Around the Horn: Catchers

Hernandez set to backstop Baltimore hurlers

The following is the third in a series of weekly stories on examining each Major League club, position by position. Each Wednesday until Spring Training camps open, we'll preview a different position. Today: Catchers.

BALTIMORE -- Few teams in baseball are as strong behind the plate as the Orioles, who currently have two former All-Star backstops on the roster. Ramon Hernandez is set to replace Javy Lopez as the team's everyday backstop this season, with Lopez moving to a hybrid role that should include plenty of playing time as designated hitter.

That arrangement helps Baltimore take advantage of each player's strengths, and it also gives the team an unusually strong insurance policy. Hernandez, who signed a four-year, $27.5 million contract last month, is celebrated as one of the best game-calling catchers, but Lopez is better known as a strong offensive player who just happens to play catcher.

Due to injuries, both players caught fewer than 100 games last season. Before that, both had five-season streaks of at least 100 games behind the plate. Hernandez, who turns 30 on May 20, will be making his return to the American League after spending the previous two seasons with the Padres.

The right-handed hitter began his career with the Oakland Athletics, where he helped mold the young careers of pitchers like Tim Hudson, Mark Mulder and Barry Zito. Hernandez continued that trend in San Diego, working with Jake Peavy during two breakout seasons. Now he moves to Baltimore, where similar results are expected out of Daniel Cabrera and Erik Bedard.

Mike Flanagan, the team's executive vice president of baseball operations, addressed that fact shortly after Hernandez signed with the Orioles.

"If you look at his record of handling pitching staffs, wherever he goes, the ERA goes down," said Flanagan, who won 167 games as a big-league pitcher. "And I think for us, when you go about building the club, I think that part of it is you want to look at strength up the middle of the diamond. I think when you look at Ramon behind the plate, when you think of the two All-Stars in the middle of the diamond, you have to be impressed."

With that last comment, Flanagan was referring to Brian Roberts and Miguel Tejada, the team's second baseman and shortstop, respectively. Those two anchored Baltimore's offense and defense last season and are expected to do the same in 2006.

Meanwhile, Hernandez may have earned his reputation as a defensive player, but that doesn't mean he can't hit. He batted .270 or above in each of his last three seasons, popping 61 home runs over that span. Those are the three most productive seasons of his career, and the Orioles are hoping for similar production over the life of his four-year contract.

Baltimore Orioles
Starters: Mazzone brings strengths
Bullpen: O's looking for closer
Catchers: Hernandez set to start
Corner IF: Three could play first
Middle IF: Plenty of pop
Outfielders: Gibbons sturdiest option
DH/Bench: Biggest question

By contrast, Lopez is entering the last season of his deal, which means an offensive explosion could follow. The last time he was in this position, Lopez hit .328 and blasted 43 home runs, a season that helped earn him a lucrative three-year offer from the Orioles. The home run total -- 42 in games he caught -- set an all-time record for catchers.

Baltimore hopes to keep him healthy and productive by switching positions, eliminating the wear and tear associated with catching. There's only one problem: Lopez has voiced disapproval of the full-time DH role in the past and may not take to it kindly in 2006. Still, at 35 years old, it's likely the right move to extend his career a few more seasons.

The Orioles want Lopez to catch 25-30 games in 2006, which should help keep Hernandez fresh. In addition, the veteran may also pick up a first baseman's mitt to keep busy. Lopez has played just one career game at first base in the big leagues, but in the past, he's spent some time playing the position in winter ball.

"That's been an interesting possibility all along with Javy -- showing no reluctance to [shift positions]," Flanagan said during the Winter Meetings. "He felt it was something he had done in the Minor Leagues and in winter ball a couple years. It creates some flexibility for us."

If Lopez handles first base well, he could even move there on a full-time basis. The Orioles picked up Kevin Millar and Jeff Conine this offseason -- two players who allow flexibility at first base, DH and the outfield. The presence of another player, Geronimo Gil, gives Lopez free reign to freelance.

Gil will likely serve as the team's third catcher, a role that won't be affected by his lack of hitting prowess. He already has a working knowledge of the team's staff, and if he's on the bench, the Orioles don't have to worry about starting Lopez at another position. This way, if Hernandez gets banged up in any given game, Gil can replace him and Lopez can remain where he was.

Spencer Fordin is a reporter for This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.