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Old 01-07-2008, 02:37 PM   #1
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Default Around The Horn: Catcher

Pirates Preview: Year in and Year out im excited about the season and year in and year out im disappointed. so now that the steelers season is over i can finally get excited to be disappointed about the pirates season

Paulino focused on both offensive, defensive improvements
By Jenifer Langosch /

PITTSBURGH -- Last year, Ronny Paulino heard it all.
He heard the grumbles about his defensive ineptitude at catching throws from the outfield. He couldn't escape the boos that reigned down from the PNC Park stands from fans asking why a player who hit .310 in his rookie season could seemingly no longer protect the outside of the plate.

He read the stat sheet and knew that at one point, opposing baserunners went weeks without being thrown out by a Pirates backstop. And by the end of the season, only one other National League catcher allowed more stolen bases to opponents than Paulino, who gave up 74.

No player was the recipient of fans' wrath and frustrations in 2007 more than Paulino. In fact, many saw Paulino's struggles as the perfect microcosm for the Pirates' underachieving year as a whole.

Needless to say, Paulino is ready for a fresh start. And the Pirates are going to give him just that.

Pencil in the 26-year-old Paulino as the team's Opening Day catcher for the second straight year. Even after regressing offensively and struggling defensively last season, Paulino has the blessing of the new Pirates management. However, that blessing is contingent on immediate results and improvement.

"It's going to be a lot of, you know, finding out where he is," new Pirates manager John Russell said. "But, you know, one of the things is, like I said before, getting the explanation to where he's going to start being accountable for some of these things."

Though Paulino was only charged with seven errors in 129 games in 2007, that number didn't reflect his inability to make routine defensive plays time and time again. And even despite all this, overall, accountability seemed to still be lacking. Paulino's defensive gaffes were almost never followed by extra work behind the plate, and there was perceived laziness on Paulino's part all year long.

Don't expect that to be the case moving forward.

Arguably no position player on the club should benefit more from the team's coaching changes than Paulino, who now has a number of mentors to lean on for guidance. Russell and bullpen coach Luis Dorante are former catchers who will both heavily figure into Paulino's development.

"This guy needs to know what it is to play the game right, and how important it is behind the plate," Russell said of Paulino. "Obviously being a catching guy, that position is huge to me. It's not going to be a slack deal. Number one, I know how important it is. Number two, the team can't afford for that stuff to happen.

"It will be handled in a way to try to get the best possible results out of Ronny we can get, because he's a good player," Russell continued. "It's going to be a definite plan, and Luis and myself are definitely going to have to stay right on top of him."

While Paulino's defense will be appropriately targeted, there is also hope that the young catcher can rediscover the swing that, two years ago, guided him to a rookie season in which he batted .310 in 129 games, the third highest average among National League catchers in 2006.

Despite ending 2007 with a respectable .263 average, Paulino struggled out of the gate last season. His average didn't reach the .230 mark until just before the All-Star break and his success against right-handed pitching during the entire season was minimal.

After some midseason adjustments with former hitting coach Jeff Manto, Paulino focused his attention on protecting the middle and inside part of the plate -- and saw immediate improvements.

He hit more homers (six) and drove in more runs (29) in the last two months of the season than he had in the first four combined. And Paulino's .296 post-All-Star break average ranked second among all league catchers.

If the team's roster remains as is come Opening Day, Ryan Doumit will once again serve as Paulino's primary backup. Doumit will join Paulino at the Pirates' mini-camp next week in Bradenton, Fla., where the organization's new coaching staff will get their first look at him.

New management is high on Doumit's bat, though lingering injuries cut into his production last season and ended his year prematurely. The fact that he is a switch-hitter also adds to his offensive intrigue.

However, the 26-year-old catcher/right fielder has room for improvement behind the plate. With more focused instruction on Doumit's play calling, there is hope that he can improve on a 2007 season in which the team went 6-22 and the staff had a 5.47 ERA when Doumit started the game as the team's catcher.

While catching depth had been a recent bragging point for the organization, general manager Neal Huntington saw himself needing to fill gaps within the Minor League system this offseason after much of that depth was depleted.

Both Carlos Maldonado and Humberto Cota became free agents and highly regarded catching prospect Neil Walker has been converted into a third baseman. The Pirates addressed this shortage by signing catchers Miguel Perez and Michel Hernandez to Minor League contracts just prior to the holidays.

Hernandez, who will be the third team catcher present at mini-camp, played 51 games at the Triple-A level last year, hitting .276 with 19 RBIs. The 24-year-old Perez batted .322 with eight homers and 25 RBIs in 42 games last year, split among three different Minor League levels.

Huntington has reiterated that the team continues to look for a way to add another veteran catcher to the mix. Doing so would give the club three catchers for its Major League roster, something that would allow the team to take advantage of Doumit's versatility as an outfielder as well.

Corner IF: January 9
Middle IF: January 16
Outfielders: January 23
Starters: January 30
Bullpen: Feb 6
DH/Bench: Feb. 13
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