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Here's the catch: Don Mattingly says starter behind the plate is an open competition

January 14, 2011 |  1:17 pm

Had me at: Dodgers don't tender Russell Martin, sign Rod Barajas.

OK, guilty. Made an assumption, I guess. Me and just about everyone else.

Just assumed that meant the Dodgers were going with Barajas as their starting catcher. And then when they subsequently signed Dioner Navarro, he was brought in to battle A.J. Ellis for the backup role.

Yeah, well, update ... turns out there is competition, but Manager Don Mattingly said Wednesday it would primarily be between Barajas and Navarro for the starting spot.

Now, doesn't that just make the heart go all aflutter?

There are no great catching possibilities for the Dodgers, but it is kind of scary to think Navarro could be the answer to their dreams behind the plate.

Navarro has a reputation for laziness, and Tampa Bay was so done with him last season, they kept him off their playoff roster. They still wanted him with the team during the postseason in case of an emergency, but instead Navarro went home. Presumably in a huff.

Now he's going to get a chance to be the Dodgers' starting catcher?

"Seeing him play, this guy can hit," Mattingly said. "There's going to be a competition for me. We have two good catchers.

"We also have A.J. Ellis, who showed at the end of the year last year that he is solid. This guy can catch and throw. And he got better offensively."

Navarro could hit in 2008 (.295 hitting, .349 on-base, .407 slugging), but it's been downhill since.

The next season he was terrible (.218, .261, .322), and last year he spent two months back in the minors because he was even worse (.194, .270, .258).

Barajas got off to a terrific first week after the Dodgers claimed him from the Mets, and ended up hitting well (.297, .361, .578), plus had five home runs in his 64 at-bats.

He is, however, 35 years old and has only caught as many as 120 games a season twice during his 10 years in the major leagues. And although he's thrown out 32% of his base stealers during his career, it dropped to 15% last season.

There are a lot of unknowns behind the plate. Ellis came on the final month, batting .417, and was thought to be something of a Mattingly favorite. But he's demonstrated zero power, and, despite his major league inexperience, also turns 30 in April.

Mattingly said the competition behind the plate won't necessarily end during spring training.

"I think there's a competition over the course of the season," he said. "We'll see who does what. If we started the season today, I'm looking at Rod Barajas as the starting catcher."

With a team built around pitching, the catcher can't be some afterthought. And without a clear leader on the field, the position could loom more important than ever.

That's an assumption, of course, apparently a dangerous proposition around here.

-- Steve Dilbeck

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