Have mitt, will travel.

The Ballad of the Journeyman Catcher


There are a few positions in sports where you can play professional sports for a long time.  If you want to get close to guaranteeing your son gets such a spot, you can teach them to punt or kick field goals at a young age.  You can put a baseball in their left hand at five weeks old and teach them pinpoint control and they’ll work as a LOOGY into their 40s.

Or they can learn to call a good game, have the ability to block pitches in the dirt, and be fine playing once or twice a week at the most and be a backup catcher.  They should also be willing to travel.

Think of the opportunities out there.  After the fifth or sixth team, he’ll have seen nearly every major city, met hundreds of other players, come up with a lifetime of stories, and made some nice coin in the process.

Odds are, he’ll end up on the Royals, much like many other guys who have donned the “tools of ignorance” over the years.

Some of these guys have started regularly at one point or throughout most of their careers, too.  Regardless, they’ll still get shipped around from team to team, plying their trade with any team that will sign them and give them a spot.

When they signed him last offseason, the Royals became Jason Kendall‘s fifth team in the big leagues.  Kendall had of course filled the vacated position of “veteran catcher” after the departure of Jason LaRue, who’d left the Royals after the 2007 season.

By comparison, LaRue (who seems like he’s been on more teams than just three) made Kendall look like Albert Pujols in comparison.  LaRue hit .148/.240/.272, good for a 35 OPS+.  

It’s all uphill from there.

Or perhaps not.  Paul Bako (who made Kansas City his 8th out of 11 teams in 2006) preceded LaRue and put up a .489 OPS, good for a 28 OPS+.  That means, relative to the rest of the league and adjusting for the year and ballpark, Bako’s offensive performance was 72% worse than average.  He was a full win below replacement level that year.

The mid-00s was a great time to be a backup catcher if you liked Kansas City.  The Royals marched out such luminaries as Benito Santiago (9th of his 10 teams) and Alberto Castillo (6th of 8).  Gregg Zaun, who was just a journeyman in training at the time (the Royals were the 4th of 10 teams for him), had a strong year in 2001 in Kansas City but in only 138 plate appearances.

The 2003 season was notable not only because it’s the last time the Royals finished above .500, but also because they used Tom Prince (a staple of the commons box at baseball card shops) and Mike Difelice (who just sounds like he’d be a catcher).

Of course, you must remember DiFelice who blew up after getting ejected in a game and promptly went bananas.  DiFelice played for a total of eight different teams, including Tampa twice.

Didn't even bother to take of the gear.

The pinnacle of the Royals goodwill mission to showcase these well-traveled backstops was in 1999.  Chad Kreuter (eight teams) and Tim Spehr (only four teams but he joined the Royals on three different occasions) passed on the journeyman knowledge to Sal Fasano after obtaining permission from Sal Fasano’s facial hair.

None. Shall. Pass.

Fasano would later don the gear for nine total teams, with two stints with the Royals mixed in.  From 2005 to 2008, he played for five different teams.

All that shifting followed a stable period from 1988 to 1994 when the Royals had Mike MacFarlane behind the plate.   Mac was relatively solid, especially during a stretch from 1991 to 1994 when he produced a 116 OPS+ and averaged 16 homers a year.  When MacFarlane left after 1994 (before returning a year later), the Royals used Brent Mayne in 1995 before he left for a trek from the Mets to Oakland to San Francisco to Colorado then BACK to Kansas City (where he stayed put for a while), before finishing up his tour of the NL West with stops in Los Angeles and Arizona.

The backup catcher when Mayne was the starter in 1995? Pat Borders, who, to that point, had only played for the Blue Jays.  After one year with the Royals, he too contracted the itinerant bug and finally ended his career as a Mariner – his ninth team.

I bring all of this up because through the years, the Royals have had a regular  gap behind the plate.  A very good catcher is a luxury, so it hasn’t set the franchise back like, say, the black hole of doom that shortstop has been for much of the team’s history, but an extended period of time with hardly anybody even average for the position sure doesn’t benefit anybody.

John Buck had somewhat productive years – or at least had some power. Miguel Olivo almost looked like a legitimate long-term option for a while there.

But for the most part, the Royals haven’t had a franchise catcher, nor did they have one on the way.

Thankfully, that’s changing now.

Salvador Perez has had he reputation of being a great defensive catcher since he started at the position after signing with the Royals out of Venezuela.  He gets rid of the ball as fast as anybody and has a strong arm to go with it.  His maturity for his age (he just turned 21) and intangible leadership qualities benefit everybody when they’re part of a catcher’s toolkit.

It helps that he can swing the bat a little.

He’s been somewhat overmatched since reaching the big leagues, but he also spent a mere 11 days at Triple A before getting the making his debut.  With pop in his bat and a great two-strike approach, he may be the total package for a catcher.

In light of Sal’s promotion and promise, Brayan Pena or Matt Treanor will likely be gone after this year (and possibly this month once Treanor completes his rehab assignment following his concussion).  Treanor, at 37, will likely stick around as a veteran presence for Perez.

As for Pena…at 29 years old, he has plenty of time to find his way onto a new team.

Or seven.

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Tags: AL Central Baseball Brent Mayne Jason Kendall Kansas City Royals KC KC Royals Mike MacFarlane MLB Pat Borders Paul Bako Royals Sal Fasano Salvador Perez