The following is the first in a series of weekly stories on MLB.com examining each Major League club, position by position. Each week until Spring Training camps open, we'll preview a different position. Today: Catchers.
BALTIMORE -- The Orioles may have their starting catcher returning in 2008, but they have to believe they'll get better production out of their backstops. Ramon Hernandez suffered through one of the least productive years of his career last season, and Baltimore has switched out punchless backup Paul Bako for former Blue Jays prospect Guillermo Quiroz.
Hernandez, who's played half of the four-year contract he signed before the 2006 season, started last season hurt and never really hit his stride. The veteran wound up with the fewest homers (nine), lowest batting average (.258) and lowest slugging percentage (.382) he's logged since 2002, which was without question his worst offensive season.
Surprisingly, last year came on the heels of one of his best seasons, a year in which Hernandez was a finalist for the last spot on the American League All-Star team. Hernandez played in a career-high 144 games in 2006 and subsequently broke down in '07, when he suffered through a strained oblique and a groin contusion.
"If you're hurt, you're hurt -- all you can do is rehab," Hernandez said last season. "I know myself, and I know I tried everything I could to come back as soon as I could. I like to play every day, but when you get hurt, there's nothing you can do. No matter what you do, you've got to go through the days you need to recover."
Things started adversely immediately for the former All-Star, who was held out of Opening Day because of a strained left oblique. The Orioles tried to avoid stashing him on the disabled list but eventually had no other recourse, and the veteran didn't return until the end of April. Despite hitting in his first few games back, he settled into an offensive funk.
And just when you might have expected him to turn things around, Hernandez was struck by a foul tip that caused a groin contusion. He missed most of June and hit well in July before flailing to a .182 average in August. Hernandez finished strong in September but was lifted from the lineup toward year's end for a perceived lack of hustle.
"He looked tired to me," said Baltimore manager Dave Trembley about the late-season hook. "It looked to me that he needed a break and to kind of step back somewhat. I think we had to share some things. I like Ramon. I think we'll get it all straightened out. Obviously, there are some things that he could do better or be better about."
By all accounts, Hernandez heard the message loud and clear. He said in September that he planned on skipping winter ball in order to get in better shape for next season, an effort that could restore him to health and a power slot in Baltimore's lineup. And with the dearth of power options around him, that's a highly probable scenario.
Hernandez, who has a strong defensive reputation among his peers, has hit at least 15 home runs in four of his eight full seasons. He's also well known for being a good catcher to pair with young pitchers, as evidenced by his prior work with staffs in Oakland and San Diego and his tutelage of Adam Loewen and Jeremy Guthrie last season.
If he's healthy, Baltimore expects Hernandez to carry a heavy load next season. If he's not, the Orioles will likely turn to Quiroz, a former bonus baby. Assorted ailments -- including two cases of a collapsed lung -- have kept Quiroz from reaching his potential, but he's still only 26 years old.
Quiroz, who signed a Major League deal with the Orioles at the Winter Meetings, is regarded as a massive offensive upgrade over Bako. Last year's backup catcher hit a three-run home run in April and only drove in five runs for the rest of the year, but he did contribute a steady game-calling environment for each of Baltimore's young pitchers.
There may be some pressure on Quiroz -- who has played in a grand total of 39 big league games -- but that should be alleviated by the presence of Hernandez, his fellow Venezuelan native. Quiroz was highly regarded in the Toronto organization before being lost on a waiver claim, and he bounced from Seattle to Texas after that.
Now he's out of options and will be forced to stick in the big leagues or be exposed to waivers once again. Quiroz, a career .241 hitter in the Minor Leagues, had his best season in 2003, when he hit .282 with 20 home runs for Double-A New Haven in Toronto's organization. He hasn't hit more than eight homers in any stop since that outburst.
However Hernandez and Quiroz perform, there will be even more attention placed on a catcher further down in Baltimore's organizational chain. Matt Wieters, last year's first-round Draft pick, will likely start the season at Class A Frederick or Double-A Bowie, an elevated perch for a player who's yet to play in an organized full-season league.
Wieters signed too late last year to make his official professional debut, but he did garner some experience in Hawaii Winter Baseball. The switch-hitting backstop is regarded as one of the best prospects in baseball and is expected to progress quickly, perhaps making his Major League debut as early as the 2009 season.
Wieters gives the Orioles hope for the future, but the current catchers will play a big role in deciding how the 2008 season turns out. Baltimore continues to build its hopes for the future around young pitching, which means that a stable veteran catcher like Hernandez is extraordinarily important in terms of stabilizing the learning curve.
For his part, Hernandez just wants to be a healthy and productive member of the team again.
"It's always hard -- even when they're winning -- because you want to play," he said of his time on the pine last season. "You want to be a part of everything. Me, as a player, I don't just want to be part of the winning season. I want to be a part of the losing season. I like to be there and contribute [and] do whatever I can to help this team win.
"And if we lose, [I'll] come out with my head high because I know I did my best."
Spencer Fordin is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.