Rangers appear vulnerable behind plate

SURPRISE, Ariz. -- Legend has it that Achilles' mother Thetis dipped her infant son in the River Styx to make him invulnerable, but she held him by the heel and the greatest warrior in Greek mythology died during the Trojan War from an arrow wound to that one unprotected spot.

Like Thetis, when Nolan Ryan and Jon Daniels dipped the Texas Rangers in their own mythical "river of the dead" this offseason as they tried to build what many believe could be a championship-caliber team, they also left one glaringly vulnerable weak spot, leaving key questions unanswered.

Can a team win a championship without championship-caliber catching? Or will the Rangers' inability to address their questionable catching situation become their Achilles' heel in 2010?

As the Rangers wade into their final week of Arizona exhibition games, the question surrounding their catching looms larger and larger with Jarrod Saltalamacchia, the centerpiece of the Mark Teixeira trade with Atlanta 2½ years ago, sidelined by yet another nagging injury.

"We're keenly aware of how important that position on the field is," Daniels said Wednesday. "It's the left tackle of baseball. You can have a great quarterback but if you can't protect him, he can't really get his job done.

"We look at it the same way with the pitching staff. We really like what our staff is capable of, and Wash [manager Ron Washington] is always talking about the role that the catchers play in getting the most out of our staff."

The catching situation was a matter of intense discussion in the Rangers' front office on multiple occasions during the winter, but Daniels and assistant GM Thad Levine kept coming back to the same bottom line: There just wasn't much on the market that looked any better than what they already had. Anyone who just conducted a fantasy baseball draft understands perfectly. No position in baseball is as thin on quality as catcher.

"We had some things that we looked into and some things we ultimately passed on for different reasons," Daniels said.

The Rangers, for instance, weren't going to hand out two-year contracts to fading veterans like Pudge Rodriguez and Jason Kendall. They flirted with the idea of adding a journeyman like Rod Barajas or Yorvit Torrealba but backed away, not sure if they would really be upgrading from what they already have.

"What might have put a little doubt in our minds was that we really didn't know how Salty would recover [from offseason thoracic outlet syndrome surgery]," Washington said. "We do believe that Salty has the potential to be [a championship-quality catcher], but with his injury, we didn't feel so sure.

"That meant [Taylor] Teagarden had to step up. Teagarden's one of the best at receiving and calling ballgames in the game. Even though he's a young kid, he's proven he can do that."

For Washington, defense and game-calling are vital.

"Since we've been in spring training and I made it a competition in January, they both started stepping out," he said. "Now they're trying to take their game to another level. One thing they do very good is stick to the game plan and go out there and execute, and that's the one thing I look for in my catchers. ... As long as they handle our pitching staff, I think they can get us through."

The biggest challenge seems to be getting Saltalamacchia in the lineup and keeping him there. He missed time earlier in the spring when scar tissue began breaking up. Now he's out -- he may return Friday -- with muscle spasms between his neck and left shoulder. It always seems to be something.

Saltalamacchia was the one piece of the Teixeira trade in midseason 2007 who was deemed to be major league ready, but he has basically been a disappointment, surpassed in contribution by shortstop Elvis Andrus and pitchers Neftali Feliz and Matt Harrison, who came as minor leaguers in the same deal.

"Jarrod was probably rushed originally getting to the big leagues in Atlanta -- they had an injury and needed him -- and we probably rushed him a little bit, too," Daniels said. "That's hindsight. From a talent standpoint, physical ability, a switch-hitter with power, a plus arm, a good receiver, you just don't get that package every day. What we need him to do is step up and take that next step, be consistent.

"Unfortunately he's had a couple of pain-in-the-neck injuries that have held him back, none which our medical staff thinks is a big deal, but we need to get him on the field and see some of that promise develop."

The rest of us may be concerned; Saltalamacchia is not.

"I've never been more mentally or physically ready, despite the injuries here and there," he said. "Mentally, I feel really good, my bat feels good and my catching feels good. I'm not worried about anything. I'm ready for Opening Day."

Well, not quite. He will try to hit in the cage Thursday and bat leadoff in every inning of a minor league game Friday, just to get the at-bats.

The potential the Rangers saw when they traded for him is still there, but as former general manager Tom Grieve liked to say, potential can get you fired.

"I don't like to put numbers on anything, but I see a guy who has a unique skill set," new hitting coach Clint Hurdle said. "He's a switch-hitting catcher. He's a big kid with power. What I want him to grow into is a good hitter with power, not a power hitter."

Frankly, it would simply be nice to see him grow into a catcher who can get behind the plate and stay there for 120 games a season.

As it stands right now, the Rangers' biggest weak spot may be a catcher whose whole body qualifies as an Achilles' heel.

Jim Reeves, a former columnist with the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, is a regular contributor to ESPNDallas.com.