Thursday, March 09, 2000

Santiago pushing LaRue for No. 2

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        SARASOTA, Fla. — After signing Benito Santiago to a non-guaranteed minor-league contract Feb.24, Reds General Manager Jim Bowden said that Jason LaRue's status as the team's No.2 catcher remained safe.

        But Santiago has changed the minds of the Reds' braintrust.

        Both Bowden and manager Jack McKeon said Wednesday that LaRue, Cincinnati's catcher of the future, and Santiago, a 13-year veteran, are in a race to secure a backup job behind Eddie Taubensee.

        “Competition's there. Go get it,” McKeon said. “It's great to have competition. It either brings the best out of you or the worst out of you.”

        Said Bowden, “Benito has been our best catcher so far this spring, defensively. He's competing. I'll tell you Opening Day who makes it. He came in shape, he's playing hard and he's playing well. Benito certainly is making a statement early.”

        The organization's lack of catching depth could work against LaRue. He has a minor-league option remaining; Santiago's contract enables him to shop himself around the majors if the Reds don't put him on the Opening Day roster. The only way the Reds can retain a potentially valuable third catcher is to keep Santiago and send LaRue to Triple-A Louisville.

        With three weeks left in the exhibition season, the Reds aren't about to commit themselves to either player.

        “I always have an open mind,” Bowden said.

        “We're not at the stage of making those decisions,” McKeon said.

        LaRue refuses to dwell on Santiago's presence or front-office decisions.

        “That doesn't bother me at all,” LaRue said. “Why they brought him is their own reason. I can't control that. Whatever they do is what they do. If I come out and perform to the best of my ability, I know I'll be in the big leagues for the rest of the years to come, however long that is.”

        Though LaRue turns 26 on March 19 and has less than three months of big-league experience, he exudes a mature perspective.

        “I feel totally settled in now,” he said. “I've completely relaxed. I know what it's like to be here so I'm not putting pressure on myself anymore.”

        LaRue was behind the plate for three of the Reds' four one-hitters and four of their 11 shutouts last year, while starting just 27 games. The Reds were 17-10 in his starts and had a 3.81 ERA overall when he caught — 0.17 lower than the team's figure.

        LaRue's .211 batting average with the Reds clashed with his .300 career average in the minors. But he improved significantly at the plate in his second tour of duty, hitting .289; he had hit .154 before being sent down to Triple-A.

        “Toward the end I really settled down a lot more,” LaRue said. “I guess I'm still trying to find myself being in the big leagues. When I came back, I saw what it took to stay there.”


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