Friday, March 19, 2010
Unsettled issue for Angels' catchers
By Mark Saxon
PHOENIX -- At some point, they figure, the issue will have to be settled. When it is, only one man will be left squatting.
Los Angeles Angels catchers Mike Napoli and Jeff Mathis are entering their third season stuck in a platoon. They both ache to play more frequently and they each acknowledge that the logjam might one day be settled with a trade.
"I mean that's what's going to have to happen, I believe, if we're both going to be able to play every day," Napoli said. "But the Angels are in a good situation. It's not bad for them."
Napoli is quick to point out that he's not complaining, or demanding a trade. The frustrating part is that, because they came into the big leagues less than a year apart, they could be locked in this platoon for two more years.
After the 2011 season, Napoli will be a free agent.
"We're in the big leagues. We get to live this dream, but yeah, we want to play every day and go forward with our career," Napoli said.
As he said, it's not a bad situation for the Angels. Between Napoli and Mathis, they have a catcher with a powerful bat, nimble feet and a strong, accurate arm. Unfortunately, those traits are divided into two bodies.
Napoli, 28, is probably the most powerful catcher the team has ever had. He finished two home runs shy of Lance Parrish's club mark of 22 each of the past two seasons while averaging just 305 at-bats per season. Give him 450 at-bats and he just might emerge as the team's most powerful hitter.
But his throwing is sub-par, his ability to block balls in the dirt is wanting and his pitch-calling has been questioned more than once.
Barring a trade, the jam could be resolved by moving Napoli to designated hitter next season.
Mathis is one of the league's weakest hitters -- he has a .202 average over the past two seasons -- but the Angels tend to win when he's behind the plate. They're 137-82 in his past 219 starts, in part because he is good at the things Napoli can't do.
Manager Mike Scioscia said he's open to playing the hot hand, but it's up to the players to settle it.
"Sometimes, it isn't always best for the individual player, but it helps the team. I know those guys have the ability to go out there and catch 130 games each," Scioscia said. "One reason they haven't is we've had options that helped us get through some rough spots either one of those guys might be having, whether it's on the defensive end or the offensive end."
There was nothing rough about Mathis' hitting last October. He pounded everything he saw, hitting .534 with five doubles in seven games of post-season play. But that seemed to come out of the blue: During the regular season, he combined a lack of power -- just 14 home runs the past two seasons -- with a propensity to strike out (73 in only 84 games), a toxic combination.
Just as Napoli has spent extra time on his defense this spring, Mathis has put in extra time in the batting cage. His defense can't get much better. While Mathis has tended to neutralize teams' running games this spring, Napoli has allowed it to thrive. The San Diego Padres stole five bases off Napoli in a recent spring game.
Mathis, 27, said he's not frustrated with the situation, but that he would like to catch more frequently. He thinks his offensive numbers would improve with more at-bats.
"You want to be in there, but you can't let it get you down or bother you. Eventually, it's going to happen," Mathis said. "One of us could go somewhere else. There are a bunch of possibilities. But I like this organization. I like the way it's run and I have a bunch of friends here. It's all about winning."
As long as that's true -- and it is all about winning -- the catchers seem willing to bide their time.
Mark Saxon covers the Angels for ESPNLosAngeles.com.