Maldonado has proven himself at catcher

BY foxsports • July 15, 2012

MILWAUKEE — For years, the Milwaukee Brewers'
backstop had been, without a doubt, one of the franchise's weakest
positions.

With players like Gregg Zaun, Chad
Moeller, Eddie Perez, and Paul Bako spending significant time as
Milwaukee's catcher in the past decade, the Brewers desperately needed
someone to take the reins of a spot previously associated with
mediocrity.

That's what made Jonathan Lucroy's start
to the 2011 season such a godsend for the 2011 NL Central champs.
Through 43 games, Lucroy looked primed to become one of the league's
best catchers. He spent a majority of the early season with the best
batting average with runners in scoring position in all of baseball and
tallied a career-best .345 average, not to mention a solid total of 30
RBI.

But a falling suitcase at the end of May seemed
to foil many hopes of consistency at the position, landing Lucroy on the
disabled list for at least six weeks. The team had confidence in backup
catcher George Kottaras, but his inclusion in the lineup wasn't
expected to turn many heads.

So there sat Martin
Maldonado at his new locker on May 29, young and overwhelmed. Called up
from Triple-A Nashville, Maldonado already had a superb record on
defense. But his offense was a question mark at
best.

Thirty-eight games later though, with Lucroy
set to return in the coming weeks, Maldonado has erased every potential
question mark he was once labeled with. On Saturday, Brewers manager Ron
Roenicke called him one of the most-improved players of the season's
first half. What was potentially a six-week, fill-in situation has
turned into a bona fide battle for playing time at
catcher.

"He's definitely stepped up and gotten the
job done," Lucroy said of Maldonado. "I've been in his shoes before.
It's tough being a young catcher thrown into things because of an
injury. . . . He's done a really good job."

That kind
of unforeseen impact has lifted the Brewers on several occasions, as
the team has kept itself from taking a step back in light of Lucroy's
injury -- something no one would've expected, especially on the
offensive end.

The initial concern was a product of
Maldonado's sub-par numbers at Triple A this season, where he was
hitting just .198 with four home runs and 13 RBI in 35 games. Since
being called up though, Maldonado's output has grown significantly more
consistent, as his .269 batting average is good for fourth among
regular, healthy contributors, trailing Ryan Braun, Norichika Aoki and
Aramis Ramirez.

And it's not just the obvious
offensive numbers that have impressed Brewers manager Ron Roenicke.
Maldonado's penchant this season for stringing together long, patient
at-bats should almost ensure that Lucroy's return won't mean a trip back
to Nashville.

Maldonado had even tallied three bunt
base hits before the All-Star break. And considering Maldonado's
physique (he's 6-1, 225 pounds) isn't quite built for speed, his hustle
on bunts had him tied with speedsters like Angels' outfielder Mike Trout
and Marlins shortstop Jose Reyes in bunt base hit
totals.

"(Maldonado) shows you what a guy can do if
he just thinks about the game, looks around at the defense, and thinks
about what the team needs to do at the time and how he can help the team
get on base," Roenicke said before the All-Star break. "Everybody on
our team should be looking and thinking, 'How in the world can this guy
get bunt base hits?' It should rub off on them. . . . It's a great
example of what you can do to help us win."

In the
first game of their series with the Pirates on Friday, Maldonado tallied
a career-high four hits, helping the Brewers to a key 10-7 victory. And
although Roenicke admits he has a lot of room for improvement, the
young catcher has shown again and again -- like he did on Friday -- that
he's learning at an accelerated pace.

Some of that
credit belongs to Lucroy, who Maldonado says has helped him whenever he
needs it. Lucroy even shared his binder of scouting reports with the
rookie backstop, with hopes that Maldonado could avoid the struggles
that he experienced when he was thrown into the fire in his first
season.

"He's been helping me a lot, more than what
people think," Maldonado said. "He's been teaching me how to pitch to
different teams. That's been the key for me. . . . I've just calmed down
a lot more and now I can step back for a minute and think about things.
It helps me do the best I can every day."

And now,
the Brewers may have a problem they never expected when the season
began. Lucroy's return means Milwaukee will have three viable catchers
on the roster, something quite unusual for any major league team. But on
Saturday, Roenicke said the impressive output from all three -- Lucroy,
Kottaras, and Maldonado -- has kept him from ruling out the possibility
of a three-catcher rotation.

"We could," Roenicke
said. "It's not something I would like to stay with for a long time, but
you can do that. George would become more your pinch hitter off the
bench, instead of your backup catcher."

Roenicke
admitted on Friday night that he hasn't thought about the catching
situation much, noting that things seem to work their way out in
situations like this.

But with a wealth of
contributors available behind the plate, you won't find Roenicke or
anyone complaining about the Brewers' backstop situation any time
soon.

"Four or five years ago, we didn't have hardly
anyone (at catcher)," Lucroy said. "Now we have three. It's one of those
things where it's a good problem to
have."


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