Twins ponder if three catchers is indeed a crowd

Drew Butera lacks punch at the plate, but the team might need him as a backup if Ryan Doumit opens as the DH. Still, "that next guy has got to earn his spot."

FORT MYERS, FLA. - Here's the latest problem the Twins have with franchise catcher Joe Mauer: They are trying to figure out the best way to back him up.

And this problem might not be solved until the plane is rolling down the runway for Opening Day in Baltimore on April 4.

Drew Butera has been the backup the past two years. He threw out 29.4 percent of would-be base-stealers last season and 40 percent in 2010. But he's a career .178 hitter.

The Twins signed Ryan Doumit as a free agent during the offseason for one year and $3 million. Doumit, 30, is not a standout defensive player but he can catch a little, play a little first base and play a little right field while adding pop to the lineup.

The Twins are not ruling out the possibility of opening the season with three catchers. Especially since Doumit very well could open the season as the regular designated hitter, creating a need for Butera to stay on the roster so the Twins aren't caught shorthanded in games.

"The least amount of games I catch, that's a good thing," Doumit said. "That means Joe is healthy and everybody is on page."

Or is there really a need for three? As manager Ron Gardenhire pointed out, he will need to have the right team on the field to be able to keep three catchers on the roster.

"At the end of spring, we'll see what the baseball team is going north," Gardenhire said. "We'll make those decisions at the end. If you've been around me, you know I've never had a problem with three catchers if I have a good enough baseball team to carry three catchers and have enough thump from the other positions that I don't worry if we have three catchers.

"Normally, that's when you have a team that you don't do a lot of pinch hitting, maybe have a pinch runner or a spot player every once in a while."

The Twins might decide that keeping three catchers just isn't worth it. While getting caught shorthanded and possibly having to give up the DH in a tight game could become a catching catastrophe, the situation doesn't come up very often.

According to the Elias Sports Bureau, the Twins have had to give up their DH in a game eight times under Gardenhire -- once in 2005, 2007 and 2008, three times in 2009 and once each in 2010 and 2011. In five of those games, Mauer had to move from DH to catcher.

In July 2007 in Chicago, Twins catcher Mike Redmond was injured in the first inning when Jim Thome's backswing caught Redmond in the back of the head. That forced Mauer, who had been the DH, to catch both ends of a doubleheader and forced starting pitcher Matt Garza to hit for himself.

Elias also points out that the Twins have used three catchers in a game only three times since 1990. One of those times, April 21, 2005, was under Gardenhire.

"When you have a catcher DH, it's nerve-wracking," Gardenhire admitted. "What I like to have is a guy on the field who can catch in an emergency."

Butera, 29, knows he is not guaranteed a roster spot. He made a couple of adjustments late in the season with hitting coach Joe Vavra that he took into the offseason and hopes will send him down the path to being more functional at the plate.

The Twins did sign J.R. Towles as a free agent. Towles, 28, hit .184 with 54 games with Houston last season and has a .187 average over five seasons of spot play for the Astros. But unlike Butera, Towles hit well in the minors, with a .294 career average and .394 on-base percentage. He needs to show some of that in the majors.

Towles could push Butera for a spot -- if there's a spot to push for.

"I don't think anything is given to you," Butera said. "Actually, that's an attitude I want to have for the rest of my career. I never want to get complacent or settle."

Eventually, the Twins are going have a catching confab in which they craft the course they wish to take.

"We're not locked in to three catchers," General Manager Terry Ryan said. "Somebody has to step up and take a job here. If we carry three, Doumit's got enough ability to play the outfield, he's got the power we're looking for, and he can switch hit, so he can DH. He can back up Joe behind the plate. That's one of the reasons we went and got him; he's got versatility, he can switch hit, he's got power. And he's in the prime of his career.

"If [Gardy is] going to play Doumit in right field, we're probably going to have to carry three. But that next guy has got to earn his spot."

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