they've nailed two Silver Slugger Awards and three All-Star berths.

Martin also scored a Gold Glove last season, although his defensive reputation within the game still trails that of Yadier Molina, the St. Louis receiver whose bat keeps catching up to his mitt. Molina, whom seamheads can tell you led the NL in blocked potential wild pitches, set career highs in average (.275), slugging percentage (.368) and on-base percentage (.340).

A four-year veteran though only 25 himself, Molina has averaged 116 starts the last three seasons.

Blessed are the teams able to count on an undisputed No. 1. But becoming more prevalent are teams counting on catching tandems, hoping to exploit the individual assets of multiple receivers.

These include the Mets (Ramon Castro and Brian Schneider) White Sox (A.J. Pierzynski and Toby Hall), D-backs (Chris Snyder and Miguel Montero), Phillies (Carlos Ruiz and Chris Coste), Angels (Mike Napoli and Jeff Mathis), Marlins (Mike Rabelo and Matt Treanor), Rangers (Gerald Laird and Jarrod Saltalamacchia) and Reds (David Ross and Javier Valentin).

According to at least one insider, the trend is more indicative of quality depth than of a shortage.

"If you look at the industry and the quality of catching at all levels -- big league, Minor League, amateur -- it's all over the place," Rangers general manager Jon Daniels said. "For us it's a strength. Some people may look at it as a logjam or that we have decisions to make. But I look at it as you can't have enough of a good thing."

For every member of the new wave -- which will also include Kurt Suzuki in Oakland -- there is a veteran washing up on a new shore.

Such as durable Jason Kendall, who is the only big league catcher to start 130-plus games each of the last five seasons and has moved to Milwaukee, and Paul Lo Duca, who after a frustrating free agency has landed in Washington.

Turned away by the Mets and given only cursory looks by other teams, Lo Duca's ego may have suffered the same hits absorbed a year ago by Bengie Molina.

Perhaps Lo Duca will discover that beating expectations, and the other teams, is the best revenge. Molina did -- finally taken in by the Giants, he muscled up for career highs of 19 homers and 81 RBIs, emerging as a middle-of-the-order candidate in their revamped 2008 lineup.

Nationals GM Jim Bowden has seen Lo Duca "beat every team I've been with for years because, with the game on the line, he gives that at-bat. He wants to be there with the game on the line. He's a winner."

Tom Singer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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