Dodgers glimpse Tim Federowicz
Young catcher makes his first start in majors and could be a longshot starter in 2012
LOS ANGELES -- The Los Angeles Dodgers took a look into their future Thursday night. Because, really, when you're out of contention and you're beginning the final two weeks of the season with the opener of a potentially mind-numbing, four-game series at home against the Pittsburgh Pirates, taking a look into your future is pretty much all you can do.
And so, on an evening in which the Dodgers would lose 6-2 and be officially eliminated from the National League West race and pushed to the brink of elimination for any playoff spot, fittingly before the smallest crowd of the season (25,381) at Dodger Stadium, Tim Federowicz suited up and started a major league game behind the plate for the first time in his life.
It doesn't figure to be the last time.
If you're at a loss as to how to pronounce it, don't worry. You will learn soon enough, because there is a remote chance Federowicz -- his much-simpler nickname in the minors was Fedex -- will be the Dodgers' primary catcher in 2012, and a much better chance he will be their primary catcher in the not-too-distant future.
What we saw was a bit of a mixed bag. He did get his first major league hit, a single to center in the fifth inning, and he reached base three times in four plate appearances, including working reliever Evan Meek for a seven-pitch walk in the midst of a furious ninth-inning rally by the Dodgers that ultimately fizzled. He appeared to know what he was doing behind the plate, and although he did allow a double steal in the first inning and later committed a passed ball while Matt Guerrier battled through a rough eighth, Federowicz also cut down the speedy Andrew McCutchen trying to steal second in the fifth.
The Dodgers' starting pitcher was Dana Eveland, whom Federowicz had caught a handful of times at Triple-A Albuquerque.
"I was nervous," Federowicz said. "But once I got out there and caught a couple of pitches, it was the same. The fact I had caught him before definitely helped. ... I probably went too far away from the plan we usually had in Triple-A, which was throwing sinkers and letting them get themselves out. There was probably more shaking [off] than there should have been because of that."
The decisive moment in the game also was Federowicz's worst, when he called for a straight fastball to Ross Ohlendorf, the light-hitting Pirates pitcher who hadn't driven in a run in five big league seasons but suddenly drove in three with an opposite-field home run, giving the Pirates a 4-1 lead.
"It was one of those things where you don't really expect him to hit it, especially on the back side," Federowicz said. "I figured it was an easy out, but he put a good swing on it."
Still, as debuts go, this was mostly a good one -- even though it wasn't really his debut because he caught the final inning of Sunday's lopsided loss in San Francisco.
"Not bad," Dodgers manager Don Mattingly said. "He had some good at-bats. He handled himself back there, blocked some balls. He did all right."
When Federowicz was promoted to the majors for the first time on Sept. 6, much was made of the fact he was given Mike Piazza's old No. 31. It really wasn't that big of a deal. Former Dodgers coach John Shelby, who had worn it as a player for the club, reclaimed it when Piazza was traded to the Florida Marlins in May 1998, and since then it has been worn by Brad Penny, James McDonald and, earlier this season, Jay Gibbons.
While it may be purely accidental, though, there is symbolism in the fact Federowicz was given that jersey, making him the first Dodgers catcher to wear it since Piazza. This is a player general manager Ned Colletti has been talking up since acquiring him from the Boston Red Sox in a three-team trade at this year's deadline, a player Colletti and a host of other team officials believe could become a fixture in the everyday lineup for years to come.
Once the trade was complete, the Dodgers immediately assigned Federowicz to Triple-A, a level where he had never played. Although offensive numbers tend to be skewed somewhat at high-altitude Albuquerque, Federowicz's .325 average and .431 on-base percentage were legitimate enough. He also had seven doubles, six homers and 17 RBIs in just 25 games, and while he struck out 20 times in 83 at-bats, he also drew 15 walks.
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Although veteran Rod Barajas is a free agent after the season, the Dodgers would figure to have a strong chance of re-signing him if they want to because Barajas is a local guy. With A.J. Ellis still mostly viewed as a solid backup but not an everyday guy, holding onto Barajas might be the safe bet until Federowicz is ready, which could be sometime next year even if it isn't on the opening day roster.
"I don't think he is very far away," said Albuquerque manager Lorenzo Bundy, who is with the Dodgers as an extra coach for the rest of the season. "Depending on how Don wants to use him, I'm pretty sure he will get a look. Would a couple more months in the minors hurt him? Probably not. But will it help that much? Defensively, I think he is fine. I think we need to see what happens with the bat, but he was very competitive with the bat in Triple-A.
"The raw power is there. He just needs to work on swing path and things like that."
The Dodgers (73-76), who were hot but suddenly have gone cold again, losing four of their last five, now have a magic number of one for elimination from the wild-card race. They have three more games against the Pirates and three next weekend against the San Diego Padres, all fairly meaningless, so Federowicz should get enough starts to at least give club officials an idea of where his development is going into spring training -- although Mattingly did say Federowicz won't start Friday night with veteran Hiroki Kuroda on the mound.
"We're going to see him more," Mattingly said. "It's hard to say [where his future is]. He started the year in Double-A. We have to let him grow up and let him play, see what he can do. We have to see how he handles things through the course of a season and see where he is."
Tony Jackson covers the Dodgers for ESPNLosAngeles.com.
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