Age Not A Worry

Age Not A Worry

Benito Santiago might be a 39-year-old catcher, but that doesn't bother the Pirates. <br><br> "The age obviously scares you to an extent," general manager Dave Littlefield said.

"But he keeps himself in great physical shape, and he is still a fairly productive player. For our needs, he is a good fit."

The Pirates want Santiago, acquired from the Kansas City Royals in a Dec. 16 trade, to ease Humberto Cota's transition into a starting role for 2006 by splitting playing time with him in 2005.

Jason Kendall spent the last nine seasons as the Pirates' catcher before being traded to Oakland on Nov. 27 for left-handers Mark Redman and Arthur Rhodes. Cota was Kendall's primary backup last season, but the Pirates aren't ready to commit to him as a full-time starter yet.

"We're buying more time for Cota to gain some more experience and continue to develop as a major league catcher," Littlefield said.

That, in the Pirates' eyes, is also part of Santiago's allure. Cota, 25, has played in only 60 major league games, and the Pirates' pitching staff also will be young.

"Benito has an energetic personality, and it's contagious," Littlefield said.

Santiago is more than willing to offer his veteran perspective to help a club caught in a perpetual rebuilding mode during 12 straight losing seasons. After all, he wants to become a manager when his playing days finally end.

"I hear they have a lot of good young pitchers there, and I hear good things about the young catcher, too," Santiago said. "I like working with young players, particularly pitchers. I take a lot of pride in watching the young guys develop.

"If you look at my track record, a lot of pitchers have improved working with me. I'm able to get the best out of them. That's part of the package a team gets when they have Benito Santiago."

Santiago threw out only 16 percent of runners attempting to steal last season but batted .274 with six homers and 23 RBIs in 49 games before suffering a season-ending broken left hand June 18 when hit by a pitch from Philadelphia's Geoff Geary.

In 2002, Santiago served as the No. 5 hitter in San Francisco's batting order behind Barry Bonds as the Giants extended Anaheim to seven games in the World Series before losing.

Santiago has a .263 lifetime batting average with 217 homers and 920 RBIs in 19 seasons and 1,972 games with San Diego (1986-92), Florida (1993-94), Cincinnati (1995, 2000), Philadelphia (1996), Toronto (1997-98), the Chicago Cubs (1999), San Francisco (2001-03) and Kansas City (2004).

Santiago was the National League Rookie of the Year in 1987, then won three straight Gold Gloves from 1988-90. He has also appeared in five All-Star Games, the last in 2002.

Santiago ranks seventh in major league history with 1,911 games caught. Three of the six ahead of him on the list are Hall of Famers: Carlton Fisk, Gary Carter and Al Lopez.

"I still have a lot left," Santiago said. "I was on my way to having a good year (in 2004) when I got hurt. I was swinging the bat well."

Six days after Santiago was injured, Kansas City acquired rookie catcher John Buck in a trade from Houston for Carlos Beltran. Buck put a hammerlock on the starting job, leaving Santiago expendable in a trade.

Santiago, though, does not think that losing his spot in the Royals' lineup is a sign that he is beginning to decline. He will turn 40 on March 9, a little less than a month before Opening Day.

"My injury had nothing to do with old age. It was an injury that could have happened to anybody," Santiago said. "I feel great. I'm ready to go to spring training right now.

"I underwent a complete physical before this trade went through, and everything checked out fine. My knees are fine. My elbows are fine. Everything is in working order."

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