Saltalamacchia aims to seize chance
Rangers catcher has work cut out for him; Teagarden close behind
SURPRISE, Ariz. -- There is no doubt what Jarrod Saltalamacchia has to do to validate his spot as the Rangers' No. 1 catcher.He has to work well with his pitchers. He has to push them, nurture them, pat them on the back, kick them in their rears, earn their trust, call their pitches and be their guiding light. He needs to take charge, get them through innings and get them through games.
"It means eliminating high pitch counts and long innings," manager Ron Washington said. "It's knowing what a pitcher's best pitch is in tough situations, and if he throws it in the dirt, you'll block it. It's being on the same page all the time."That's it. Everything else is secondary for the manager. How well he works with the pitching staff could ultimately determine whether Saltalamacchia seizes the opportunity or if he leaves an opening for Taylor Teagarden. It's all about working with the pitching staff. "If our catchers can do all of that, I think you'll see a dramatic change in how our pitchers go about their business," Washington said. Saltalamacchia, with Gerald Laird being traded in the offseason, comes into the camp as the starter based on an edge in Major League experience. Saltalamacchia, acquired from the Braves in July 2007, has caught in 101 Major League games over the past two years, including 94 starts. Teagarden has played in 12 games. The general feeling on the Rangers is it's finally time to give Saltalamacchia his chance and see what he can do now that Laird is out of the way. He gets the first look, but Teagarden is close behind.
"I'm not looking at it as a competition," Saltalamacchia said. "Hopefully none of us are looking at it as a competition. We need to be trying to get ready for Opening Day. Last year I came in with the attitude that it was a competition. I knew Laird was the veteran, and it was his job to do."I busted my tail to do everything to make the team and didn't. That was a big letdown, and I let it get to me. I've learned from that." Teagarden is No. 2 on the depth chart. Max Ramirez, a big bat who needs more work on his defense, will likely start at Triple-A. Adam Melhuse is here to add depth and experience. There is still a possibility of a trade. The Red Sox want to add a young catcher, and the Marlins are asking about Max Ramirez. Other teams have unsettled catching situations, although most trade talks won't commence until later in the spring. "Anything can happen in the spring," Teagarden said. "As long as I play hard and play my best, I should be given a fair shot. When Gerald got traded, it opened some doors. I just want to break with the team, get a chance to play and be healthy. I'm in a situation where I have been given the opportunity, now it's my time to take advantage of it." The Rangers have long considered Saltalamacchia to be a top prospect. The talent is there, but it needs to be finished off. Since being acquired from the Braves, Saltalamacchia is hitting .252 with 10 home runs and 47 RBIs in 365 at-bats. Defensively he has caught 76 games with the Rangers and has 11 errors, six passed balls and thrown out just eight of 62 attempted basestealers. Talent is not the issue. One problem is lack of experience. He was drafted out of high school and caught just 244 games in the Minors before being called up to the big leagues by the Braves in 2007. They used him at first base. The Rangers had him splitting time or backing up Laird. Another issue is being in a hurry or over-eager to do things. He has the arm strength to throw out basestealers but rushes, and his throws become erratic. He is trying to change that. "Ian Kinsler asked me once if I ever watched Joe Mauer throw," Saltalamacchia said. "I did. He takes his time, he knows what to do and he makes a good throw. I was always trying to muscle up and make a good throw. I always went out there feeling I had something to prove." Teagarden, the Rangers' third pick in the 2005 Draft out of the University of Texas, is considered an outstanding defensive catcher, but there is still some question about his health and his bat. He's had back and elbow injuries during his career. Offensively he overcame Tommy John elbow reconstruction surgery in November 2005 and hit .307 with 27 home runs and 83 RBIs in 294 Minor League at-bats in 2007. But he hit just .211 with nine home runs and 22 RBIs in the Minors last year. He was 15-for-47 with six home runs with the Rangers. "I'm very confident as a hitter," Teagarden said. "People categorize me as a defensive player, but I feel my offense is up to par with that. This lineup is thick enough so that wherever they put me, I'll be productive." But the priority is still being able to work with pitchers, and both are dealing with inexperience. Saltalamacchia has appeared in 101 Major League games as a catcher. That's 72nd among all catchers active at the end of last season. Teagarden has caught in just 12 games. "It's not going to be very different once we get to know each other," veteran pitcher Kevin Millwood said. "I've thrown to Salty, Teagarden, Melhuse, everybody we have here. I'm comfortable with them. We won't know until we get into game situations, but I don't think we'll have any problems getting on the same page." It's a must to be the Rangers starting catcher, and Saltalamacchia is up first.
T.R. Sullivan is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.