Around the Horn: Catchers

Phillies to sport new look behind the plate

The following is the first 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.

PHILADELPHIA -- For the first time since 1993, the Phillies will usher in a season without Mike Lieberthal calling balls and strikes. After 13 seasons in Philadelphia -- the previous 10 as the Opening Day starter -- Lieberthal signed with his hometown Dodgers.

Philadelphia's franchise leader in games caught will be replaced by a combination of newcomer Rod Barajas, who signed a one-year, $2.5 million contract in December, and rookie Carlos Ruiz.

Though he'll have to win the job in Spring Training, Barajas could receive the bulk of the playing time, with Ruiz and Chris Coste filling out the rest.

"Going into the year with only two catchers [Coste and Ruiz] is very difficult, because somebody usually gets nicked up," assistant general manager Mike Arbuckle said. "We said all along one of the areas we wanted to try to strengthen was catcher, and we feel like we've done that now."

A rookie who debuted in 2006, Ruiz struggled during a May callup, then clicked later in the season. After a second successful season at Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, Ruiz batted .350 in September (7-for-20) with two home runs for the Phillies. While wanting to see Ruiz catch regularly, Barajas will mentor the young backstop on how to handle a big-league pitching staff.

Barajas, 31, spent the past three years with the Rangers. In 2006, he hit .256 with 11 homers and 41 RBIs in 97 games. He set career highs in 2005 with 21 homers and 60 RBIs in 120 games.

"Rod brings a lot to the table both offensively and defensively," Phillies general manager Pat Gillick said. "He's a proven winner who gives us added depth at that position."

Barajas had the fortune of having played on the 2001 World Series champion D-backs, and he belted a solo homer off the Yankees' Mike Mussina in Game 5. He can share memories of that experience with his new teammates, who are trying to help the Phils reach the postseason for the first time since 1993.

Philadelphia Phillies
Catchers: New look behind the plate
Corner IF: Howard eyes another MVP
Middle IF: DP duo one of NL's best
Outfielders: Victorino moves to RF
Starters: Garcia joins Myers, Hamels
Bullpen: A work in progress
DH/Bench: Nunez, Werth to be key

While Barajas has Major League experience and Ruiz the Minor League pedigree and the organization's interest, Coste hasn't been forgotten. Though he recently receieved no guarantee from Gillick -- despite hitting .328 in 65 games as a 33-year-old rookie in 2006 -- Coste's place on the roster appears to have been helped by the team's trade of outfielder Jeff Conine to the Reds in December.

Coste, who batted .394 in close and late situations, seems to have earned a spot on Philadelphia's bench as the primary right-handed pinch-hitter and third catcher. He also provides insurance should Ruiz need more seasoning.

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