Maldonado has proven himself at catcher

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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