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"The other is that if they can hit, they're not very good receivers. A lot of kids are good receivers, but can't hit. Finding a guy who plays on both sides of ball is extremely tough."
Arbuckle said that "softer environment" has increased opportunities for Latin American backstops. "So many of the Latin kids want to get to the big leagues and they don't care how," he says. "Many of them have more to lose than an American kid who has a job waiting if baseball doesn't work out."
The big leagues are stocked with starting catchers from Puerto Rico (Bengie and Yadier Molina, Jorge Posada, Ivan Rodriguez, Geovany Soto), Venezuela (Martinez, Ramon Hernandez, Miguel Montero, Dioner Navarro), the Dominican Republic (Miguel Olivo) and Panama (Carlos Ruiz). Two of the three best prospects (other than San Francisco's Buster Posey) are from the Dominican (Cleveland's Carlos Santana) and Venezuela (the Yankees' Jesus Montero).
"We grew up watching Benito Santiago, Sandy Alomar and Pudge Rodriguez," says Jose Molina, "and said, 'We can be like them.' My dad told me it's the best way to get to the big leagues." Then Molina, 34, a career .235 hitter now playing for Toronto, his fourth organization, smiled and added, "And it's the best way to stay in the big leagues."
No position values experience quite like catching, and a down cycle of young catchers has kept older backstops working. None of the first 102 World Series champions had a catcher older than 34 who caught more than 75 games. But it's happened twice recently: 35-year-old Varitek of the 2007 Red Sox and 37-year-old Posada of the '09 Yankees. There have been as many 35-and-older regular catchers in the past three seasons (seven) as there were between 1953 and 1982 (minimum 100 games).
This winter alone, in a game of musical chairs among older, offensively-challenged catchers, free agents Josh Bard, 31; Brian Schneider, 33; Jose Molina, 34; Rod Barajas, 34; Jason Kendall, 35; Chris Coste, 37; Mike Redmond, 38; and Rodriguez, 38, all changed teams without the benefit of an OPS better than .663. Melvin signed Greg Zaun, 38, to be the Brewers' eighth starting catcher in the past 10 years. None of them have been younger than 29, and none of them have been homegrown. "I was in Baltimore when we drafted Zaun," Melvin said, "and 20 years later here I am signing him again."
Zaun held Wieters's place for him last year in Baltimore until the kid was done demolishing minor league pitching and debuted May 29. Wieters began with just four hits in his first 28 at bats—his first was a triple—but hit .301 in 88 games thereafter with nine homers and 43 RBI. He joined McCann, Russell Martin, Mauer, Kendall and Rodriguez as the only 23-and-under catchers over the past 20 years with 100 hits in a season.
"The biggest thing I learned is you can't do too much," Wieters says. "The ball can look so good and the crowd can get you pumped up so much that you try to hit the ball 550 feet every time. Well, there's a reason guys can't do it every time. The key is to catch yourself and dial it back and be nice and smooth.
"I had to figure that out the first month. There was a lot of pressure, not so much to meet expectations but you just feel like you can hit a home run every time."
This is Wieters's third spring training, but his first as Baltimore's starting catcher. "Not so much eyes wide open now," he says. "Now it's take control of the pitching staff and get as prepared as you can, as well as pump up the position guys and say, 'O.K., it's time now, guys. We've got the talent.'"