The role of backup catcher on a major league team, is one frequently overlooked. Entering the 2009 season, the Tigers had added two catchers to replace the trio of Ivan Rodriguez, who was traded at the deadline last season, Brandon Inge, who was making his return to third base, and Vance Wilson, who had missed most of the previous two seasons with injuries.
Enter Gerald Laird as the new starter and Misty May-Treanor's husband, Matt to back him up. The Tigers appeared to be set at catcher with two good defenders and a starter that was capable of producing solid offensive numbers.
So far this season, Laird has been as advertised with the glove and has done a very good job working with the pitchers, as the staff currently leads the American League in ERA. His hitting has been erratic at best however, as he has been prone to long slumps.
Entering play today, Laird is sporting just a .221 batting average, with a .645 OPS, contributing to overall below average performance of the team's offense. Laird, however has proven his worth with the glove and his game-calling. He is not the glaring weakness of this team.
That honor undoubtedly goes to the backup catcher. Matt Treanor began the season with a hip problem, and it was soon discovered that he needed surgery and would be lost for the year. Before the surgery, Treanor managed to record an out in each of his 13 at bats for Detroit. In his stead, the Tigers recalled veteran minor leaguer Dane Sardinha.
Sardinha spent 17 games with the Tigers in 2008, following the trade of Pudge Rodriguez. He has always been regarded as a good game-caller from his days in the minors. Unfortunately, he has never really hit. 2008 was no exception, as he posted a .159 BA, with an OPS of just .434, albeit in only 44 at-bats.
His minor league numbers haven't exactly inspired hope, either. In parts of nine seasons on the farm, he has a career line of .222/.262/.336. So the Tigers didn't have any reason to think he could hit major league pitching. And hit, he has not.
So far this season, Sardinha has actually been worse than advertised. He has just three hits in 31 at bats, one of them a double. He has also failed to draw a single walk. He has struck out 16 times, an alarming 52 percent of his at-bats.
His line (.097/.091/.129) is just poor, and only one player in the major leagues with as many as 31 AB's has been worse, and that player is Randy Wolf, a pitcher, with the Dodgers. Defensively, Sardinha has failed miserably to control the running game, nabbing just two of the 12 runners who have attempted to steal against him.
By all accounts, however, he does call a good game, and seems to work well with the staff, but the Tigers need a catcher who can do something measurable. In several games this year, Sardinha has started, only to see Laird have to enter in the late innings as a pinch hitter, then catch the rest of the game.
Laird will need rest at some point this season, but Sardinha's poor performances, especially offensively, just don't allow for that. He has become the glaring weakness on a team that is trying to distance themselves from the rest of the division.
Where else can the Tigers turn? With Treanor probably lost for the year, they could look back to Toledo for another catcher. Dusty Ryan has seen some time in the majors last year with Detroit, and did reasonably well. He showed enough that many a Tiger fan wondered why the team signed Mr. Misty May to begin with.
As a September call-up last year, Ryan caught six of the 13 potential base stealers against him, and put up very good numbers offensively, though in just 44 at-bats. He finished at .318/.380/.500, with two home runs and seven RBI.
A very good showing, indeed. Ryan's minor league career line is slightly lower at .238/.331/.391, but he has improved his hitting as he has progressed though the minor leagues, posting an .817 OPS in AA and an .848 OPS in AAA.
Laird does have one arbitration year remaining, so he is under team control through 2010, but Ryan may be the Tigers catcher of the future, although they also like AA prospect Alex Avila, as well.
But the future needs to be now for Dusty Ryan and the Tigers. Ryan was kept in Toledo in part to get him more seasoning, but with the failure of Sardinha, and the loss of Treanor, the Tigers have no choice but to bring in a new catcher.
The Tigers' farm system is largely void of talent, so a trade for a capable backup catcher seems unlikely. Dusty Ryan should be getting the call to come to Detroit soon, if the Tigers are serious about winning this year.
His recall would allow for more rest for Laird, and get Ryan acclimated to the pitchers on the major league staff, while working a couple of games per week. I'm sure there will bumps along the way, but he would be a huge upgrade to the performance Sardinha has offered.