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Martin, Napoli, Pierzynski lead free-agent catchers

When Russell Martin began his Major League career with the Dodgers in 2006, Mike Napoli was also being introduced to the Los Angeles area with the Angels.

Much has changed for Martin and Napoli over the course of the seven seasons that have followed. But they once again share a link as they enter this year's free-agent market as the top two available catchers.

With the Phillies picking up Carlos Ruiz's option for the 2013 season and the Braves doing the same with Brian McCann, this year's free-agent market is relatively thin for catchers. The two most attractive options beyond Martin and Napoli appear to be A.J. Pierzynski and David Ross, who will both be 36 years old by the start of next season.

It will certainly be interesting to see how the next few weeks and months play out for the those four catchers and the likes of Gerald Laird, who stands as one of the many attractive veteran free agents who could prove valuable to clubs looking for a backup catcher.

Two years after being non-tendered by the Dodgers, Martin might currently be in the right place at the right time. The three-time All-Star has not been overwhelmingly impressive while combining to hit .224 with 39 home runs and a .723 OPS during the past two seasons with the Yankees. But with Father Time working against Pierzynski and the 32-year-old Napoli possibly looking at even more time as a first baseman and designated hitter, Martin appears to be the most likely to spend the next few years as some club's primary catcher.

Martin's hopes of staying with the Yankees might be strengthened by the fact that manager Joe Girardi -- a former big league catcher -- has been pleased with what Martin has provided from a defensive perspective.

Having hit at least 20 homers in each of the past five seasons and at least 24 homers in each of the past three seasons, Napoli is undoubtedly the most attractive offensive catcher available through free agency. But his options will likely be limited to American League clubs that have another catcher to work behind the plate most of the time. He has not started more than 69 games at catcher in either of his past two seasons with the Rangers.

It would have been interesting to see what Napoli would have garnered if he had been a free agent after hitting .320 with 30 homers and a 1.046 OPS in 2011. He hit .227 with 24 homers and a .812 OPS in 2012.

But with his power potential and ability to still spend some time behind the plate, Napoli certainly will garner attention from the Rangers and some other AL clubs. His future in Texas could be influenced by the presence of Geovany Soto, who was acquired from the Cubs before this year's Trade Deadline.

It will be interesting to see which direction is taken by the White Sox, who have employed Pierzynzki as their starting catcher for the past eight seasons.

Even though Pierzynski set career highs in home runs (27) and OPS (.827) this year, there has been some speculation that the White Sox are ready to give Tyler Flowers, who will be 27, a chance to be their primary catcher.

Recognized as a staunch competitor and valuable leader, Pierzynski started 121 games behind the plate this past season. So it appears he could certainly provide value to some catcher-hungry team looking for a veteran presence for a couple of years.

Some of the clubs that could pursue Pierzynski include the Mets, Pirates, Indians and possibly even the crosstown Cubs, who might benefit from the veteran's ability to serve as a mentor to Welington Castillo, a rookie this past season.

It will also be interesting to see if Ross returns to Atlanta to spend a fifth season as McCann's backup. Ross has become widely recognized as the game's premier backup catcher and a number of clubs are well aware of the value of his leadership skills.

The odds of Ross returning to Atlanta improved when the Braves exercised the options for two of his close friends -- McCann and pitcher Tim Hudson. But Ross seems justified in his belief that he has earned a two-year contract.

Laird served as a valuable backup for the Tigers down the stretch when Alex Avila was injured. His presence in the postseason could help him as he attempts to either stick with Detroit or hook on as a backup with another club.

Brian Schneider, Rod Barajas, Jose Molina, Miguel Olivo, Kelly Shoppach, Ronny Paulino and Matt Treanor are among the other free agents who should draw attention from clubs seeking to add a veteran backup catcher.

Gerald Laird, Russell Martin, Mike Napoli, A.J. Pierzynski, David Ross