A rambling discourse on catching prospects, catchers, singles, benches, and 1991. Feel free to ignore my babbling.

The Braves’ catcher of the future, as you probably know, is Brian McCann. Presumably, McCann will be ready just about when Estrada gets expensive and/or old in about 2007; the Braves might phase McCann in or go ahead and plug him in. We’ll see. We’ll also see if he makes it; the casualty record for catching prospects is high, particularly at the High A/AA transition he’s about to make. Even those whose bats survive tend to develop — or be diagnosed with, anyway — defensive shortcomings that move them off the position. For those reasons, you want several catching prospects around in the hope that one of them makes it as a catcher. The Braves’ #2 catching prospect is Jarrod Saltalamacchia, but he’s a long way away.

Ahead of McCann in the Braves’ system, if not in their plans, is Brayan Pena, who was at Greenville last season and should be in Richmond this time. He does basically one thing as a hitter, make contact; in his minor league career, in over 1000 AB, he’s walked only 82 times, but struck out just 128. His career batting average is .298 (including an insane .370 in rookie ball in 2001 — yeah, he was “19”) but his career slugging percentage only .380. Over at NoPepper, Brad writes of Pena. In a comment, I mentioned my nickname for Pena, “Brayan Harper”.

If you’re younger than me, you probably only remember Harper as a Twin, in particular in the 1991 World Series, in which he hit .381 to lead the Twins (who hit only .232 as a team). Morris was the MVP, and if he wasn’t it would have been Kirby, but Harper had an argument. The thing is, though Harper was only in his third season as a regular, he’d actually debuted way back in 1979 with the Angels, was already 31 years old, and his career would be basically over with the 1994 strike.

Harper, you see, was a lot like Pena. He was a slow guy, not a great arm or a really finished catcher, didn’t have much power (but more than Pena’s shown yet), or walk a whole lot, but he hit .300. (Unlike Pena, who’s a switch-hitter, he hit righty, another strike against him.) He was 28 when the Twins, his sixth major league team, picked him up after he was released by the A’s (who admittedly had Mickey Tettleton and Terry Steinbach and thus weren’t hurting for catchers) and finally gave him a chance to play. In a half season, then five full seasons, he hit .295, .324, .294, .311, .307, .304. Now, you’ve all heard me disparage batting average, but this has value, especially at a position where a lot of guys don’t hit at all, especially bench guys, and particularly in those dark days of the late eighties/early nineties between the decline of Fisk and the rise of Piazza & Rodriguez. But between 1979 and 1987, Harper got 390 major league at bats. He wound up his career with 979 hits; honestly, he might have gotten 2000 if someone’d given him a job when he was 22 or so.

For one thing, he wasn’t getting enough of those singles, probably because of bad luck. Batting average fluctuates, especially when you don’t get many at-bats because you’re a backup. A power-hitter is at least going to hit some long foul balls or impress them in batting practice. That’s not going to work for a singles hitter; he needs to put up the high batting average or he’s going to get demoted.

And Harper was a lucky one of the type. Consider Jerry Willard, another guy you might remember from 1991, this time on our side. Willard was a lefty hitter, but other than that he was pretty similar to Harper, at a reduced scale. He couldn’t throw much or run at all, didn’t have a lot of power, but could hit singles. In his second year in the majors, 1985 with the Indians, he hit .270, which was pretty good back then, didn’t strike out a lot. And he lost his job. The next two years he was with Oakland, and while he did okay as Tettleton’s platoon partner, Steinbach came up and he joined Harper on the unemployment line. Willard’s biggest “hit” in his career was in the 1991 Series, when he hit a pinch-hit walk-off sac fly in Game Four to tie the series. It was his only appearance of the series.

And Willard was one of the lucky ones, because he came up when teams still carried three catchers, at least part of the time, and I finally get to my point, which was I think about Brayan Pena. Brad thinks of Pena as a backup, presumably for Estrada in 2006 and McCann from then on. I like the idea, but I doubt that it will happen, because nobody seems to care about backup catchers’ hitting anymore.

You see, children, once upon a time teams did really carry three catchers. And that was a lot of the time, not just Bobby in postseason when he wants to cause us all agita. Many teams actually platooned at the position — the Braves did in 1992 until Olson broke his leg in 1993, and Bobby had in his Blue Jay days. Doesn’t happen much anymore because (here I go again) teams are carrying so many pitchers they can’t afford a third catcher, and platooning loses a lot of its luster if you have to lose your only backup to counter the first switch. And those third catchers were often your Willard types — a guy who wasn’t a great catcher buy could at least stand around at an infield or outfield corner, pinch-hit, DH occasionally in the AL. Frankie Cabrera, though he was a power hitter, fits the type as well.

Today everyone, or nearly everyone, has a clear starter, who is usually (I’m looking at you, Matheny) supposed to hit, and a clear backup, who is almost always a catch-and-throw guy, at least in theory. (For instance, Eddie Perez is a catch-and-lob guy.) Almost none of these guys does anything well with the bat, because they aren’t supposed to. They’re always the last guy off the bench, because managers are all afraid they’ll get hurt and then an outfielder or someone will have to catch. Backup catchers mostly are asked to go out there every few days when the starter needs a rest and not hurt the team.

Brayan Pena’s defense may be good, but it’s his bat, such as it is, that’s gotten all the attention so far. And since good hitting catchers are always — except for Ivan Rodruiguez — considered bad defenders, even if they aren’t, Pena will get a bad defense rap. Which is why he’s probably not going to make it as a major league backup backstop. His best bet is to hope he can grab a regular job and hold onto it.

Special bonus “How Old Is Julio”? fact: Jerry Willard, as a minor leaguer, was part of the Von Hayes deal, one of five players sent by the Phillies to the Indians for Hayes in 1982. One of the other four was Julio Franco.