Defense could be Marson's ticket with Tribe
Catcher competing with Phillips, Carlin for backup position
GOODYEAR, Ariz. -- One of the tougher battles going on at Indians camp is the three-way fight to back up Carlos Santana at catcher.
Last year's Opening Day catcher, Lou Marson, may have an edge over veterans Paul Phillips and Luke Carlin by virtue of his strong defensive skills and his experience with the Indians' pitching staff, but Phillips is making a strong case with a .409 average (9-for-22) in eight Cactus League games.
"This is going to be a tough decision for us," manager Manny Acta said after watching Carlin start a game against the Reds on Thursday. "Those guys have played well. We like it."
2010 Spring Training - Cleveland Indians
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Drafted out of high school by the Phillies in 2004 and acquired by Cleveland in the Cliff Lee trade in the middle of 2009, Marson has already made a name for himself in just 109 big league games.
He nabbed 31 of 82 would-be basestealers last year for a 38 percent success rate, good for third in the American League. He logged more innings than the four other Indians catchers combined in 2010. Though Carlin, 30, has played three seasons with the Padres, D-backs, and Indians, and Phillips, 33, has eight seasons with the Royals, White Sox and Rockies, the 24-year-old Marson has more big league experience than any Indians catcher, including Santana.
"I think I'll catch a lot this year," Marson said before starting Friday's game against the Rangers. "I think I'm too good defensively not to be in the lineup. We'll see what happens."
The question for Marson has always been his bat. After a respectable .250 in his first callup in 2009, he hit .195 for Cleveland in 2010, earning a trip to Triple-A Columbus, where he worked through issues at the plate with hitting coach Lee May Jr.
"I think it was good to go clear my mind a little bit and come back and be aggressive again," Marson said. "Get ready to hit and have a good at-bat."
Though he slapped a single off triple-digit fireballer Aroldis Chapman in Thursday's game with the Reds, his bat hasn't quite taken off yet.
"Last year I was thinking too much about my mechanics and things like that instead of just going up and competing," Marson said of his approach this spring. "It's hard enough to hit. [I'm trying to] go up and compete and stick to my strength. Keep it simple."
Though his standout defense can make it look like Marson puts more attention into his work behind the plate than at the plate, he calls that a misconception.
"It's both, honestly," Marson said. "But you do put down more fingers than you get at-bats, and you've got to be able to run the pitching staff. We had a really young staff last year. I was young. I felt like we learned a lot together. We overcame a lot of things together, and I look forward to continuing to do that this year."
For Acta, the key question is whether Marson can find what he's looking for at the plate by the time camp breaks because the second catcher isn't likely to see enough action behind Santana to get into a groove from the bench.
"We're just looking for the best option," Acta said. "To be a guy that can be out there once or twice a week. That's why the Lou Marson decision will depend on how he does the rest of the way in camp. It's going to depend on how much time we can get him, and if we're willing to have a guy like him have such a little [amount of] time behind the plate."
Cleveland's backup catcher may see more action than anticipated if Santana's work at first base allows him to get his bat into the lineup more than if he's used exclusively as a catcher. With Santana in the middle of the lineup and Marson's defensive work off the bench, the Indians could find the best of both worlds.
"Nothing's better than experience for me," Marson said. "Even if I catch three times a week, or whatever it is. Just being there every day and experiencing it, being in the big leagues, there's nothing better."
Though Marson has more experience than his competition, his youth could work against him. Phillips and Carlin may not be the traditional veteran backups, given their limited big league experience, but Marson is still developing, and ultimately it will come down to whether Cleveland feels regular at-bats are more important for him at this stage.
"If [Marson is not on the roster], hypothetically, it would be so he can get at-bats at Triple-A. That's all there is to it," Acta said. "He's going to get at-bats and develop that part of his game. If he does, and he has enough at-bats and gets his confidence back, so be it, if he's up here after that. We don't want to bury a guy like him over here and three or four months go by and he doesn't even have 50 at-bats. That's what we're trying to stay away from. But that doesn't mean he can't be our backup."
Though the catching corps is short on big league experience no matter how you add it up, Marson's innings working with the young pitching staff and learning the league's hitters are assets he wants to put in play.
"Everybody got better," he said of Cleveland's 2010 pitchers. "Our bullpen was a lot better toward the end of the year. All of our starters improved. I"m looking forward to helping them out again."
Owen Perkins is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.