Around the Horn: Catchers

Around the Horn: Catchers

While you might not know it from that patch of black ice you just slipped on, Spring Training is right around the corner. With that in mind, we're gearing up for the 2010 season by taking a position-by-position look at the Tribe's roster. Each week between now and when pitchers and catchers report on Feb. 21, we'll examine one area of the ballclub, continuing this week with the catchers.

It was not long ago that the Indians appeared to possess an embarrassment of riches at the catching spot.

This was before the Tribe completely overhauled its depth chart at catcher, with Victor Martinez shipped to the Red Sox in July of last year and his backup, Kelly Shoppach, dealt to the Rays in December.

Both moves were largely cost-cutting measures, as Martinez was one year and two months away from free agency and Shoppach was entering his second round of arbitration-eligibility. And both were made with the knowledge that top prospect Carlos Santana could very well emerge as the next Victor Martinez.

But with Martinez long gone and Santana still doing his time in the Minors, the Indians are entering a 2010 season that looks to be a bridge connecting one switch-hitting, run-producing backstop to another. Most likely, it will be the Lou Marson Link, though there's an outside chance it could be the Wyatt Toregas Trestle.

Either way, Santana, the Tribe's top prospect, will begin the season at Triple-A Columbus, assuming all goes as expected in his recovery from hand surgery.

"From a pure logic standpoint, the guy has not caught a game above Double-A," general manager Mark Shapiro said of Santana. "There's not a reason to push him. If there becomes a reason to push him -- if the team is in contention and he's going off at Triple-A -- we might. But at this moment, with some good alternatives [at the Major League level] and his natural progression being Triple-A, we're going to send him to Triple-A."

When it comes to those alternatives, Marson would appear to be first on the list. Acquired in last summer's blockbuster trade that sent Cliff Lee to the Phillies, Marson has been heralded as a prospect worthy of a starting role in the bigs. And in 2010, we'll see if those projections were accurate.

Marson is coming off a 2009 season in which he hit a combined .277 with 18 doubles, two homers and 33 RBIs in 91 games between Triple-A Lehigh Valley and Columbus. He appeared in seven games with the Phillies early in the season and in 14 games with the Tribe in September. With the Indians, he batted .250 (11-for-44) with six doubles and four RBIs while becoming acquainted with the Tribe's pitching staff.

"We've scouted him for a long time," Shapiro said of Marson. "We love his contact ratio. He's a guy who puts the ball in play, which gives you a chance."

From a defensive standpoint, Marson, 23, has been lauded for his skills in guiding a pitching staff and calling a game. He has a quick release and an accurate arm, with average strength.

"He's a very good receiver, and he's athletic," Shapiro said. "But he's young, and he'll have to mature in a leadership position."

Toregas, 27, is a bit older, but he's not as highly regarded as Marson, because he didn't blossom on offense until last year at Triple-A. Toregas played 60 games at Columbus, batting .284 with seven homers, 10 doubles, 29 RBIs and a .769 OPS. He was promoted to the bigs for the first time following the Martinez trade, and he hit .176 (9-for-51) with a double and six RBIs in 19 games.

Though Marson is the favorite for the Opening Day catching spot, the Indians expect to be open-minded and give Toregas a shot to win the job.

"He really progressed with his offense last year," Shapiro said. "His throwing took a step back. He has an exceptional release, but he's got to get his arm strength back to where it was. As long as he gets his arm strength and ability to throw caught up to where his offense has progressed, he has a chance to be an everyday guy."

But if Toregas doesn't beat out Marson for the everyday role in Cleveland, he'll have to return to Triple-A to back up Santana, because the big league backup job is promised to free-agent signee Mike Redmond.

With so much youth and inexperience at backstop and on the mound this season, the Indians felt it important to have some veteran presences on hand. So they brought back former All-Star catcher and fan favorite Sandy Alomar Jr. to work with the catchers while serving as first-base coach, and they signed Redmond to a one-year contract worth $850,000.

Alomar served the last two seasons as a catching instructor with the Mets, and he was lauded for his work.

"Sandy's a guy that's not just throwing his credentials out there," Shapiro said. "He's worked hard to put together a catching program. I can't think of anybody better to teach and develop and get the most out of our catchers."

Redmond will also do some teaching when he's not on the field. Having spent the last five years as Joe Mauer's backup in Minnesota, Redmond, a 12-year veteran of the Majors, has a wealth of knowledge of the AL Central that he hopes to pass along to the Tribe's young catchers and pitchers.

"He'll be a valuable resource in helping guys learn how to execute a game plan," Shapiro said.

But the Indians' plans behind the plate have the potential to change as the season evolves. Santana figures to ascend to the Majors by September, if not earlier, and he's considered the long-term answer behind the plate. If Marson proves worthy of a regular catching role, the Indians might have trade bait on their hands.

First things first, though. Santana has to develop, and he has to heal. His Dominican Winter League stint was cut short by the flu and then the discovery of the broken hamate bone in his right hand. The hamate was removed during a surgical procedure in December, and the Indians expect Santana to be fully recovered in time for the start of the season. But he could endure some short-term loss of power as a result of the injury.

As far as the development is concerned, the Indians want to see Santana refine his skills as a catcher.

"It has to do with helping the pitcher control the running game, attacking hitters and executing a game plan," Shapiro said. "All the physical tools and natural ability, as well as the effort and energy, are there. And his bat is close to Major League ready."

Close enough, the Indians hope, to once again give them an embarrassment of riches at the catching position.

Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.