For the Mets, over the last six years, every backstop has been a stopgap.
Every catcher the team has employed since Paul LoDuca slammed his last bat and threw his last tantrum has been deployed without even a hint of permanence.
And many would classify John Buck, this year’s model, as more of the same. That’s not entirely unfair, either, given the veteran’s .192 batting average last season for the Marlins.
Mets fans might not want to talk or even think about John Buck. After all, he’s only here to keep the position warm before Travis d’Arnaud is deemed ready for his inevitable promotion from Triple-A Las Vegas. But Buck’s first week as a Met has temporarily calmed concerns that the Mets might have to rush d’Arnaud to the majors.
Even if all Buck bats is .192 again, he’s still likely to be an upgrade over Josh Thole’s empty .234 batting average (with just one homer), or the punch-and-Judy swipes that Mike Nickeas and Rob Johnson—Thole’s inferior offensive backups in 2012—offered at the plate. Buck hit 12 home runs last year, and, over the last couple of years, seemed to come up with several big hits against the Mets—including an Opening Night grand slam off Mike Pelfrey two years ago.
And Buck’s first week this season has been just fine. Fine to the tune of 9 RBI and just two strikeouts in his first five games (including Thursday, when he played a day game after a night game, like catchers used to do back in the 70s). Buck hit 16 home runs in 2011, and had 20 homers and a .280 batting average in 2010 with Toronto—the team that briefly reacquired him in the off-season before packaging him to the Mets in the deal to land R.A. Dickey and Thole (the Mets may have been willing to unload the Cy Young winner just to have a taker for Thole, whose one selling point is that, unlike most catchers, he’s somewhat competent at receiving a knuckleball).
Buck is a career .236 batter. He hasn’t thrown out 30 percent of the base stealers against him since 2006. He’s not going to drive in 100 runs this year. He is, for all intents and purposes, this year’s Rod Barajas. But it might be nice to have a steady veteran around to help mentor d’Arnaud whenever he does come up.
The last couple of years, the Mets haven’t even had a catcher they could legitimately look to for veteran stability. Catchers are at a real premium in major league baseball these days, much more than they ever used to be. Kids in Little League don’t want to catch. It’s hard to find talented catchers, despite the fact that the position has been handled for so many of the last 45 years in Mets history by more good players than any other position for the franchise except the mound—Grote, Stearns, Carter, Hundley and Piazza, almost uninterrupted (save for 1990-1991), from 1966 through 2005.
LoDuca was acceptable for a year or two. But, when the best catcher you’ve had for the last five years has been Brian Schneider, well, then the position has become a black hole.
D’Arnaud is supposed to change all that. Buck’s job is to keep the franchise from rushing d’Arnaud to Flushing too soon (although he may already be ready anyway). And, if the Mets are lucky, Buck can continue to have a role on the team for awhile after d’Arnaud arrives.