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Braves catcher Laird ready for whatever role required

 

   He’s a 10-year veteran catcher who played in the past two World Series, hit .282 last season with Detroit, and threw out 42 percent of would-be base stealers three years ago to lead the American League.

   So we know Gerald Laird can still play.

   But he hit .232 or lower with an on-base percentage of .306 or lower for three consecutive seasons through 2011.

   So we know why he’s a backup.

   And when Detroit catcher Alex Avila was hurt in June, Laird filled in ably, starting 10 of 11 games and hitting .306 with a .375 OBP.

   So we know the 33-year-old was particularly well-suited for the Braves, who could be without starting catcher Brian McCann for at least the first couple of weeks of the 2013 season. McCann is in the middle of an estimated six-month rehab from October shoulder surgery.

  “That’s why teams looked to sign me early, because I feel like I can bring a lot when their starter goes down,” said Laird, who signed a two-year, $3 million free-agent contract Nov. 15, just five days after the Braves lost free agent David Ross to Boston.

  “I feel like I can fill in for a couple of weeks, a month, whatever it takes. I knew the situation,” said Laird, 33. “Like I told [Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez], whatever you want me to do – I can play every day, I can play once a week, twice a week, whatever you want me to do. Obviously when [McCann] comes back, we’re going to be even stronger.”

  Last year the right-handed-hitter had his best offensive season in four years, hitting two home runs and posting a .337 OBP and .710 on-base-plus-slugging percentage in 191 plate appearances. The Tigers won seven of the 10 games Laird started in the June period when he filled in for Avila, and Laird hit .364 while starting six out of 12 games in a September stretch of the pennant race.

   His only disappointment was seeing his percentage of runners caught stealing drop to a career-low 19 percent (10-of-52) last season, three years after he led the American League by throwing out 30 of 88 (42 percent) who tried to steal. He threw out 20 percent in 2011, but only had 16 chances that year.

   “I was always in the mid-to-high 30s and a couple of years I was in the 40s,” he said. “And then the last couple of years, not playing every day, I was in the 20s. Which I was really disappointed in myself. I just feel like it’s about getting used to not playing every day, losing the timing of being out there every day, because it’s different when you’re playing once or twice a week. Backing Yadier [Molina in 2011 with St. Louis], that’s only once a week because he’s obviously the best in the game. So it was definitely a transition for me.”

    Ross got a two-year, $6.2 million contract from the Red Sox that far exceeded what the Braves were willing to pay the popular veteran, who’ll be 36 in March. Laird got a contract that surpassed what the Tigers were interested in paying him, after he made $1 million each of the past two seasons in one-year contracts with St. Louis and Detroit.

  Based on the number of starts he makes with the Braves, Laird could earn up to a $250,000 in bonuses in 2013 and up to $500,000 in 2014.

   He's a .244 career hitter with a .303 OBP, 37 homers and 215 RBIs in 698 games, including a career-best .296 average and .805 OPS in 78 games with the Rangers in 2006. He hit .225 with four homers in a career-high 477 plate appearances with the Tigers in 2009, and Laird’s playing time was reduced to 299 plate appearances in 2010 and that same total (299) over the past two seasons combined.

  Even though he spent nine of his 10 major-league seasons in the AL with Texas and Detroit, he said interleague play enabled him to see plenty of NL hitters and that Atlanta was a good place for him to relocate.

  “I told my parents when I signed here, this was my favorite team growing up as a kid,” said Laird, born and raised south of Los Angeles in Orange County. “I grew up in Southern California, but every day, 4:05 p.m. Pacific Time, I remember going home to watch the Brave game. Mom would say you can watch the Brave game if you do your homework.

  “I remember coming here [with the Cardinals] a couple of years ago and they were having the Braves old-timers game, and I remember seeing, like, Sid Bream and all the old guys I watched as a kid, [Mark] Lemke and [Jeff] Blauser and those guys. I was always a huge Braves fan. Huge. Now I get to play here. I’m looking forward to it.”

  Laird and his wife and two children, ages 6 and 2, live in Scottsdale, Ariz., and he flew to Atlanta last week to work with Braves pitchers in the team’s early pitching camp, and join the team’s Country Caravan for one stop. He turned down an invitation to play in the World Baseball Classic in March for Mexico (his mother is of Mexican descent) because he said it was important to work with Braves pitchers all through spring training and not miss any time during camp.

  “I’m looking forward to it, coming back to the National League and a new start over here, and we’ve got a good ballclub,” said Laird, who was excited about the team when he signed, but more so after they signed B.J. Upton in November and traded for his brother Justin last week. “I’m going to go home and basically hang out with the kids for a week and pack my car, then I’m headed out to Florida [Feb. 6], get there early and get familiar with everything, catch some guys and get ready to play.

  “Hopefully I can help the young guys as much as I can. I know they’ve got good arms here; I’ve faced them. I’m just glad I get to catch this bullpen instead of facing them.”

   McCann thought that adding an experienced, defensive-minded veteran to replace Ross was important.

  “The catching position entails so much, and I think having a veteran guy that’s going to back you up is huge,” McCann said. “When you play once a week, to know the pitching staff and know the league -- I think it’s huge to have someone in that role who’s been there and done that. Gerald Laird has been in the league 10-plus years.”

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