Since signing a three-year, $18 million deal in November, John Buck has spent a lot of time collecting sky miles with the Marlins. The 30-year old veteran catcher went on the recent team-sponsored tour of overseas military bases and visited places like Germany and Bahrain.
Friday when camp opens, Buck will get to start doing the things the Marlins imagined when they signed him in November -- working behind the plate with their pitching staff. The 6-3, 230-pound former seventh round pick from Kemmerer, Wyoming (the only active MLB player from Wyoming) can't wait to get started. Coming off his first and only All-Star season in Toronto in which he hit a career high .281 with 20 homers and 66 RBI, Buck said a big reason he signed with the Marlins is because of the potential he sees for winning championships.
"Before I even knew I was going to be a Marlin or had the opportunity, this was always a team that when the Marlins came up in conversation you would talk about the three guys they had up front -- Josh [Johnson], Ricky [Nolasco] and Anibal [Sanchez] -- and how good they are," Buck said Monday during the Marlins media luncheon. "Now, you get here, see the depth, the young guys like [Chris] Volstad and you see how good they are and say 'Man how good could those guys be?' It's something that could be very special. And that's the exact reason I signed here, to be a part of something very special.
"Everything is brand new. Nobody knows how good this team can be, what the young nucleus can do now that they have experience. You start to grow, start to gain experience and you start to get better. This organization has had success with teams like that before. The ceiling is very high for my expectations."
Buck is the first All-Star catcher the Marlins have signed through free agency since they inked Pudge Rodriguez in his prime to a one-year, $10 million deal in 2003. Rodriguez was 31 that season and helped lead the Marlins to the World Series crown.
Of course, Pudge came to the Marlins with a few more All-Star appearances than Buck, who is a career .243 hitter that had never driven in more than 50 or hit higher than .247 until last season. But offense isn't what Buck is concerning himself with. It's learning the tendency of NL hitters. Before playing in Toronto last season, Buck spent six seasons with the Royals. Prior to that, he was acquired from Houston in a three-team trade for Carlos Beltran.
"I've faced all the teams in a course of seven, eight years, played against a lot of people," Buck said. "Obviously I don't know the hitters as well as I knew them in the American League. But I don't have any doubt I'll know them once I get through the full first swing in the league, especially our division after watching film all winter long. My past experience with hitters helps me shorten the gap without being familiar with certain guys. It's not something I'm too worried about."
Defensively, Buck only made five errors in 778 chances last season and had a .994 fielding percentage in 993 innings behind the plate (10th most in baseball). Only Joe Mauer had fewer errors in more innings. Although Buck rarely makes mistakes behind the plate, he isn't among the league's elite at throwing out would-be base steals. He threw out 18 of 47 would be base-stealers last season -- a 28 percent clip. That ranks 15th among the 25 catchers who were behind the plate at least 700 innings last season, a shade lower than Ronny Paulino, who threw out 31 percent of would base-stealers last season for the Marlins.
Of course, Buck might not be here if Paulino wouldn't have been suspended for 50 games by Major League Baseball after testing positive for a banned performance-enhancing drug last September. John Baker, who once shared the job with Paulino, is still recovering from Tommy John surgery on his right elbow and will try to make the team as a left-handed bat off the bench. Baker hit as a DH during spring training and will remain on a throwing program. The Marlins are hoping he can return to catching by May.
As for Buck, manager Edwin Rodriguez said he's already looking toward him for leadership on a relatively young team -- especially with Cody Ross and Dan Uggla gone.
"It seems like that stuff always falls on catchers anyway with the stuff we do during the game," Buck said. "I don't think it's something I've ever consciously thought about. Just being myself and giving whatever I have to the team, hopefully that will be enough for me to be a leader. Whether I was here or not, people should know there is some leadership on this team already."
Buck said one of those leaders is shortstop Hanley Ramirez, the only Marlins player Buck has actually played with before.
"I played with Hanley when we were young, 19, 20, 21 dow in the Dominican for winter ball," Buck said. "We were teammates for [Tigres de] Licey [in Santo Domingo]. He wasn't playing everyday. But you could see how good he was going to be then. You could see someone special in the making was being created that's for sure. I'm excited we're going to be on the same team again."