Laird back on top as No. 1 catcher
Backstop regains starting position after three-year hiatus
SURPRISE, Ariz. -- The Rangers brought six catchers to camp with a unique disadvantage.
They are collectively the most inexperienced group of catchers in the American League.
The six have combined to appear in just 407 Major League games. With the exception of the Seattle Mariners, that's the fewest for any team in the American League. The Mariners have less only because Kenji Johjima, a rookie in 2006, played in over 1,100 games in Japan and that can hardly be described as inexperience.
With Rod Barajas gone, Gerald Laird comes to camp as the starter having played in 159 games. His likely backup is Miguel Ojeda, the 32-year-old Mexican League veteran who has played 212 games. Guillermo Quiroz, signed as a free agent in December, has played in 30 games and Chris Stewart, acquired from the Chicago White Sox, has played in six games.
"This offseason, we were committed to Gerald," Rangers general manager Jon Daniels said. "I think Gerald has a chance to be a strength for this team. As far as looking for a backup, we looked at a couple of veteran guys. We talked about bringing Rod back -- he and Mike Lieberthal were the two guys we offered a contract to.
"But we like the group we have. It's potentially inexperienced, but it's still an athletic, talented group."
The Rangers also pursued Mike Piazza, but he signed with the Oakland Athletics. He joins Jason Kendall and Adam Melhuse to give the Athletics 3,635 games of Major League experience among their catchers.
The Los Angeles Angels, with Jose Molina as their starter, are also shy in experience with a combined 460 Major League games.
Laird, who has traveled a tortuous path to get to this point, has given the Rangers reason to commit to him as their No. 1 catcher.
After his career was dealt a serious setback by a torn ligament in his left thumb in 2004, Laird finally spent a full season in the Majors in 2006 and hit .296 with seven home runs and 22 RBIs in 243 at-bats while serving in a part-time backup role behind Barajas.
Laird is also fourth among active catchers with at least 145 games behind the plate throwing out 40.7 percent of attempted basestealers against him. Only Yadier Molina, Ivan Rodriguez and Henry Blanco have done better.
But new manager Ron Washington is looking for something more than offense or gunning down baserunners. He made that clear on Sunday when he talked to his catchers as a group for the first time.
Pitch selection and building a strong relationship with the pitching staff is No. 1.
That's where experience and the wisdom of years played becomes a big asset.
"I gained a little more experience last year," Laird said. "You just have to show the guys you're in charge out there and you know what you're doing. Especially with so many young guys on this staff, you have to make sure you're prepared because I know they're going to rely on me."
Rangers pitchers had a 4.60 ERA for the season last year, but it was 4.39 when Laird was behind the plate. That was the eighth-lowest catcher's ERA in the American League for a catcher with at least 500 innings.
"I thought Gerald did a good job last year," veteran pitcher Kevin Millwood said. "I enjoyed throwing to him. The biggest challenge is figuring out what everybody wants to do and what they're trying to do. It's up to him to know everybody. The more he knows us, the easier it is to work with him."
The Rangers thought enough of Laird to make him their Opening Day catcher in 2004 and he was doing fine until he tore the ligament in his left thumb on May 20 against Kansas City. Barajas took over while Laird was sidelined and never gave up the job. Laird has been forced to wait until now to become the No. 1 catcher again.
"In 2004, he was our starting catcher because of his physical tools," said third base coach Don Wakamatsu, a former catcher who has been one of Laird's mentors. "The injury may have been a blessing in disguise because it forced him to go down [to the Minors] and grow more. He relied on his offense and felt that's how his future would be shaped.
"I think he realizes now this team isn't going to the World Series without the right guy [calling pitches] behind the plate. I think in the last four years, he has grown light-years. He's a father and a family man and as that maturity grows, his respect on the field is going to grow."
Wakamatsu said Laird's biggest asset is he's not afraid of anything.
"He loves to play," Wakamatsu said. "He has a chance to be one of the best catchers in baseball. He's still got a lot of work ahead of him, but he's champing at the bit. I may have to slow him down."
Laird should be overeager to get back on the field. After waiting nearly three years, he is finally the No. 1 catcher again.
"It feels longer than three years," Laird said. "I know I can play here. I felt I handled it three years ago. I don't want to do anything different."
Experience will take care of much.
T.R. Sullivan is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.