Looking at the catcher position, one thing’s for sure: Mike Matheny is the man.
Matheny started 127 games in 2005, his highest total in his career, at the age of 34. Despite being a year older, Matheny’s in the best shape of his life and could easily match that. That’s not a bad thing for the most part, especially after Matheny also had a career year with the bat. Matheny matched his career high for homers (8) in early August, and went on to hit 13. He also posted a career high in doubles (34, besting the previous mark of 22). Although he still hit just .242, the Giants went into the season thinking any offensive production would be a bonus out of the gold glover. They got his first .700+ OPS season of his career. And what was most important is that he hit when it was most important, hitting .311 with a .926 OPS with runner in scoring position. With 2 outs, that OPS jumped to 1.008.
Oh, and he won a gold glove while he was at it.
Can Matheny be as effective offensively again in 2006? His track record says no. He’s often been considered an offensive liability, and for pretty good reason. He’s a great defensive player, and that’s always been his strength. Even his best asset in 2005, his clutch ability to get a hit when it was needed most, isn’t something he’s always had. In 2002 and 2003, he hit only a little better, and in 2004, he hit just .225 with RISP. And that was on one of the best offensive teams in the National League. As popular as Matheny has been, Giants fans should expect a drop-off in production, both in timing and in power. But then, who knows if playing in San Francisco was just what Matheny needed to come out of his shell.
The good news is that the Giants don’t need offensive production from the catcher spot, as that’s not why Matheny was signed. But it would help to get some again.
The backup spot will provide a little more interest in spring training. Matheny’s record performance made it difficult to sign veteran catchers, and it played a role in the unusual signing of the favorite for the job, Todd Greene.
Greene was one of the Giants original pursuits in the offseason, but the lack of likely starts made him hesitant, and he balked when the Giants wouldn’t guarantee to not pursue other options. When the San Diego Padres did agree, Greene signed with the Padres. However, the Pads got Mike Piazza late in the offseason, and Greene requested his release. He got it, and went back to the Giants, signing a minor league deal.
Greene’s a solid catcher offensively and defensively. He provides a decent bat with good power (although it can be suspicious, since he played at Coors Field the last two years). He also commits himself well defensively. He also has an interesting connection, having caught Jamey Wright the last two years in Colorado. Wright also signed a minor league deal, and is a contender for the 5th starter job.
Greene’s competition is a couple of minor leaguers. One Giants fans should be familiar with is Justin Knoedler (#33 on the SFDugout.com Top 50 Prospect list). Knoedler made his major league debut in 2005, going 1 for 10 over 8 games. Though it was an auspicious start, Knoedler has some ability. A hard worker, his strength is also his defense. Knoedler hit .272 in Fresno, competing for playing time with fellow prospect Yamid Haad (who is also in camp, but may be a non-factor in the hunt for the backup job).
Competing with Knoedler is a name Giants fans might be familiar with, but only because of the ex-third baseman. Eliezer Alfonzo signed with the Giants organization as a 25 year old minor league free agent, having previously played with St. Louis and Milwaukee, and making an appearance in the independent Northern League. Before 2005, he’d never played above AA, but a strong start with the San Jose Giants, batting .357 and 13 home runs in 196 at bats, pushed him up to Norwich, where he kept hitting, and a brief AAA stint that also went well.
Alfonzo is a good hitter, but remains notably untested at the higher levels. Still, his strong power and breakout performance at 26 earned him a surprise spot on the 40 man roster and a legitimate chance at the major league job, especially after other veteran options refused the Giants.
Greene remains the favorite, particularly with his experience with Wright, but the battle remains wide open. Especially if Wright doesn’t claim that 5th spot in the rotation, a strong offensive performance by Alfonzo, or even Knoedler, could land them the backup spot.
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