What's the Catcher Situation in Arizona?

Montero's still learning (Evan Vucci/AP)

Chris Snyder earned his top billing among Arizona Diamondbacks catchers with a strong second half last year. Could Miguel Montero supplant him by swinging a hot bat?

Chris Snyder was batting .212 with just four doubles at last year's All-Star break, but manager Bob Melvin stuck with him.  Snyder would go on to bat .292 and slug .503 in the second half.

"We have two very good young catchers, and both of them probably could be starting somewhere," praised Melvin during the winter meetings.  "Snyder did obviously quite a bit last year to thrust himself into a starting role. Yet you don't want a Miguel Montero sitting around and getting 80 at-bats or 100 at-bats being strictly a backup."

"So we will mix-and-match with the group," he continued.  "But I think going in, you would have to consider Snyder the starter."

That decision goes far beyond overall offensive numbers.  Montero thrived in his reserve role, going 7-for-20 with three homers and seven RBI as a pinch hitter last year. 

Defensively, Snyder really separated himself from Montero, gunning down 35.8% of would-be basestealers last year, while Montero managed just a 22.2% success rate.  Montero primarily caught Livan Hernandez, but also caught nine of Micah Owings' games, as the two had worked together previously in the minor leagues.  In those nine games, Owings allowed opponents to hit .302 (.905 OPS) against him, while in the games he paired with Snyder, opponents hit just .230 (.699 OPS) against the star rookie.  Snyder also made just one error on the year while Montero committed six in not even 60% of Snyder's playing time.

Clearly, Snyder is well ahead of Montero in terms of  controlling the running game, handling pitchers, and in general defensive fundamentals.  When I asked Bob Melvin why Montero served as Livo's personal catcher last year, he explained that it was done in part to help Montero develop as a catcher.  

"For a number of reasons," Melvin began.  "One, early on it enabled Montero to know when he was going to play and get some regular time.  Two, matching him up with Livan Hernandez, who is going to pitch his game, enables him to learn from Livo, how he's going to pitch certain guys."

Montero should be comfortable enough to handle less structured usage this season, and there's no shortage of intelligent pitchers on the Diamondbacks staff who can help Montero with calling a game if he indeed still needs that crutch.  Snyder has always struggled against right-handed pitching, so a more traditional platoon  makes some sense.  That would leave Montero with more playing time than Snyder, however, which isn't going to benefit the defense.

That's simply not going to happen, particularly with Montero's right index finger still bothering him after breaking it in winter ball.

"I'm kind of worried now because it's been two months and it's still bothering me," Montero admitted. "I thought it would be three or four weeks and it's been eight weeks. It hasn't healed yet. I don't know what's going on. It's something to worry about because a bone doesn't take that long to heal."

Prediction: Snyder will see at least as much action behind the dish as last year, probably more.  If the finger injury limits Montero's effectiveness, don't be surprised to see Robby Hammock or Wilkin Castillo take over as Snyder's primary backup this season.  Jaime D'Antona, a corner infielder who began learning the backstop position two years ago, would still only be used as an emergency third catcher in the big leagues at this point.

Starts at catcher: Snyder 102, Montero 41, Castillo 14, Hammock 5

Want to write for FutureBacks.com?  FutureBacks is now opening internships for the upcoming 2008 season.  If you live near one of the six Diamondbacks minor league affiliates, know baseball, and have a writing background, send your resume and two sample pieces of writing (at least one of which must be a journalistic piece about baseball) to future_backs@yahoo.com.   Applicants must be able to attend a minimum of three games per homestand, and students looking for course credit must get approval from their instructors. 

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