Continuing a not-so-great catcher debate ...
I'm no Mike Piazza apologist, but I'm not ready to throw dirt on him, either. He's old and fragile, and he ain't what he used to be, but he was on his way to his best season since 2002 a year ago before smashing up his thumb in August. I'd like to see him buck the declining average trend - his batting average has gone down in each of the past five seasons - but he can still swing with the best of them. Still, Petco Park is going to take a bite out of his power numbers. Plus, he's going to look ridiculous in a camouflage Padres uniform, even more ridiculous than he did with the Italian flag superimposed on his face in that World Baseball Classic spot. On the whole, San Diego's jerseys are the worst in the bigs, hands down.
That said, given a choice between Piazza and Jason Kendall, two NL catching giants of the late '90s, I'm not sure who I'd take. Agreed, Kendall's steals are a nice bonus, and as the A's leadoff hitter he's especially valuable in leagues that use runs as an offensive category. His average and OPS (on-base percentage plus slugging percentage) take uncharacteristic plunges last season, but I expect he'll bounce back to around .300 now that he's got a year in the AL under his belt.
Jason LaRue has been a solid if unsexy pick in years past, but I'm worried he'll lose a lot of his at-bats to Javier Valentin, a better offensive player coming off a career year. Hard to ignore Valentin's 14 homers in 221 ABs last season, numbers that pretty much guarantee he'll be drafted too early and fall short of unrealistic expectations in plenty of leagues.
Lots of intriguing newcomers out there, especially in the NL, where Brian McCann, Ryan Doumit and Dioner Navarro all should get lots of ABs. But don't sleep on Jeff Mathis, whose presence made Benjie Molina expendable in Anaheim. He has another Molina (Jose) to contend with, but he's a capable hitter who had 21 HRs in Triple-A last season. Toronto has a nice youngster in Guillermo Quiroz, but he was blocked by this week's Molina signing. Cleveland's Kelly Shoppach, picked up in the Coco Crisp trade, is another great prospect with nowhere to play.
Finally, thanks to reader Jamie for checking in with a report on the Caribbean Series, including some impressive specifics on new Orioles catcher Ramon Hernandez. Hernandez helped Venezuela win the series with a 6-0 record and was named series MVP. He batted .542 with 3 HRs and 8 RBI, led the tournament in hits (13) and hit for the cycle in one game.
I'm expecting big things out of Hernandez this year. He was just starting to come into his own as a hitter when he went to San Diego, where his home run and RBI numbers tailed off in 2004 and 2005. With the Orioles, he has a chance to surpass his career highs in both categories (21 HRs, 78 RBIs with Oakland in 2003). Gets to wear a better-looking uniform, too.