Finding and developing everyday catchers didn’t seem too difficult for the Texas Rangers in the past.
They took Jim Sundberg with the second overall pick in the 1973 draft, and he became their everyday backstop for the next decade. They had a brief gap before signing a Puerto Rican named Ivan Rodriguez in 1988. He was a Rangers mainstay from 1991-2002 and became one of the game’s all-time greats.
Times have changed and finding elite-level catchers has become a more difficult task for teams throughout the majors. That includes the Rangers, who haven’t signed and developed an everyday catcher since Rodriguez.
“Catchers don’t grow on trees and, if they do, we would certainly like to know where that orchard is,” assistant general manager Thad Levine said. “We keep an active list of every team’s needs and surpluses, and there are more teams with needs at catcher than surpluses. That’s why you see there is such a feeding frenzy in the off-season because more teams have that need to fill than the players available.”
The Rangers were in those murky waters last winter, and will face a similar situation this off-season with both A.J. Pierzynski and Geovany Soto set to hit free agency. They will be happy, though, if they get similar production next season from the catching position as they have this season from Pierzynski and Soto.
Pierzynski, who signed a one-year, $7.5 million deal last winter, is on pace for a 13th consecutive season with at least 100 games caught and has fared well at the plate coming off a career year. He is batting .279 with 14 home runs and 52 RBIs.
Soto, meanwhile, has played sparingly with only a .208 average, but has come through with clutch hits. His most memorable might have been a walk-off homer on July 29 against the Angels.
“They’ve picked it up extremely well,” manager Ron Washington said. “Two veteran guys, two quality guys that handle our pitching staff extremely well. We’re very fortunate to have those two guys.”
Handling a pitching staff is the No. 1 task for a catcher, in Washington’s mind, more than producing offensively. That’s what made the 36-year-old Pierzynski attractive even though his defense was a concern.
Pierzynski was never known for his defense, but he has consistently shown a knack for getting pitchers through games. He is one of only nine catchers in history to catch two no-hitters, one of which was a perfect game.
That’s what impressed Sundberg most when he scouted Pierzynski last year. The Rangers knew the impending catching predicament they faced, and general manager Jon Daniels wanted Sundberg to evaluate catchers who might be available for the Rangers via free agency or trades the last half of last year.
Sundberg, a senior executive vice president with the team, had about eight catchers on his list, and felt Pierzynski had the intangibles the Rangers were looking for.
“I told JD, ‘A.J. is the guy you really want,’” Sundberg said. “He’s gutty. He’s a gamer. He gets key hits. He works well with a pitching staff. That’s what we needed.”
For this season, Pierzynski has teamed with Soto to give the Rangers exactly what they want from their catchers every season. Both expressed interest in returning next season, although neither is viewed as a long-term solution.
They simply join a long line of catchers since Rodriguez that the Rangers have acquired through free agency (Einar Diaz, Rod Barajas) or trades (Gerald Laird, Jarrod Saltalamacchia, Bengie Molina).
Pierzynski is at the end of his career, but hopes to re-sign with the team.
“I’d like to, but it’s not my decision,” Pierzynski said. “It’s a team that tries to win and competes to win with a good pitching staff, and they’re going to have a good pitching staff for a while. As an older player, you want to be on teams that want to win and they’re definitely trying to do that here.”
Said Soto: “I just control what I can control. Right now, we have our plate full with being up 2 1/2 games in the West. Whatever happens later, happens, but I’m just concentrating on this season and winning today.”
From a front office perspective, however, the Rangers know the importance of developing catchers from within. They have high hopes for Low A Hickory catcher Jorge Alfaro, who could emerge as the team’s top prospect next year.
They also have other catchers in the system such as Kellin Deglan, the 2010 first-round pick now at High A Myrtle Beach, and Tomas Telis, who is at Double A Frisco.
The demand for catchers has reached the point that Levine believes most teams will have fledgling prospects work out as catchers before they release them. After all, it’s worked out well for Buster Posey, who moved from shortstop to catcher in college.
“Before you would ever consider releasing a player, you’ll have them step on the mound and throw and also put on catching gear,” Levine said. “And our scouts’ mindset has evolved to looking at shortstops or outfielders and asking, ‘Could he catch?’
“Like we said, catchers don’t grow on trees and sometimes you have to manufacture and give people opportunities at that position.”