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600 words about Jason LaRue

Jason LaRue, one year, $950,000. Backup catcher occupational hazard: sometimes the article about you being resigned will have someone else's picture on the top. Mostly I've had the usual well-okay backup catcher response, but there is a fussy part of me—the part that, in its even-more-pedantic moments, wants to mutter "but that's completely implausible" during romantic comedies—that gets really angry at backup catcher signings like this. If I were to let it out this is what it would say:

When was the last time the Cardinals had a backup catcher for whom anything but the very bottom of the production barrel could have been expected? Let me tell you: Yadier Molina, 2004, and Cody McKay was the guy who started the year in that role. He would've stayed in that role if the Cardinals hadn't had a catching prospect and an injured starter. Before that you've got the nebulous years before Eli Marrero became less a catcher and more an outfielder. It's not a good list.

But for the last five years, counting 2009 in advance, the Cardinals have insisted on signing a genuine Major League veteran to play this role. There was LaRue, coming off a 33 OPS+; Bennett, who managed to put up a rare Coors-inflated .668 OPS; and before that Einar Diaz, who managed to hit a home run in 2005 despite having, as far as I can remember, never once hit a ball during his tenure as a Cardinal. None of these players proved especially capable with the glove, either, except in that general way that all catchers who can't hit are regarded as extremely subtle defensive whizzes. It's just that the Cardinals have, whenever they've gotten the chance, become a self-styled pension plan for backup catchers past their expiration dates. 

In these days of big, oft-utilized bullpens the backup catcher has become, by end-of-the-bench attrition, the least important player on the team. And I guess there's something to be said for not worrying too much about a guy who is always going to be a lineup card surprise. But if you're going to do that why not just renew Mark Johnson's backup catcher union card for free instead of paying retail on Lash LaRue, who seems likely to regress even further in 2009? The extra $450,000 can be spent on a mustache-grooming apparatus for the rest of the team, or cashed out in quarters and melted down to make Albert Pujols an enormous dugout throne.

If you're going to bother signing a backup catcher above the minimum, why not sign one who might make the team better? The LaRue signing was an attempt at improvement, if not a perfect one; he hit pretty well while he was a starter, and his batting average collapse had occurred in limited playing time. (And for a backup catcher he wasn't even all that bad this year, terrifyingly enough; take a look at the non-starters on this list, and then buy your son a catcher's mitt and a beard trimmer.) But the next Gregg Zaun has to be out there somewhere, right? I'd rather see fliers on guys like J.R. House than the yearly sub-$1 million burnt offering to the hard-nosed gods, is all. 

If runs were your budget, signing (or promoting) a backup catcher who might not hit like a pitcher wouldn't exactly be a multi-million dollar inheritance. But if the girl at Starbucks gave you a dollar every time you bought coffee it would add up. 

Anyway, that's what the part of me that's fussy about backup catchers would say. He gets most vocal on slow Mondays in November and just after 60 Minutes, when his idol Andy Rooney's monologue ends and the world's niggling non-issues manifest themselves to him in their full, glorious irritation.

Meanwhile, of course, the perfect-world answer to this question is sitting in AAA limbo, stuck in a million different contingencies. Do you call Bryan Anderson up as a backup, despite his unfinished fielding and narrow hitting skill-set? Does doing so potentially damage his future value, both real and for trade purposes? Personally I don't think it will be an issue—he just doesn't seem to be in the Cardinals' plans, and I'd be a little surprised if he began 2009 in a Redbird uniform, be it Memphis or St. Louis. But I'd be open to the idea.