Sunday, December 28, 2014

Random Ex-Brave: Henry Blanco

(Been a hell of a couple of days. To add on to Christmas, I spent most of the 26th sick. Yesterday was spent entirely on recuperation. I'm better now, though a sore back isn't helping much. Had plans for a few articles before this one, but they will have to wait until the week when I can catch up.)

While Greg Maddux had a few personal catchers during his time with the Braves, we really only remember Eddie Perez and maybe Charlie O'Brien. But there were other guys such as Henry Blanco, who amazingly turned defensive ability and intangibles into a 16 year career, including two with the Atlanta Braves.

Credit: toddhundleysucks.blogspot.com
It might astound you that Blanco, who only retired after the 2013 season, began his professional career as a third baseman after signing with the Dodgers in 1989n. Never much of a hitter, Blanco was moved behind the plate for a game in 1995 before landing there for the bulk of his playing time the following year. His sudden change in position helped improve his stock. As did finally hitting with the help of the hitter's paradise known as the Pacific Coast League. A couple of big seasons in the PCL with a cup of coffee in Los Angeles in 1997 had Blanco on the cusp of claiming a major league job. All he needed was a chance.

That need was met when he signed with the Rockies ahead of the 1999 season. Colorado didn't need that much offense from their catcher position considering their offense sported a quartet of 30-homer guys. Blanco received the majority of starts behind the plate during his rookie year, though two other older catchers and the young Ben Petrick also played frequently. Blanco's claim to fame was his arm, which allowed him to throw out 40% of those trying to swipe a base on him. You have to think that was a weapon when runs are so easy to be had in Coors Field.

However, the thing about being a good defensive guy is that you almost are always expendable. The Rockies made him that when they shipped him off to Milwaukee following the season as part of a three-team deal that included six players and cash moving between Colorado, Milwaukee, and Oakland. Blanco would serve as Raul Casanova's defensive better-half for two seasons with the Brew Crew. While the switch-hitting Casanova would outproduce Blanco with the bat (an OPS that was .90 points higher), Blanco received over 200 more plate appearances presumably for his trusted his defense.

Yet again, his time in Milwaukee would not be long. In fact, in 16 years in the majors, Blanco played for 11 teams. That's not because he was in demand so much that every team believed they could do better. Except the Braves. They were counting on Blanco being better than what they had. With Eddie Perez struggling to stay healthy and the Braves unimpressed with Paul Bako, they traded the latter with pitcher Jose Cabrera for Blanco about two weeks ahead of the 2002 season. Cabrera had been a one-year wonder with the Braves after washing out as an Astros prospect. The fact that it took guys to get Blanco said how desperate the Braves were.

For two seasons, Blanco was the backup to Javy Lopez in Atlanta, serving as Greg Maddux's personal catcher. There were very few notable moments during his time with the Braves. On May 2nd during his first season with the Braves, Blanco entered after Lopez had been run for in a 2-2 tie. In the tenth inning, Blanco led off with a homer on a 1-2 pitch against Mike DeJean, leading the Braves to a 3-2 win in Milwaukee against the team that had traded him away about six weeks before the game. A couple months later, Blanco capped off a six-run first inning with a three-run shot.

Credit: chattanoogan.com
After a 2002 season where he slashed his typical .204/.267/.335, Blanco's numbers tumbled in 2003. Considering where they were in 2002, that's saying something. With the Braves promoting Johnny Estrada to Javy's old job in 2003 and bringing back Perez to mentor him, the Braves let the 31 year-old go with 415 PA with the Braves. That mark is the third most Blanco ever achieved in one place.

Blanco would follow with arguably his best professional season. Anchoring a Twins staff in the wake of Joe Mauer's injury, Blanco threw out nearly 50% of potential basestealers while hitting a career-high 10 homers. He added an eleventh homer in the ALDS against the Yankees, but the Twins lost in four. His success did land him a rarity, though. A two-year deal with the Chicago Cubs. After successfully performing his duties as the backup catcher, Chicago rewarded him with a second two-year deal.

After spending George W. Bush's second term with the Cubs, Blanco went back to his nomadic lifestyle, playing a year in San Diego and with the Mets. He did log two years with the Diamondbacks before a 2013 season that saw him spend time with both the Blue Jays and Mariners.

Blanco signed with the Diamondbacks ahead of the 2014 season, but was not able to secure a job in the spring. The 42 year-old decided 16 years was enough and retired to begin his coaching career, also with Arizona. Following the season, he landed in Chicago with the Cubs again as their new quality assurance coach, a job formerly held by new Braves co-hitting coach Jose Castro.

You have to really admire a guy like Henry Blanco. He wasn't void of all skills. After all, he had a tremendous throwing arm, was a solid receiver, and had some power for a backup catcher. But the fact that he kept plugging along until his 40's as a backup is truly amazing. Outside of four years with the Cubs, teams weren't all that keen on keeping him around. He didn't let that stop him from continuing a career that began in the 80's and ended in the 2010's. His time with the Braves is pretty much forgetful. He was like so many other guys who came through Atlanta during that time between when Perez's hey-day and Maddux's departure from Atlanta. But that's why this column exists...so we remember these little pieces that ultimately played fairly significant roles.

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