Easily, the most important position on the diamond is the catcher. Seldom are successful teams without a rock behind the plate. Where would the world champion Florida Marlins have been without Ivan Rodriguez? Pudge was the team Most Valuable Player in every sense of the word; a clutch hitter, team leader and veteran presence to nurture a very young pitching staff.
Although Rodriguez is a weapon at the plate, the catcher is not required, unlike, say, a first baseman, to be an offensive force. Through the years, for every Johnny Bench, Mike Piazza and Jorge Posada there were dozens of catchers like Steve Yeager, Benito Santiago and Bob Boone, solid backstops who seldom put up spectacular numbers but who were astute students of the game, guiding pitching staffs and anchoring defenses for winning teams. It is not a coincidence that more coaches and managers are former catchers than any other position.
The Phillies are both in good and bad shape with regard to their catchers. Their starter, Mike Lieberthal, is arguably one of the top half-dozen receivers in the game. Todd Pratt is one of the most reliable backup catchers around, and Shawn Wooten, the emergency catcher, is adequate enough behind the plate to give manager Larry Bowa greater pinch-hitting flexibility than in previous years.
However, the Phils have absolutely no depth at the position. Although Ed Wade would have rightly made the Johnny Estrada-for-Kevin Millwood trade any day of the week and twice on Sunday, the swap left the team with no major-league-ready prospects. Most of the catchers in the minor league system are career minor-leaguers or low-ceiling prospects. An injury that would keep Lieberthal out for any significant period of time would have the Phillies shopping for a catcher faster than you can say "Lance Parrish."
As part of our continuing series, we examine the Phillies' catchers and their prospects for 2004 (We are cheating a bit by including Wooten, as he is more of a corner infielder, but there will be plenty of infielders next week.).
Mike Lieberthal – R/R
Last year: Lieberthal hit a career-high .313 and was money in the clutch, batting .319 with runners in scoring position, .406 with a man on third and two outs, and a phenomenal .563 with the bases loaded. He averaged 130 games caught the last two years, demonstrating a full recovery from the knee injury that cost him most of the 2001 season. Defensively, he only threw out 18% of would-be base stealers, down from his career average of 34%. However, the drop-off is attributable to pitching coach Joe Kerrigan's philosophy of pitchers' focusing on hitters rather than runners. Lieberthal is a former Gold Glove winner, and was rock-solid behind the plate.
What could go right: Another season of a .300+ batting average, 15 home runs and 75 RBI while catching 130 games would suit the Phillies just fine. A rebound season from Pat Burrell would allow the team to drop Lieberthal to sixth or seventh in the lineup, giving the bottom of the order some punch.
What could go wrong: Any injury that would keep Lieberthal out an extended period of time could be devastating, sending the Phillies scrambling for a replacement. Even then, no one available within or outside the system would be able to replace him, offensively or defensively.
Outlook: With the possible exception of Jim Thome, Lieberthal is the most irreplaceable member of the roster. So long as he his healthy, the Phils will be happy at the position. At 32, Lieberthal is at the age where most catchers begin a precipitous statistical decline. However, with the talent around him in the lineup, even a .270-10-65 season should be adequate for the team to be successful.
Todd Pratt – R/R
Last year: "Tank" was the ideal backup catcher in 2003, hitting .272 (.364 with runners in scoring position) and playing an above-average defensive catcher, handling the young pitching staff like the pro he is. He had good pop in his bat the past two seasons for the Phils, with 29 of his 67 hits going for extra bases.
What could go right: With the addition of Wooten as catching insurance, Pratt may top 200 at-bats for the first time in his career, getting more pinch-hitting opportunities and spot starts at first base. With the punch Pratt provides offensively, that will only help the Phillies.
What could go wrong: Pratt turned 37 this week, so age may start to be a factor.
Outlook: Pratt has a terrific presence on the team, a vocal, outgoing veteran on a young club. He will never post great numbers, but his professional acumen and clubhouse popularity cannot be underestimated. He will contribute positively on and off the field.
Shawn Wooten – R/R
Last year: Wooten was a solid role player for Anaheim, hitting .243 in 272 at-bats and .350 as a pinch-hitter, while playing first, third and catcher.
What could go right: Wooten becomes the go-to guy off the bench, providing power as a pinch-hitter and giving Thome and David Bell the occasional rest at the corners.
What could go wrong: Wooten is here for his bat. The more time Wooten sees in the field, and especially behind the plate, the worse off the Phillies will be.
Outlook: Wooten is the kind of hard-working, dirty-uniform player Bowa loves. He may not have dazzling numbers, but will never give up on a double-play ball. He'll likely become a fan favorite in the Rex Hudler mold.
Not much to tell here. Last month the Phillies signed A.J. Hinch to a minor league contract as insurance at catcher. Hinch has six years of major league experience, but is not an everyday receiver. Russ Jacobson was the Phillies' third-round draft pick in 1999, but injuries have slowed his progress. Jeremy Salazar is a very good defensive catcher, and Trent Pratt was a Florida State League All-Star for Clearwater in 2003. All four will all be brought to spring training as non-roster invitees, but will mainly be bullpen bodies, as none figure into the Phillies' plans for the near future. However, good seasons in the minors, particularly from Jacobson and Pratt, may put them onto the big-league track.