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Maldonado earns spot as Angels' top catcher

Casali, Perez, Graterol in backstop mix heading to Spring Training
MLB.com @mi_guardado

With the start of Spring Training drawing closer, anticipation is building for the 2018 season. Pitchers and catchers are scheduled to report to Tempe, Ariz., by Feb.13, so it's time to break down the Angels' roster.

This is the first installment of a multi-part Around the Horn series taking a position-by-position look at the projected starters and backups heading into the season, beginning with the Angels' catching situation.

With the start of Spring Training drawing closer, anticipation is building for the 2018 season. Pitchers and catchers are scheduled to report to Tempe, Ariz., by Feb.13, so it's time to break down the Angels' roster.

This is the first installment of a multi-part Around the Horn series taking a position-by-position look at the projected starters and backups heading into the season, beginning with the Angels' catching situation.

ANAHEIM -- Martin Maldonado spent his first six seasons in the Majors primarily as a backup with the Brewers before the Angels acquired him last offseason and gave him his first opportunity to be a starting catcher.

Maldonado rewarded the Angels' faith, emerging as one of the premier defensive backstops in the American League, while unseating Royals All-Star Salvador Perez to capture his first AL Gold Glove Award in 2017.

Unlike last year, when Maldonado had to compete with Carlos Perez for the starting job behind the plate, Maldonado will enter Spring Training as the Angels' clear No. 1 catcher, a position he's earned on the strength of his overall defensive acumen, including his cannon-like throwing arm, pitch-framing skills and game planning with the pitching staff.

Video: Angels emphasis on defense results in two Gold Gloves

While Maldonado posted a respectable .725 OPS with the Angels in the first half of last season, his offensive production steadily waned in the following months, with a .539 OPS in the second half. Manager Mike Scioscia has cited fatigue as a likely factor in Maldonado's decline at the plate, as the 31-year-old caught a career-high 137 games in 2017, the most in the Majors.

Still, Scioscia believes Maldonado has the potential to be more consistent on the offensive end now that he's had a full season to adjust to the workload of a starting catcher.

"I think you can train to be an astronaut all you want, until you get to outer space, you don't know what it's like," Scioscia said last month during the Winter Meetings. "He's done it now. I think he understands what he needs to do and what he needs to do to be ready for his season. I think he trained well, and I think he held up well. He played a lot. There's no doubt. When you play that much, especially on the offensive side, you're going to feel it a little bit because your arm's going to get tired. We have all been there."

Juan Graterol served as Maldonado's backup for most of 2017, though he'll face some competition for that role this spring. The biggest threat could come from Curt Casali, who the Angels signed to a Minor League deal in November after he was dropped by the Rays. Casali, 29, played in 84 games for the Rays in 2016, though he spent the majority of last season in Triple-A Durham. He is a career .199 hitter with a .670 OPS in the Majors and is out of Minor League options.

Video: BAL@TB: Casali opens the scoring with a solo homer

Also in the mix for the backup job will be Perez, who was relegated to Triple-A Salt Lake for most of last season despite batting .352 with a .925 OPS in 68 Minor League games. Scioscia has said the 27-year-old must improve his defense in order to reclaim a spot with the Angels.

"He did catch well down the stretch in 2015, but he hasn't taken the next step to do the things you see Martin doing and some other catchers," Scioscia said in September. "He's growing in that area. We still obviously see the potential. Hopefully, he's going to reach that potential."

Maria Guardado covers the Angels for MLB.com.

Los Angeles Angels, Curt Casali, Martin Maldonado, Carlos Perez