Dodgers come through for Rod Barajas
To Barajas, who grew up in Norwalk, the Dodgers were still the Dodgers. He didn't look at the uniform and think of rich owners getting expensive divorces. He saw it and thought of the same franchise he fell in love with as a small child. He thought of Fernando Valenzuela, a hero to Southern California's Mexican-American community and the player he used to emulate. He thought of that final few weeks of last season when he finally got to put on that uniform himself after 11 seasons in the majors, and he thought of how badly he wanted to put it on again. And so he waited.
By the start of December, though, the Dodgers still hadn't made him a firm offer and still hadn't made it official whether they planned to go to arbitration with Russell Martin or non-tender him. Meanwhile, free-agent catchers were getting snatched up quickly, and Barajas was worried he might get left out if he waited much longer.
By the beginning of December, he had everything short of a handshake deal with the Toronto Blue Jays, for whom he played in 2008 and 2009.
"To be honest, I was probably a half-hour away from signing," Barajas said Sunday, after catching five innings and hitting the Dodgers' first home run of the spring in their 5-0 Cactus League victory over the Los Angeles Angels before 6,691 at the Ballpark at Camelback Ranch. "We figured the Dodgers were out of it. And then, with half an hour to go, my agent called and said he had gotten a call from them."
Failing to reach an agreement with Martin before the tender deadline, the Dodgers had severed ties with the two-time All-Star catcher. Within 24 hours, they had agreed to terms with Barajas on a new one-year, $3.25 million contract, and they had their primary catcher for 2011. To say Barajas never looked back, though, wouldn't be completely accurate.
"I know [Blue Jays general manager] Alex [Anthopoulos] well," Barajas said. "I have a great deal of respect for him, I think he is a great guy, and I get along with him well. I think he does things the right way. If it was going to be the same money [the Dodgers offered], I would have said, `You know what, I owe it to them, because they did all that work.' We were pretty much down to signing the deal."
Barajas says he felt a twinge of remorse, as if he had led Anthopoulos and the Blue Jays on before ultimately spurning them. He also said Anthopoulos initially felt the same way, but he later told Barajas' agent, Dan Lozano, that he understood the catcher's decision and desire to play for his hometown team.
Barajas said the offer he nearly accepted from the Blue Jays was only slightly less than what he ultimately got from the Dodgers. And for those critics who continue to insist that a catching combination of Barajas and Dioner Navarro is a dropoff from a healthy Martin, it is worth considering where the Dodgers might have been if they had actually missed out on Barajas.
One of the knocks against Barajas, at least where last season is concerned, is that his rate of throwing out runners trying to steal was a paltry 15 percent. The Angels stole three bases off him in the fifth inning alone on Sunday. But his career mark is a solid 32 percent, and his single-season figure was as high as 34 percent as recently as two years ago.
Barajas couldn't explain the dropoff. He did allow for the fact that pitchers have to get the ball to the plate quickly to give a catcher a chance, but he stopped well short of blaming the decline on that.
"[Throwing out runners] is always a priority, it definitely is," he said. "Anytime you can get an out without the ball being put into play, it's huge. ... I don't know the reason, exactly [for last year's dropoff]. I just know it wasn't great. I haven't gone back and checked all the pitchers' times to the plate. It's a huge part of the game, and I will continue to work on it, but it is a full-team effort."
What Barajas did accomplish defensively last season -- remarkably quickly given how late in the season he came to the Dodgers -- was a rapport with a pitching staff he had never worked with before, a fact he credits to pitching coach Rick Honeycutt and the pitchers themselves having faith in his game-calling ability.
Manager Don Mattingly has said his tentative plan for the season is to give Barajas most of the starts behind the plate, but Navarro will get a lot of them, too. Barajas says that although he is 35 now, he feels his body is still capable of handling as many games as Mattingly wants to give him over the next seven months.
"Coming into camp, I actually felt better than I had the last three or four years," Barajas said. "I caught [four innings Saturday], and I can't remember ever catching back-to-back games the first two games of the spring before. They asked me [Sunday] if I wanted to go out for the fifth inning so I can hit again, and I said, 'Yeah, why not?"'
That answer proved fateful, as Barajas came up with one out in the bottom of that fifth inning and drove a pitch from Angels lefty Trevor Reckling just over the fence and onto the berm in left-center field, giving the Dodgers a 4-0 lead.
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Two Dodgers pitchers who struggled at the end of last season got off to solid starts in the Cactus League by getting back to what they had gotten away from, which is being aggressive and pounding the strike zone.
John Ely, who was a strike-throwing machine when he first came to the majors last April but then struggled in June and was back in Triple-A by the All-Star break, shut out the Angels on one hit over the first two innings, striking out three batters without a walk.
Honeycutt has asked Ely to move from the first-base to the third-base side of the rubber because he feels it is better suited to Ely's pitching reportoire, and it appears to be working. Ely gave up only a one-out single to mega-hyped Angels prospect Mike Trout in the first inning and would have retired the Angels in order in the second if not for a two-out throwing error by Dodgers second baseman Juan Uribe.
Later, Ramon Troncoso, who was a vital member of the Dodgers' bullpen in 2008 and 2009 before his ERA ballooned to 4.33 last year and he did two stints in the minors, blew away the Angels in the sixth inning. Troncoso struck out Alberto Callaspo and Mark Trumbo, each on three pitches and each on a called third strike, before getting Tyson Auer to ground sharply to third. Troncoso needed a total of eight pitches to complete his perfect inning.
Troncoso appeared to be a long shot for the Opening Day roster when camp began, but the latest flakeout by Ronald Belisario and an injury to Vicente Padilla opened up two more bullpen spots, possibly clearing the way for Troncoso to sneak in. Ely, who is viewed as primarily a starter, would be a longer shot, but he also would be one of the first pitchers considered for a callup if the Dodgers needed to replace an injured pitcher in the rotation.
Shortstop and leadoff man Rafael Furcal made his spring debut for the Dodgers, going 2-for-2 at the plate and stealing a base. ... There were two defensive highlights for the Dodgers in the late innings. In the seventh, with runners on first and second and one out, shortstop Jamey Carroll went into an all-out dive behind the bag to take a hit away from the Angels' Gil Velazquez. Although Carroll struggled for a moment to get the ball out of his glove, he finally managed, while still on the ground, to backhand it to Ivan DeJesus covering second. DeJesus turned a lighting-quick pivot to complete the inning-ending double play, getting Velazquez by a half-step at first base. Then, in the eighth, Dodgers left fielder Jamie Hoffmann went headlong to snag a blooper just above the grass and rob Hang Conger of a hit. ... The Dodgers (1-2) face the Chicago White Sox on Tuesday at Camelback Ranch, which the two teams share. The Dodgers are the home team. ... The Angels (1-1) will host the Oakland A's at Tempe Diablo Stadium.
Tony Jackson covers the Dodgers for ESPNLosAngeles.com. Follow him on Twitter. Follow him on Twitter.