Friars ink Blanco as backup backstop

Friars ink Blanco as backup backstop

SAN DIEGO -- Padres general manager Kevin Towers could have easily filled the vacancy for a backup catcher from within the organization or with someone other than 37-year-old Henry Blanco.

But Towers wasn't merely looking for a Sunday catcher -- someone who usually starts one day a week, collecting cobwebs sitting on the bench the other six days of the week.

Instead, Towers was looking for a mentor for 25-year-old catcher Nick Hundley, who impressed during his three-month stint last season after being recalled from Triple-A Portland.

So on Tuesday, Towers picked up the phone and called former Padres pitcher Greg Maddux to procure feedback on what kind of player, mentor and clubhouse presence Blanco was during their time together with the Cubs and Braves.

Apparently, Towers liked what he heard, and on Wednesday the Padres signed Blanco to a one-year deal for $750,000 to occasionally spell Hundley and provide mentorship to a player the Padres think very highly of.

"I thought it was very important," Towers said of the mentorship. "Two of the guys we identified were Brad Ausmus and Henry Blanco. And a lot of it was what they have done throughout their career.

"Henry has done it with [Chicago Cubs catcher Geovany] Soto. Hopefully he will help Nick develop into one of the elite catchers in the game."

For a time this offseason, and possibly up until Tuesday, the Padres figured that Ausmus -- and not Blanco -- could do the job. He was a former Padre, a friend to Towers and also a resident of nearby Del Mar, Calif. It seemed to be a match in the offing.

But Ausmus ended up signing a one-year deal worth $1 million with the Dodgers, so the Padres turned their attention to Blanco, who hit .292 in 58 games last season while with the Cubs. He's an 11-year veteran who has also played for the Dodgers, Rockies, Twins, Brewers and Braves.

Towers said before Wednesday that he was comfortable going into the regular season with Eliezer Alfonzo, who agreed to a Minor League deal in December as the primary backup at catcher.

Hot Stove

But now Blanco -- who is regarded for calling a good game and a good clubhouse guy -- figures to get that job. And he's excited to help Hundley become "one of the best," he said during a conference call.

Hundley hit .237 in 60 games but showed some pop (five home runs), the ability to slow the opposition from running -- he threw out 14 would-be basestealers -- and a knack for handling a pitching staff after his July promotion from Triple-A Portland.

Towers fathomed a guess that Hundley -- who started 13 of the final 14 games of last season, including the final 10 -- could catch around 100 games. But there are certainly some unknowns with a young catcher.

"It's kind of an unknown. Nick has never caught a full year in the big leagues and the stress that goes with it. Having someone like Henry ... his knowledge of the National League, it's almost like an advance scout," Towers said.

A year ago, the Padres felt very good about breaking camp with Josh Bard and Michael Barrett as their catching tandem. But Bard and Barrett were injured most of the season, playing in a combined 87 games.

Bard and Barrett were essentially released following the season. Bard is now with the Red Sox while Barrett has landed in Toronto on a Minor League deal.

To make room for Blanco on the 40-man roster, the Padres designated pitcher Virgil Vasquez for assignment.

Corey Brock is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.