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Lots of words on Carlos Delgado, catcher

Posted by Chad Finn, Globe Staff  August 15, 2010 10:20 PM

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Carlos-Delgado.JPGHis accomplishments got overshadowed in the jacked-and-pumped era of long home runs and longer suspensions of disbelief, but make no mistake: Carlos Delgado -- who I should note is one of barely a lineup's worth of sluggers from his heyday never to have been linked to performance-enhancing drugs -- is among the premier power hitters of his time. And arguably, any time.

Should you not think of him as being among the game's elite, baseball-reference.com has no problem proving you wrong. His .546 slugging percentage is 29th all-time, ahead of the legendary likes of Ken Griffey Jr., Frank Robinson, Mike Schmidt and Mel Ott. His OPS, .929, is 38th in the game's history, and only 29 players have walloped more than his 472 home runs. He may not make it to Cooperstown -- 500 homers is the new 400 homers, you know? -- but his credentials will make for a compelling case when his time for consideration comes.

I bring up Delgado's feats for two reasons, the first of which should be fairly obvious: The Red Sox bought an inexpensive lottery ticket on the 38-year-old former Blue Jay and Met, who hasn't played since May 2009 due to hip problems that required two surgeries, hoping that he can provide some kind of payout for a team in desperate need of a lefthanded-hitting first baseman to at the very least platoon with Mike Lowell. (And on the long shot that Delgado and Lowell ever team up to lead the Sox to an important victory, I'll be downright despondent if the headline somewhere in this city is not, "Hip, Hip, Hooray." I probably should have kept that to myself, right?) It's a shrewd low-risk, high-reward move -- Delgado did have a .914 OPS in his abbreviated final season with the Mets, and it's reasonable to think he can still draw a walk and smack one out of the ballpark at a better rate than most, provided he can shake the rust off in Pawtucket. If not? Adam LaRoche, please.

The other reason for today's Delgado chatter is a more whimsical one. While his legacy is of a stereotypical cowhide-crushing first baseman, it's been forgotten by everyone but Blue Jays fans and the most minutiae-obsessed of baseball nerds (greetings!) that he arrived in the big leagues as . . . a catcher. Just try to imagine that for a moment. (Stare at the accompanying baseball card if it helps with the process).

Yes, he played just two games there in the big leagues before the Blue Jays thought better of it, but still . . . Carlos Delgado was a catcher. The only more improbable inaugural defensive position for a future slugger I can recall is when Jason Giambi arrived in the majors as a third baseman with the 1995 Oakland A's, or perhaps Gary Sheffield coming up as a shortstop for the 1988 Brewers. Not that anything trumps Sam Horn owning a glove at all.

I do remember Delgado as a catcher -- he was a "Baseball America" favorite in the early '90s, rating as their No. 4 overall prospect in '93 and No. 5 in '94 (one spot ahead of A-Rod and two ahead of Manny) and I drafted him in one of the first fantasy baseball leagues I was ever in when he made the two-time defending World Champion Blue Jays as a 21-year-old out of spring training in 1994. As Bill James made clear in his Player Ratings Book 1994, Delgado was a genuine phenom, as sure a bet as sure bets get:

One of four super-prospects in the minors right now, with [Manny] Ramirez, Chipper Jones, and Cliff Floyd. His defense is an unknown, but he's going to be an awesome hitter . . . Delgado has already played 504 minor league games. No other outstanding catching prospect in history has ever played that many minor league games. [Johnny] Bench made the majors after 265 minor league games, Berra after 188, Cochrane, 164, Dickey, 249, Hartnett 100.

Obviously, James made a rare oversight there, neglecting to mention Gary Allenson.

Delgado was the was the toast of baseball in April that season, walloping eight homers in his first 13 games. Then, pitchers, as they are known to do when encountered with a new threat, turned dastardly -- they started throwing him curveballs. After 30 more games and one more homer, he was sent to Triple A with a .215 average. I suppose Syracuse isn't the worst place to spend the summer, but Delgado couldn't have expected to visit so soon after such a dazzling start in Toronto.

BrehSBmkKGrHqEOKjsEvNCdG4JGBLzivt3UDg_12.jpgCuriously, or perhaps not given the potential of his bat, 1994 was the final time Delgado strapped on the tools of alleged ignorance in the big leagues -- the record shows that he made his final big league appearance behind the plate on May 31, 1994, when he replaced Randy Knorr in the eighth inning of 7-2 loss to the A's. It should also be reiterated that for all of the words we've spent on his catching "career," it was just his second MLB appearance at the position, the first coming during a cup of Dunkin's (or, as reader Colin B. points out, the Canadian equivalent, Tim Horton's) in 1993.

The Jays had mostly used him in left field in 1994, and in retrospect, it's obvious why Delgado didn't remain as a catcher. It was going to be a struggle for him to be adequate -- he was considered the lesser defender when he alternated with Javy Lopez behind the plate in the Puerto Rican Winter League in 1993-94, which is all evidence a Red Sox fan requires -- and his bat profiled well anywhere they put him. When he arrived at spring training with a sore shoulder in 1995, he was told to swap the catcher's mitt (not to mention his outfielder's glove) for that of a first baseman, and the move was permanent.

Still curious about the perception of him as a catcher even after doing my own poking around and Googlin', I checked in with Neate Sager, a writer for Yahoo! Sports Canada, a terrific blogger, and my former rival in the wildly fun Seamheads Historical Baseball League, where he ran, naturally, the Blue Jays. Here's his reply in full:

campusano.bmpYou're in a bit of luck. My boss at Y! Sports Canada, Steve McAllister, was a Jays beat writer from 1991-93. Here's what he says:

Think it was more of a case of wanting his bat at a different position, and he was quite raw as a catcher. He was a rookie at the Jays camp my last year of covering the team – was a stud as a physical specimen but never heard much, if any, talk about him becoming the Jays’ everyday receiver.

It might be fair to wonder if they pulled the chute early. He was only turning 22 in 1994 when the Jays first moved him to left field (which was a vacant spot after using Rickey Henderson as a rental in '93). That didn't work out and the league caught up to him at the plate so he went back to the minors to learn first base.

On top of that, the Jays in that era seemed to have a pattern of rushing 21- or- 22-year-old toolsy players to the majors without letting them develop some polish ... Junior Felix, Sil Campusano, Rob Ducey were all guys who came up early and never really panned out ... Bell, Barfield, Moseby, Stieb and Tony Fernandez were all established before turning 25, but that doesn't mean everyone can do it.

He had me at the Sil Campusano reference. Somewhere in my attic is a 100-count box of his rookie cards from my brief and comically failed attempt in the '80s at prospect prospecting. I remember the scouting reports saying his bat was too quick. Translated, that means he couldn't hit a changeup with one of those giant red plastic toy bats. (In a related note, I also have 100 1986 Topps Traded Otis Nixons. A self-addressed stamped envelope care of me at the Globe gets you and Otis or Sil, though the stamp is worth more than either card. The over/under on takers is .5.)

Unlike Neate's list of rushed Jays prospects who became minor-league lifers and what-ifs, Delgado made it. As Bill James emphasized in his Player Ratings Book 1995, the stutter-step in his progress hardly damaged the perception of Delgado as a prospect:

If he'd been a veteran, no one would have thought anything of his slump. His average went down to .215; it would have come back. If the Blue Jays had been winning, no one would have paid any attention to him . . . he'll be back, and he'll be great. I have no doubt that Delgado is going to be an MVP candidate in the year 2000.

Home run, James. Carlos Delgado hit 41 homers, drove in 137 runs, batted a career-high .344, and played all 162 games in 2000. He finished fourth in the AL MVP balloting.

Ten years later, the Red Sox are hoping there's enough lightning left in his bat to boost their playoff push. And at the risk of putting a mean-spirited twist on our usual lighthearted snark, we like to imagine there could be an ancillary benefit of his arrival. For we'd rather see Carlos Delgado return to catching after 16 years away, with a grandpa's hip, at age 38, and 18 months from his last at-bat, than see Kevin Cash take one more meaningful swing in a Red Sox uniform.

About Touching All The Bases

Irreverence and insight from Chad Finn, a Globe/Boston.com sports writer and media columnist. A winner of several national and regional writing awards, he is the founder and sole contributor to the TATB blog, which launched in December 2004. Yes, he realizes how lucky he is.

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