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Barajas making most of his opportunity

Barajas making most of his opportunity

PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. -- When Rod Barajas monitored the big league want ads in November and December, he had a right to believe he could command a significantly more lucrative contract than he eventually accepted from the Mets. Moreover, he had legitimate hope for a contract that extended beyond 2010. The Mets' economics, those of the game and a figure on the Mets' horizon worked against him, though.

So when Barajas entered the Mets' clubhouse for the first time on Wednesday morning, he was working under the terms of a one-year contract that guarantees him $500,000, that probably will earn him an additional $400,000 and will have him reading want ads again come November.

That is not the best-case scenario for him, nor is it ideal for the Mets. As Barajas said after his first day on the job, "Catcher is the one position you'd like to have stability [at] when you have young pitchers." And with his arrival and the likelihood that he will be the Mets' regular catcher come April, the Mets have had little stability at a most critical position for an extended period.

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If Barajas is in the lineup when the Mets face the Marlins at Citi Field on April 5, he will become the fourth Opening Day catcher in six seasons -- Mike Piazza in 2005, Paul LoDuca in '06 and '07, Brian Schneider in '08 and last season. Beyond that, Omir Santos caught nearly 250 more innings than Schneider last season. And the Mets are operating as if Josh Thole is an almost certain Opening Day catcher for 2011.

It's not what either side necessarily wanted. The Mets would have preferred Bengie Molina, and Barajas wanted more security. But it isn't so bad either. The Mets have brought in a "plus defender" -- Barajas' words -- and a hitter who will lengthen their batting order and be in position to vacate for Thole. And as Barajas said Wednesday, he has a chance to play for a team that he says can be a legitimate contender.

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This isn't one of those "I want a ring before I retire" deals. Barajas, 34, isn't the retiring type, and he has his ring, won as a member of the 2001 D-backs who beat the Yankees in the World Series. He has a World Series home run for his charm bracelet. And, anyway, why not win again? He might have accepted an offer from the Rangers, the last club other than the Mets that pursued him. But New York had a need for an everyday catcher, while Texas didn't. And the Mets don't play in the discomfort capital of the big leagues.

Barajas' choice of employer has put him at the beginning of a fact-finding mission that won't end in April. He has caught only a few of the pitchers in camp -- Oliver Perez, Elmer Dessens, R.A Dickey (before he turned to he knuckleball) and Nelson Figueroa (a long time ago). Perez is the only pitcher likely to be on the Opening Day roster, so Barajas must learn the pitches, tendencies and idiosyncrasies of Johan Santana, Mike Pelfrey, John Maine, Pedro Feliciano, Frankie Rodriguez, et al.

"I've changed teams three times before," Barajas said. "So it can be done. It takes time and a lot of talking to coaches, catchers who have caught them before and the pitchers themselves. And you learn from catching them yourself, of course."

Chances are Barajas will start Spring Training games quite regularly to familiarize himself with the likely starters and catch late innings in other games when Feliciano, Rodriguez and Tyroto Igarashi are scheduled to relieve.

Mets manager Jerry Manuel, who has been in the National League since 2005, said he knows little of Barajas, who played 27 innings against the Mets during the interim.

"From what I've heard, he has a history of handling pitching staffs," Manuel said.

General manager Omar Minaya says Barajas is an upgrade defensively, one of several the club anticipates -- left field with Jason Bay over Daniel Murphy and his many successors last season, first base with Murphy over often immobile Carlos Delgado ("Delgado was better around the base," Minaya said) and behind the plate. Right-field defense is something of a push. Jeff Francoeur has a power arm, but Ryan Church was a better fly-ball defender with a quicker release.

"I think with a few changes and healthy players, our defense will be a little bit surprising to some people," Minaya said. "Barajas throws well and he's good with pitchers."

Barajas has thrown out at least 33 per cent of would-be basestealers each season, beginning in 2002.

Manuel, for reasons unknown, said Wednesday a competition exists among Barajas, Thole, veteran Henry Blanco and Chris Coste, unseated incumbent Omir Santos and even Shaun Riggins. But little intrigue exists. Blanco will serve as Barajas' understudy. Thole will catch regularly at Triple-A in preparation for next year. And Barajas will, well ... he'll catch with some regularlity this season. And who knows thereafter.

And from recent history, it seems the Mets will benefit from his guidance and receiving. Pitchers' ERAs with Barajas' catching in 2008 and '09 combined was 3.81, the fourth-lowest figure in the big leagues among catchers who started at least 200 games during that period.

Given that distinction, his throwing and his run and home run production last season -- he drove in 71 runs, more than any Mets player except David Wright (72), and hit 19 home runs, seven more than any New York player -- why did this signing take so long? Barajas wonders, too.

"Well, we talked to the Mets," Barajas said. "The Mets always were a team that was interested. The dialogue wasn't as intense as it was at the end, but they were always mentioned. Whenever I talked to my agent, the Mets' name always came up."

Yet it took so long because -- "I have no clue," Barajas said. "I'm just happy that I'm here now."

Marty Noble is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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