When the Boston Red Sox came a-knockin’ in an attempt to acquire Coco Crisp, Cleveland immediately asked for top prospect Andy Marte, who had been acquired earlier in the offseason from the Braves. The Red Sox quickly agreed, but the Indians began working the Sox for another important player. Guillermo Mota was thrown in to help bolster the Indians pen, but the player the Tribe wanted was another top prospect in the Sox organization that was buried behind Jason Varitek. Boston was hesitant to give up their top catching prospect, and they turned out to be dead right. The All-Aught Indians back-up catcher was that player, Kelly Shoppach.
It’s really hard to look at Shoppach as a back-up since he was essentially the starting catcher for the Indians over the past two seasons. In 2008, he ascended to the top thanks to an injury that left Victor Martinez on the DL for much of the season. In 2009, Shoppach again filled in for VMart, after the starter was dealt to, ironically enough, Shoppach’s old team, the Boston Red Sox.
Make no mistakes though, Kelly Shoppach was a back-up. This was always VMart’s team right up until the trade. Once Martinez was traded, the writing was on the wall for Shoppach. Put up the numbers, or find yourself either traded, or non-tendered at the end of the season. We’ll get to that in a bit.
Without a doubt, Kelly Shoppach, even with his 2009 struggles, was the top player in the Crisp deal. There’s a lot to like about the former Tribe backstop. The bottom line with Shoppach, and I’m surprised that this was questioned over the past year or so, is that he is a top defensive catcher across the board. He stops everything, and still has a cannon for an arm. He’s the guy that is covered in dirt, even when he plays on pavement. He also carries a big stick. By that, I mean that he swings for the fences. True, he’s either a hit or miss, but when the streak-meter is on hit, he can hit rockets.
In 2006, Shoppach immediately became the Tribe’s primary back-up. Unfortunately, Victor Martinez was in his way, but the Indians were planning on using VMart as a fill-in at first base to save his knees. Shoppach made that a possibility. Still, he was sent down to Buffalo in May because of inactivity, but was recalled in June, staying with the team for the remainder of the year. Shoppach committed only two errors in his 41 games, and threw out 10 of 29 baserunners to the tune of .35%.
He continued his back-up duty in 2007, playing in 59 games. His offense picked up slightly, hitting seven homers (up from three), and hitting .261, up from .245. He did stay with the big league club the entire season, and was the personal catcher for Paul Byrd, as he was behind the plate for all of his 31 starts. Shoppach only made four errors, and threw out 13 of 36 baserunners, to the tune of 36%. Shoppach was on fire in the playoffs, batting .500 in his two starts with Byrd on the hill.
The 2007 season was the highlight of his career thusfar, taking over for an injured Victor Martinez. He led American League catchers with 21 homers, and was third overall. Shoppach’s brought back a little Boudreau of his own in July against the Tigers when he became the second player to have five extra-base hits in a single game. He went 5-6 that day, with three doubles and two home runs, becoming the only player since, you guessed it, Lou Boudreau in 1946, to complete the task. Shoppach became a commodity. With VMart slated to return in 2009 with two-years left on his contract, Shoppach became a part that a bunch of teams wanted.
Cleveland nearly spun Shoppach into a big-time deal with the Tribe. Tribe GM Mark Shapiro began talks with former Shapiro underling, and new Pirate GM Neal Huntington about potentially trading Cliff Lee, Franklin Gutierrez and Kelly Shoppach to the Pirates for Jason Bay and Ryan Doumit. The Pirates eventually said no to that deal, but it does show you what kind of ups that Shoppach had.
2009 wasn’t a stellar year for Shoppach. In his 89 games, he hit .214, with 12 homers and 40 RBI. That’s really what you get with Shoppach, a streaky power hitter with impressive defense.
Shoppach was eventually traded after the season, a victim of the Indians cost-cutting. The dealt him at a sell-low, and acquired Mitch Talbot, a moderate prospect for the Rays. Of course, that’s for the Tribe-teens in ten…hopefully.
For now, Shoppach was clearly the best back-up catcher in baseball over the past four seasons. In many ways, he’s been the heart and soul of the team for long stretches of games in 2008 and 2009. That makes him the clear choice for Cleveland’s back-up Catcher of the decade.