SURPRISE, Ariz. — Last year’s catcher was not fleet of foot.Last year’s catcher, over time, also developed a prickly relationship with the team’s best pitcher.But don’t forget. A.J. Pierzynski, last year’s starting catcher for the Texas Rangers, did come to the plate 529 times and batted .272 with 17 home runs and 70 runs batted in.“I’ll take that,” Rangers manager Ron Washington assessed Thursday. Add catcher Geovany Soto’s hitting totals this season to newcomer J.P. Arencibia’s, Washington assured, and the offensive production of Pierzynski, who’s now with the Red Sox, will have been adequately replaced.“I hope the two of then can match that,” the manager said. “And if they rise to the occasion on the defensive side and help our pitchers get through a lot of innings, I’ll actually take whatever they’re giving me.”Spring training, however, is rife with ifs. If Soto, who’s now the No. 1 catcher, had not undergone foot surgery three weeks ago, Washington’s expectations might seem more modest. And if Arencibia, signed to a free agent, one-year, $1.8 million contract in the off-season, wasn’t batting .136 in eight games this spring, Washington’s defense-first promise wouldn’t ring quite so hollow.As the 2013 Rangers proved far too periodically, in the American League a team cannot easily get to the postseason by stacking the bottom of its lineup with easy outs. That’s not to say that Soto can’t hit. In 54 games last season, the Puerto Rico native batted .245 and actually has a higher career on-base-plus-slugging percentage (.774) than Pierzynski posted last year.Soto’s return to the lineup for Thursday night’s exhibition contest against the San Francisco Giants was roundly welcomed.“I love Geo’s energy,” pitcher Tanner Scheppers said. “He really cares out there. He wants you to succeed.“You can see his work ethic. He plays with his heart.”Teammate Nick Tepesch said that Soto’s input was invaluable during the pitcher’s rookie season last year. “He’s right on the same page with me all the time,” Tepesch said. “He’s smart. He knows the hitters. He knows how to approach different situations. He’s a partner out there.”But Soto has a lot of catching up to do, all puns intended. In the meantime, the Rangers have turned to Arencibia, a 28-year-old Miami product who was the Blue Jays’ No. 1 draft choice in 2007.The clubhouse clearly has embraced Arencibia, who has an engaging personality. But he began play Thursday with only three hits to show for the spring.Does it matter at this stage?“Heck, no,” Arencibia answered. “I’ll tell you why. Last year I hit .400 and had six home runs and probably had the best spring I’ve ever had in my career.”After a brow-raising start — he hit eight home runs in April — Arencibia hit a rut that saw him bat only .145 in the second half of the season. “I also had one spring training,” he noted, “where I hit maybe .070, and in the first game of the year I had four hits with two home runs.”Arencibia rolled his eyes.“Spring training is a time when you can work on things,” he said. “And sometimes it takes a little while. In baseball nothing happens overnight.“I’ve had every kind of spring training, and I learned that it really didn’t matter.”Washington admitted that his new catcher’s spring “hasn’t been as good as Arencibia would like to have it.”“But we’re going to keep working, try to keep getting him at-bats, trying to help him work things out,” Washington said.In the meantime, 17 home runs and 70 RBI seem a long way off.
Gil LeBreton, 817-390-7697 Twitter: @gilebreton