Catching Dickey: Proven Thole or Kratz?

* The Blue Jays are auditioning Erik Kratz to catch knuckleballer R.A. Dickey this spring. Bob Elliott wonders why Josh Thole, who caught Dickey during his Cy Young 2012 season with the Mets, is watching from the bench. .... 2014 Canadians in College Letters of Intent 2014 Canadian draft list 2013 Canadians in the Minors  2015 Canadian draft list

By Bob Elliott

CLEARWATER -- It’s not moving George Bell to DH in favour of Syl Campusano in the outfield, but it’s up there among all-time lineup re-alignments.

OK, so you are the Blue Jays.

You have an ace.

He throws a knuckleball.

You want your catcher to be able to catch all his pitches as they dart, dash, flutter and burp on the way to the plate.

You have three of your first 10 games indoors and you want R.A. Dickey to win those starts.

So, you are auditioning Erik Kratz to catch Dickey as Josh Thole, who caught Dickey his Cy Young award-winning year with the New York Mets in 2012, watches.

Kratz caught Dickey’s first outing, his bullpens and was squatting again Tuesday night at Bright House Field.

Dickey issued a bases-loaded walk in the first to Bobby Abreu, Kratz had a passed ball in the second, and Marlon Byrd hit a two-run homer in the third.

Dickey pitched four innings, allowing four hits and three runs pitching to Kratz as the Kratz tryout continued.

“I don’t think he’s where he wants to be yet, but hey, it’s spring training,” said Dickey after his outing. “Throwing to him is a different look, but I don’t see any glaring weaknesses. There is nothing to say that he can’t do the job back there.”

Said one scout: “he’s a big target, he works hard and can throw. The only thing I don’t like is that he throws from his knees too often. He’s not Benny Santiago.

Kratz was drafted in the 29th round of the 2002 draft by the Jays from the Eastern Mennonite University Royals and reached triple-A Syracuse in 2007.

The feeling is if Kratz hits (now 1-for-9) and shows he can handle Dickey, then he’ll be Dickey’s catcher.

“I’ve seen Dickey’s first two starts and Kratz is not ready for Dickey, will he ever be? I don’t know,” said a veteran National League evaluator. “With a good knuckleballer, a catcher’s offense is the last thing you worry about. You watch your catcher to catch the ball ... not spend the night running back to the screen.”

A year ago, former Mets catcher Henry Blanco was supposed to be Dickey’s personal catcher. J.P. Arencibia lobbied to be in the lineup opening night against the Cleveland Indians. Arencibia had a passed ball in the first and two more in the third. The Indians scored twice that inning instead of once.

Arencibia started 115 games last year and Blanco 13 before Thole arrived June 8 as the backup (and Dickey’s catcher to start the other games).

This year the Jays signed catcher Dioner Navarro, who has not started over 100 games since 2009, and traded for Kratz who started 54 games with the Philadelphia Phillies last year. Mike Nickeas, Dickey’s other catcher in 2012, is also in camp.

“We’d like to see Navarro start 100 games even if he hasn’t done it in a while, the backup catcher has to catch Dickey,” said Gibbons before Dickey’s second spring start. “There will come a time when I’ll ask Dickey what he thinks. Not yet ... this is only the second time together in a game, plus bullpens.”

This is Thole’s sixth major-league camp. He went to Port St. Lucie as a Mets prospect in 2009. In 2010, he had a chance, losing out to Rod Barajas and Blanco. He was the everyday catcher with the 2011-12 Mets. Last year he came to Dunedin fighting for a job.

“Same thing this year,” said Thole in the first base dugout. “I know I have to hit to make this team.”

Thole, who hit .175 with one homer and eight RBIs, has two hits in four at-bats in the early going.

“I’ve only been here one year, I hit .175, so rightly the perception is I’m a .175 hitter, I have to change that,” said Thole.

It should be pointed out if we are going to throw around Bell comparisons, the threat of losing his job as Dickey’s catcher does not have Thole standing in the corner stomping his feet and holding his breath -- as Bell did on the left field tarp back in 1988, leading to one of the great announcements of all time with manager Jimy Williams stomping down the left field line.

“Now batting for the Blue Jays, No. 11 George Bell ... now pinch hitting for Bell, No. 26 Willie Upshaw.”

That one sentence was a mouthful.

Bell was fined “five big ones” ($500, the maximum under the Basic Agreement at the time), and the Williams-Bell relationship ceased to exist.

And so did Campusano in centre, with Lloyd Moseby in left and Bell DHing -- after six Campusano starts.

Thole knows he can’t have another spring like last year.

“I had a bad spring, they were justified to send me to triple-A Buffalo,” he said, adding though that this spring is different thanks to catching co-ordinator Sal Fasano. “Sal has taken my defence to a new level, so I’m not searching, not spending time on things. He has me locked in ... and that allows me to work on my hitting.

“I don’t want to be know as JUST a knuckleball catcher, I want to get back to being an everyday catcher. Mind you, being able to catch a knuckleball is a good thing to have in my pocket.”

Thole’s first game catching Dickey was July 3, 2010, against the Washington Nationals. He has had plenty since then and realizes there’s more to the relationship than receiving the ball.

“You have to know when to make a mound visit with R.A. and when to talk to him. R.A., on the bench, he’s his own person,” said Thole. “That’s the intangible, I’m not saying a guy can’t learn it in a year, but it’s tough.”

Especially tough when Kratz will have maybe four more starts with Dickey -- unless the Jays, like the 1988 Jays with Bell, start singing ...

You know the way Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong used to warble “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off.”

Or maybe the Jays could move either Kratz or Thole to the Arizona Diamondbacks, as general manager Kevin Towers has said he is looking for catching help and has a surplus in the infield with either Didi Gregorius or Chris Owings to move.

Thole says Gibbons explained what would transpire when camp began.

And Thole understands how the Jays are looking for more offense.

I don’t.

When your ace is starting, a team should come to the park expecting to win.

Not wondering whether the ball will travel to the screen twice a game.

- Follow Bob Elliott on Twitter @elliottbaseball