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Boston, Toronto sitting pretty in lean catching market

Pirates general manager Neal Huntington likens them to NFL running backs.

"Having one you can rely on is good. But having two is even better," Huntington said of catchers.

If you have three? That makes you extremely popular. So Alex Anthopoulos and Ben Cherington will have no problem filling their dance cards at next week's Winter Meetings.

The GMs of the Blue Jays and the Red Sox, respectively, each have the luxury of three Major League veteran catchers on their rosters. With at least 10 clubs in dire need of help behind the plate and a thin free-agent market at the position, Anthopoulos and Cherington hold gavels for bidding wars.

Toronto's haul in its 12-player trade with the Marlins included John Buck, who joined incumbent J.P. Arencibia and former Angels receiver Bobby Wilson (a waiver-wire pickup) -- with hot prospect Travis d'Arnaud in the wings. Boston signed David Ross, with the clear idea of shopping either Ryan Lavarnway or Jarrod Saltalamacchia, who between them started 120 games last season.

On the other side of the see-saw: About a half-dozen teams are in need of a starter, with another half-dozen searching for a backup, an absolute necessity at that physical position. Don't just go by Huntington's caveat; only 11 of the 30 teams had a catcher start at least 100 games last season, meaning it was mostly a shared burden.

No wonder one-third of the first nine free agents to change teams were catchers: Ross was snapped up by Boston, Dioner Navarro went to the Cubs, and Gerald Laird was snagged by the Braves -- to replace Ross.

Huntington's own club is one of the buyers. He just doesn't know into which group the Pirates fall. They have a terrific option in Michael McKenry, but also a premonition he would be more productive if he remained a backup.

Pittsburgh manager Clint Hurdle said McKenry "lit a candle for everybody" with his 12 homers and 39 RBIs in only 240 at-bats. And concerns that the popular 27-year-old would wear down under a bigger load may be misguided: Only once did McKenry have a chance for extended playing time, June 24 -July 7 while Rod Barajas nursed a bruised left knee, and in those 11 games he hit .405 with four homers and 12 RBIs.

The 37-year-old Barajas' 98 starts, incidentally, were the 12th most among all Major League catchers. He is a free agent, along with four others who did most of their 2012 teams' catching: Russell Martin (Yankees), Mike Napoli (Rangers), A.J. Pierzynski (White Sox) and Miguel Olivo (Mariners).

In a gray area are the Padres -- who will be without Yasmani Grandal, suspended for a violation of the MLB Drug Policy, for the first 50 games. That could make them an ideal landing spot for San Diego resident Barajas.

All 13 free-agent catchers will be in their 30s in 2013, with Martin (30) and Napoli (31) barely. That helps explain why they have gotten most of the attention on the market -- although, interestingly, Napoli is attracting at least as much interest for his experience at first base. The other 11 free-agent catchers are all older, making them short-term options.

Exactly what clubs such as the Mets, the Astros and the White Sox, committed to Tyler Flowers as their starter, are looking for. So the market figures to be more accommodating for them.

Tyler Flowers, Yasmani Grandal, Russell Martin, Michael McKenry, Mike Napoli, Miguel Olivo, A.J. Pierzynski