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Importance of impact backstops begins to catch on

They spend most of their time on the field wearing a mask, their identities further hidden by the rest of the so-called tools of ignorance. They touch the ball more often than any other player and impact the game from both sides, yet so often they go unnoticed.

Over the years, catchers have tended to be a bit overlooked, it seems, lost behind the mask at times.

But catchers are becoming impossible not to notice these days. A generation of young and talented receivers is putting the spotlight on those guys behind all that protective gear, stationed behind the plate.

Buster Posey, a Most Valuable Player in his third season -- and really only his second full one. Yadier Molina, challenging Posey and others for that award while drawing accolades as the game's best defensive player, period.

The talents of Matt Wieters and Miguel Montero have been exposed to a wider audience with recent postseason runs. Joe Mauer is returning to form after some injury issues, and veteran A.J. Pierzynski is a wanted free agent at 36. Salvador Perez is part of the youthful core that has the Royals looking to contend in 2013.

The list goes on, and heading into the 2013 season, catcher will continue to be a position of strength in the Majors.

To understand how valuable a catcher can be to a team, one need look no further than Posey and Molina, who set the tone for their teams throughout the 2012 season, both stepping up as consistent and productive catalysts for postseason teams.

Posey, who unlike Molina but much like Mauer spent considerable time at first base, doubled up his NL MVP with Comeback Player of the Year honors, recuperating from a devastating leg injury in May 2011 to return to the career track that started so promisingly with the Rookie of the Year award in 2010. Through his first three years, he has matched Hall of Famer Johnny Bench in at least one sense -- winning rookie honors and following up with MVP honors in his third season.

Giants manager Bruce Bochy, a former catcher himself, continues to be amazed at the talent, poise and execution his 25-year-old catcher brings to the table.

"I mean, this guy is an incredible talent. His makeup is off the chart," Bochy said during the Giants' run to the World Series title.

Posey won his first batting title while at times carrying the club at the plate, but it's the other side of the ball that sets him apart -- and helped put catcher in the limelight this year.

"I think as important as [what Posey contributed] at bat is what he did behind the plate in postseason and helped getting this pitching on track," Bochy said. "He's the one putting the fingers down and calling those games back there, and this pitching did an unbelievable job against such a tough lineup. He's special, and for him to come back off that injury shows you how tough he is, but what a special talent this guy is."

Posey doesn't hold a monopoly on that two-way talent, and Molina and the Cardinals would say their guy wearing No. 4 at position No. 2 is clearly among the elite.

"The things that he does that are intangible that you can only see by watching every day, and watching from a very critical eye," said Cardinals manager Mike Matheny, also a former catcher. "But he has everything that you would ask for from a catcher defensively. And then there are some things offensively people didn't think he would be able to do, and that was just enough motivation for him to figure out how to do it. And that's the makeup of a Yadier Molina."

Those two definitely rose to the top of the class this year, but there are established catchers like the Phillies' Carlos Ruiz (who will miss the first 25 games of 2013 on a drug suspension after a strong all-around 2012 season) and Russell Martin, who parlayed his success with the Yankees into a lucrative deal with the Pirates. There's also the Reds' Ryan Hanigan and the Brewers' Jonathan Lucroy emerging as veteran receivers in the NL Central, as well as the Angels' Chris Iannetta and the Braves' Brian McCann, a six-time All-Star who struggled through some injury problems but figures to be back on course next year following shoulder surgery.

There are also younger players entrenching themselves, such as Toronto's J.P. Arencibia and the Dodgers' A.J. Ellis, both of whom figure to have a better pitching staff this season after offseason moves, as well as fellow twentysomethings in Detroit's Alex Avila and Boston's Jarrod Saltalamacchia. Speaking of young, the Rockies' Wilton Rosario led all rookies not named Mike Trout with 28 homers on the 2012 season.

And then there's a potential star-in-the-making like Perez, who like Cleveland's Carlos Santana did before him, will have to recover from an injury to return to the form that has their clubs thinking they've got something special behind the plate for a long time to come.

"I have a hard time not playing him," Royals manager Ned Yost said of Perez, who missed the first 67 games of the season before truly getting what would be his first full season in the Majors started. "I love to write his name in the lineup because he's that special. I mean, I've never had a catcher with the talent and the ability that this young man has, nor the makeup or the leadership on the field that this young man has. I think ideally if we can get him into 140 games, but I think reality is going to be probably more like 150 if he stays healthy."

Indeed, there's nothing better than putting a catcher in the lineup you know will help your club from both behind the plate and beside it, and a lot of managers know the feeling.

J.P. Arencibia, Alex Avila, Joe Mauer, Yadier Molina, Miguel Montero, Salvador Perez, A.J. Pierzynski, Buster Posey, Wilton Rosario, Jarrod Saltalamacchia, Carlos Santana, Matt Wieters