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Rays

Dillon set to catch

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Published:   |   Updated: March 22, 2013 at 09:04 AM
PORT CHARLOTTE -

Joe Dillon walked off a practice field late Friday morning wearing shin guards, a chest protector and a catcher's mask pushed back on top of his head, looking very much the part of the grizzled catcher.

He's not. He's an infielder. And an outfielder. And a designated hitter, if you need one.

Dillon is 34. He has played in 957 minor-league games and 137 major-league games during his 13-year pro career. He has played first base, second base, third base, left and right fields in the major leagues and shortstop during his stay at Triple-A Durham last summer.

He has never caught an inning.

Not once.

But Dillon could this year if the well-traveled veteran finds a spot on the Rays' roster as a utility player and emergency catcher.

"The more you can do, the more valuable you are," Dillon said. "You have to do something to separate yourself from the other guys. This is something I think I might be able to do."

It's not like Dillon would compete with Dioner Navarro and Kelly Shoppach for playing time. He would just provide Manager Joe Maddon with a late-inning option, allowing Maddon to pinch-hit or pinch-run for his catcher and know the Rays are covered should the backup that night get hurt.

"When you put your backup catcher in the game and you don't really have a solid third guy or a guy that you feel can at least defend himself, it's really a bad feeling," Maddon said. "But I know he'll be able to defend himself. He already looks good back there."

Dillon is making an unusual move, especially for a player his age.

"That's probably the hardest transition in baseball, going from another position to catching," Durham catcher John Jaso said. "I've seen guys try to do it in the minor leagues and give up. I wonder if it's one of those things you have to be brought up doing."

Shoppach watched Dillon catch during the first day of camp and was surprised to learn he wasn't a catcher.

"He must be a good athlete," Shoppach said. "People don't realize it, but you have to be a good athlete to be a catcher."

And that's only the beginning.

"It's like no other position," Maddon, a former Single-A catcher, said. "The game's in front of you. You're squatted down. There's a lot more mentally going on prior to each pitch. It's physically demanding. There's no comparison to any other position on the field."

Dillon said the transition hasn't been all that daunting, though he admitted that could change once he gets behind the plate during a game. He has caught before, but that was summer ball while he was in high school.

"I handled it better than I expected, and maybe a little better than they expected as well," Dillon said. "So far, so good. We'll keep plugging along and see how things go."

Maddon asked Dillon to catch because he thinks Dillon has the hands needed to work behind the plate. Maddon also wouldn't mind getting Dillon's bat into the lineup more often.

"Here's a guy who has a really good hack who doesn't have a regular position to play," Maddon said. "If he was 22, this could have been very exciting, because he's the type of guy you could switch positions with and build him into a major-league catcher. But for right now, just having him be a good third or emergency catcher, the way he swings the bat, his mind, his feel for the game, it's kind of an intriguing thing."

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