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Navarro brings wealth of experience behind plate

Third-longest tenured catcher believes Blue Jays can turn fortunes around

Special to

DUNEDIN, Fla. -- Only two starting catchers in Major League Baseball have been in the big leagues longer than the Blue Jays' Dioner Navarro: A.J. Pierzynski and Yadier Molina.

Navarro has spent the majority of his career as a backup or platoon catcher, but over his 10 seasons in the Majors, he has caught more than 5,000 innings. The new Toronto backstop not only brings veteran experience to his new clubhouse, but also a very positive team-oriented outlook.

"I just try to be myself," Navarro said when asked about how he has come to embrace whatever role he is called upon to play.

"I try to bring whatever I feel is going to be best for the team. I just do whatever I have to do to help the team win, whether that's coming from the bench as I did last year in Chicago, or playing every day or helping my center fielder or shortstop. I just try to help the team win. That's the bottom line."

Navarro has experienced both winning and losing since breaking into the big leagues in 2004 with the Yankees. Since playing in five September games that season, Navarro has had stints with the Dodgers (twice), Rays, Reds and Cubs. He believes the 2014 edition of the Blue Jays has a great chance to do something special.

"I think we've got what it takes," Navarro said before the Blue Jays beat the Phillies, 11-6, at Florida Auto Exchange Stadium on Wednesday. "I think last year there were a lot of expectations, but we don't talk about it. We're getting ready for this year, we've got new faces, we've got new goals in our minds and we're just going to go out there and compete and play hard every day. And if we do that, we're going to be in pretty good shape."

Navarro could play an important role in what is already a powerful lineup that features a healthy Jose Reyes and Jose Bautista, as well as Edwin Encarnacion. Navarro is an offensive upgrade over J.P. Arencibia, who hit 21 homers in 2013 but finished the season with a .194 batting average. Last year, Navarro enjoyed his best season since an All-Star campaign in 2008, hitting .300 with 13 home runs and 34 RBIs in 240 at-bats for the Cubs. The switch-hitter also posted a .365 on-base percentage.

Another asset Navarro brings to the Blue Jays is his significant postseason experience, having played in the National League Division Series with the Reds in 2012, and before that reaching the World Series with the Rays in 2008. In 62 postseason at-bats, Navarro has posted a .290 batting average, hitting at a .353 clip (6-for-17) in the World Series against the Phillies six seasons ago.

Erik Kratz, Navarro's backup who is expected to be R.A. Dickey's catcher to start the season, said that what impresses him most about Navarro is his experience and ability to perform under pressure because of the consistent approach he takes to the game.

"He's experienced a lot with different organizations, different roles, different times in the postseason, World Series, all that stuff," Kratz said. "He never changes. He's the same guy the first day of the season or Game 5 of the World Series, or whatever it is. And that's why he comes up with clutch hits. You're not writing as much about it when it happens in Game 83 rather than in Game 170. It's just him being consistent."

Navarro said the key to performing well in the playoffs is trusting yourself, something that many of his new teammates who haven't tasted the postseason yet can learn from him.

"Just trusting ourselves," he said. "A lot of people picked us to win it all this year, and they did that for a reason. I think the biggest thing, in my personal experience, is I trust myself. I just trust in my abilities and I trust what I'm capable of doing. We've got a great lineup, man. We've got a great lineup and we've just got to trust ourselves, go out there, compete, have fun, and everything is going to be just fine."

At this time last year, Toronto was gearing up for a big season, having acquired Reyes, Dickey and Mark Buehrle, among others, to make a run at the American League East crown. But injuries derailed what appeared to be a promising immediate future, and success was again put on hold for a team that hasn't reached the postseason since winning a second consecutive World Series championship in 1993.

"Last year, with the injuries that this team went through, it was tough," Navarro said. "Today, everybody's really healthy, and everybody's really excited and motivated and looking forward to the season."

In addition to looking forward to Opening Day, Navarro is also looking forward to trying something new next week. That's when he'll set up behind the plate to try his hand at catching Dickey's knuckleball. And while Kratz has been projected to be Dickey's catcher this season, judging by Navarro's history at backstop, he could very well get up to speed pretty quickly.

"First thing's first, I just got my glove [for catching the knuckler] a few days ago," Navarro said. "I'm trying to break it in right now. Because we kind of knew I was going to be catching more of the other guys, I wanted to get to know the other guys first. I think I'm in a pretty comfortable position right now, so I'm going to start working with R.A., because you never know.

"It's going to be a challenge and I've never done it, but I'm looking forward to it. He's one of the best in the business. If you want to do something, you've got to learn with the best."

Whether Navarro will actually catch Dickey this season remains unclear, but he will give it a shot.

"We'll see," Navarro said. "First we're just going to try to see how it goes, get a feel for it."

For many players joining the Blue Jays, another area of the game that requires "getting a feel for it" is playing on an artificial surface at Rogers Centre. But as with so many other facets of the game, Navarro comes in with a wealth of experience.

"In Tampa, five years," Navarro said of his familiarity with the only remaining ballpark other than Rogers Centre with an artificial surface. "I'll be fine."

But though the ball might move faster on turf than on natural grass, don't expect the same to apply to the veteran catcher's legs.

"It won't affect my speed," Navarro said with a smile.

Manny Randhawa is an associate reporter for

Toronto Blue Jays, Dioner Navarro