Ducksnorts Book Excerpt: Who’s Behind the Plate?

With no World Series game today and me wandering aimlessly around the central California coast, I thought now might be a good time to present the first glimpse of the upcoming Ducksnorts book. This excerpt takes a look back at the catching situation headed into the 2006 season, before Mike Piazza came onboard. Enjoy!

One of the big question marks headed into 2006 was who would replace Ramon Hernandez behind the plate. Hernandez, who signed with the Baltimore Orioles in December 2005 for a reported 4 years for $27.5 million, arguably had been the most productive catcher in Padres history, at least over a two-year stretch. That said, at his age and with his durability concerns (he’d only played 210 of a possible 324 games during his San Diego tenure), signing Hernandez to a long-term contract that would later handcuff them (see Ryan Klesko, Phil Nevin) didn’t make sense for the Padres.

The only trouble with letting Hernandez go is that it left a gaping void at catcher. Internal candidates included Miguel Olivo and David Ross, as well as minor leaguer George Kottaras. Olivo had performed well for the Padres in 2005 while Hernandez was injured, and Ross had enjoyed marginal success as a backup earlier in his career. (He would go on, quite improbably, to have a banner year with the Cincinnati Reds in 2006.) As for Kottaras, the consensus there was that, although he had a lot working in his favor, including significant international competition (he’d played for the Greek team in the 2004 Olympics), realistically he wouldn’t be ready until the end of 2006 at the earliest.

Olivo wanted guaranteed money, but his poor on-base skills (over 2005 and 2006, he’s had 733 big-league plate appearances and drawn just 17 walks) and erratic play in the field weren’t enough to convince the Padres of his ability to handle the everyday catching duties, so he was allowed to seek his fortune elsewhere, which happened to be Florida. Ross, meantime, had collected just 17 at-bats with the Padres at the end of 2005 and was a virtual unknown.

With a paucity of in-house candidates to replace Hernandez, the Padres did something that has been uncharacteristic of the current regime — they panicked. In December 2005, they sent starting second baseman Mark Loretta to the Boston Red Sox in exchange for career backup catcher Doug Mirabelli. In retrospect, and due to a remarkable sequence of events, this ended up being one of the keys to the Padres’ season, although at the time it looked like a complete disaster.

Mirabelli, a lifelong backup, had never played more than 82 games or logged more than 273 plate appearances over parts of 10 seasons. At age 35, he wasn’t a good bet to exceed those totals for the first time. Worse, Mirabelli possessed exactly one identifiable skill — the ability to catch Tim Wakefield’s knuckleball. With Wakefield remaining in Boston, this was an unusable skill in Mirabelli’s new environment.

For a 35-year-old backup catcher with one skill (which wouldn’t do him any good in San Diego), the Padres gave up in Loretta a player just one season removed from a .335/.391/.495 performance that earned him a ninth place finish in the National League MVP voting. Since signing with San Diego in December 2002, Loretta had been one of the club’s cornerstones. In 413 games with the Padres, Loretta hit .314/.377/.438 and played a solid second base.

Coming off a an injury-marred season (Loretta tore a ligament in his left thumb while diving into first base to avoid a John Smoltz tag in a May 2005 game against the Atlanta Braves), and with prospect Josh Barfield on the rise, Loretta evidently was deemed expendable. The reasoning wasn’t entirely unsound, as the club had a chance to deal from strength and move a player whose perceived value might never be higher to fill a hole. Unfortunately, and to the shock of most observers, the Padres chose Mirabelli to fill that hole. In doing so, they had used one of their biggest chips to obtain a player that didn’t have the qualifications to do the job and, as would turn out to be the saving grace, didn’t want to be in San Diego.

5 Responses »

  1. Looks great Geoff, can’t wait until the full thing comes out. Do you have an expected date yet?

  2. Awesome dude!

    I can’t wait to find out what ended up happening!!!

  3. And for this Kevin Towers should be commended ..?

    He was content to open the season with Mirabelli behind the plate, Vinny Castilla manning 3B, and Klesko at 1B.

    This team was all setup to be another Kevin Towers last place team, that Bruce Bochy would do wonders with and get us to a semi-respectable 3rd.

    The fact that Hensley, Bard and Piazza all fell into Kevin Towers lap is no reason to commend him,

    .. he simply awnsered the phone …

  4. PF4L: Thanks, glad you enjoyed it. I’m not sure the exact date, but I’m shooting for early February. Still learning how long this sort of thing takes, etc.

    DKT: Towers simply answered the phone? Interesting theory. This is the first time I’ve heard it suggested that he had nothing to do with actively making those moves. Seems unlikely to me, although I suppose anything is possible.

  5. #3
    You do know that SD, under Towers has won 4 division titles, and finished in last 3 times, don’t you?