Catching skill could get Sardinha to bigs

Catching skill could get Sardinha to bigs

KISSIMMEE, Fla. -- Dane Sardinha knows he has to hit. He knows what the problem is, and he can lay it out pretty clearly. It's his biggest focus in his game. Even then, he can't quite get past it.

"I can't lay off certain pitches," he said Friday. "I don't know if I don't see it as well as other guys do, or what the deal is. I just swing at a lot more bad pitches than other people."

He hasn't yet shown he can hit, but he has long since shown he can catch. And that could get him to the big leagues in a couple of weeks.

With Vance Wilson headed for the disabled list to start the season and Brandon Inge on the trading block, Sardinha could end up the leading candidate to back up Ivan Rodriguez on Opening Day. If he did, it would be the first time he has opened the season on a Major League roster after seven Minor League seasons.

It would be a happy day for his parents, and especially for his baseball-playing brothers. But it's still not the dream scenario for Sardinha.

"I don't want to go up there and be like, 'Oh, we're just carrying this guy because we have no one. He's going to be the weakness in our lineup,'" he said. "It would be awesome to break camp with these guys, but I'd like to earn my way up by showing them I can hit. Hopefully that can happen this year, put everything behind me."

It's a long-running mixed saga for him. After all, it takes some defensive talent for a player to keep finding everyday playing time with a .223 career average in the Minors. It takes some great talent in that regard for that same player to be regarded as a potential big league catcher.

"He's an extremely fine defensive catcher, and he can throw," manager Jim Leyland said. "And anything you got offensively would be a bonus. You'd just hope on the days that you catch him that the big boys would carry the lineup offensively. But he's an excellent catcher and thrower. I've really been impressed with him. I like him a lot."

It's a similar story to what scouts saw in him before the Reds selected him in the second round of the 2000 First-Year Player Draft. He was an All-American at Pepperdine University, where he hit .365 and .353 as a sophomore and junior. There was a question whether his bat would carry to the higher levels of the Minors, but his ability to defend the plate and work with a pitcher drew raves.

Baseball America rated him the best catcher in his leagues in his first two pro seasons. He was an International League All-Star in 2004. As the regular catcher at Triple-A Toledo last year, he threw out just under half of would-be basestealers, and the pitching staff he handled ended up leading the IL in ERA. That was a big reason the Tigers wanted him back this year.

Even this spring, Dontrelle Willis went out of his way to praise Sardinha for the game he called with him on the mound last week.

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"For a guy you're new to, he did a great job handling me back there," Willis said. "For someone to know what your ball is going to do and what you're good at on some days, he's very good about recognizing that."

At this point, it's almost an afterthought for him, trying to think what the pitcher will want to do in certain situations and counts. He takes time in side sessions to try to learn the stuff.

"We throw ideas out there, and it's up to them to make their pitch," he said. "Sometimes you have to acknowledge that they're going to shake you. You want them to throw what's comfortable. You don't want to force them to throw something they're not really comfortable with."

Sardinha takes pride in that.

"Especially for a guy that hasn't really proven he can hit," he said. "You've got to somehow show that you can do something one way or another. I think my defense has gotten me where I am. Right now it's to a point where I still try to help my pitchers as much, but to me, I worry more about my hitting. Catching kind of comes natural."

It always comes back to hitting for him. While he has built a resume on his defense, the bat has simply never caught up, despite flashes of promise. His 2004 season was his best in that regard, a .262 average with nine home runs and 40 RBIs in 324 at-bats. The next year, he lost that swing and fell back to .224.

It's not that coaches haven't tried. In some ways, they might've tried too much, tinkering with his swing each year. So far, now at age 28, nothing has stuck.

"It's all mental to me right now, and I've known it for a while," he said. "I've been having a hard time just to have better at-bats, pitch selection and all that stuff. It's been with me since high school, since college."

His 2007 season wasn't encouraging in that regard, a .202 average with 10 home runs, 47 RBIs and 98 strikeouts in 381 at-bats. Still, assistant general manager Al Avila said they saw signs he was making progress.

Sometimes, opportunity can be the best catalyst. He re-signed last fall thinking he would be battling Mike Rabelo for playing time in Toledo. Once Rabelo was dealt to the Marlins, Sardinha was looking at everyday time. Now, he might be looking at a big league backup job.

It did wonders for Rabelo, who showed enough promise to be wanted in Florida, where he now has a chance to have the bulk of the time behind the plate. Time will tell whether Sardinha will ever make that kind of jump.

"I'll pretty much take my chance with any team," he said. "I'll be all right. It's just putting everything together offensively."

Jason Beck is a reporter for This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.