The most impossibly boring move of the baseball season occurred Monday night with the signing of Gerald Laird to handle backup catcher for the Cardinals in 2011. Of course, the backup catcher position on any team is only slightly more glamorous than the poor sap who collects the laundry outside the shower room door, and it’s even less so on a team that has a defensive talent like Yadier Molina as the main attraction.
Still, the position has become more important recently for two reasons: Yadi’s knees, and bench strength. The last two seasons have seen Molina’s knees give out during the stretch run; apparently catching 120 straight games can do that to those vital joints. At his freshest (e.g. spring training), Yadi runs about as fast as an unplugged dishwasher. By the end of a season catching constantly for merciless overlord Tony LaRussa, Yadi can move as fast as an unplugged dishwasher rolling uphill. He’s just not a fast runner, folks!
But LaRussa really doesn’t care about Molina’s knees as much as he wants more pop on the bench. Prior to being kicked out of baseball by the cleats of an unpunished Johnny Cueto, former backup catcher Jason LaRue was hitting around .200 for his three seasons with the Cardinals - not exactly a threat. The fight in Cincinnati in August really demonstrated why LaRussa never publicly complained about LaRue’s anemic bat and allowed him to stay on the team – LaRue had that nebulous “gritty leadership” quality LaRussa values over actual statistical success.
When the Cardinals let Matt Pagnozzi go this offseason, I thought the most logical choice would be to give Bryan Anderson the backup position. He’s young (and therefore his knees are still fresh), he’s under club control for several years, and he’s CHEAP. In very limited duty last year, Anderson hit .281/.314/.344, which is significantly better than what we’ve had at backup catcher since Gene Tenace.
So why the desperate need to find a backup catcher this winter if we have a perfectly acceptable solution to a marginal position in-house? One reason: Anderson is the product of a Jeff Luhnow-crafted farm system, and LaRussa simply will not accept the players Luhnow raises to the big club. Even truly talented Luhnow players like Colby Rasmus struggle to find playing time and acceptance within a LaRussa-dominated clubhouse; lesser talents like Anderson don’t stand a chance.
At the winter meetings, LaRussa and John Mozeliak made it clear that the Cardinals needed more production from the backup catcher position than Anderson could provide. They briefly flirted with signing Yadi’s older brother Bengie, formerly a potent offensive force and still more than capable with the bat. But that fell through, so the team signed Gerald Laird? Laird is basically Jason LaRue without the fashionable facial hair. In his last two seasons with Detroit, Laird hit .207 and .225 with a grand total of nine home runs. His 58 RBI’s in those two years is roughly equal to the number of RBI’s Anderson projects in one full season. It makes little sense from any baseball perspective.
Don’t let the Cardinals spin doctors fool you. They want the fan base to believe that there simply wasn’t another option available and Laird was the best of the bunch. Nonsense. The team already had a minor position covered adequately and cheaply by Anderson, but LaRussa would not allow it due to whatever ridiculous grudges he holds within the organization. If you asked me, I’d say it’s a pretty foolish way to run a team.