Acquiring a dependable closer is probably the Detroit Tigers' highest off-season priority. But finding a reliable catcher might be a close second on their winter shopping list.
A couple of bigger names, like Jason Varitek and Gerald Laird, have popped up, but would ultimately cost too much, in terms of money or players to give up in trade. Besides, the Tigers might be looking for more of an insurance policy, in case Dusty Ryan can't follow up on the promise he showed in September, rather than someone to take the job full-time.
Signing a catcher who could bat left-handed would help in this regard, as he could platoon with Ryan next season. Though that doesn't appear to be a deal-breaker, as the number of left-handed hitting catchers is rather scarce.
So if the Tigers could find someone who's relatively cheap, swings a lefty bat, brings the defensive skills that would obviously be required, and perhaps on the younger side, as well, that might be the guy to pursue. One name that fits those criteria, and is thus gaining popularity in the Tigersosphere is Josh Bard, who was let go by the San Diego Padres after this season.
Bard had a horrible season at the plate, batting.202/.279/.270 with one home run and 16 RBIs in 198 plate appearances. (Even Brandon Inge is looking at that and thinking, "Damn...") He also wasn't stellar defensively, throwing out approximately 15% of basestealers, yet blocked a good percentage of pitches. But as Billfer points out in his endorsement of Bard at The Detroit Tigers Weblog (after consulting Geoff Young of Ducksnorts), injuries to his wrist and ankle were a major factor in those struggles.
Perhaps the most appealing aspect of Bard is how low-risk he would be. He was paid $2.24 million by the Padres last year, but it's hard to imagine he'd find anything close to that on the open market after the feeble numbers he put up. For a one-year deal, he looks to be worth a shot.
I'll throw another name out there. Remember Gregg Zaun? He would've been a Tiger, if the team hadn't flipped him in another deal after he was included in the Juan Gonzalez trade back in 1999. His five-year tenure with the Toronto Blue Jays recently ended (something he doesn't seem very happy about, by the way), but he's looking to join up with a contender as a back-up (or potential mentor to a young pitching staff).
The big red flag with Zaun is his age. He'll turn 38 early next season (while Bard will turn 31), and is obviously near the end of his career. Thus, as Eddie notes at Detroit Tigers Thoughts, he's not an ideal candidate to catch a majority of games for the Tigers in 2009. Zaun isn't a demonstrably better hitter than Bard, either, batting.237/.340/.359 with six home runs and 30 RBIs in 288 plate appearances. However, he did throw out 23% of opposing basestealers.
Zaun also made more money than Bard last season, drawing a $3.75 million salary. But can he expect to get a similar paycheck as a free agent?
If the Tigers are looking to play Ryan the majority of the time at catcher, Zaun might be a better fit as someone who could provide a veteran presence while catching one or two days a week. If they don't quite trust Ryan, however, and want somebody who could possibly take over an everyday role if he falters, Bard seemingly has a much bigger upside (especially as a hitter).
Of course, if Ryan plays as well as he did in September or James Skelton takes a similar rise from Double-A to the majors next year, any other catcher the Tigers bring in could be a moot point.