01/18/2006 10:00 AM ET

Around the Horn: Catcher
Majors' best catching combo, LaRue, Valentin try for reprise
By Mark Sheldon / MLB.com

CINCINNATI -- As a catching duo in 2005, Jason LaRue and Javier Valentin were downright offensive.

The Reds took no issue with that. Opposing pitchers probably didn't enjoy it as much.

LaRue and Valentin connected for 26 homers while catching, which tied them for the Major League lead among backstop combos. Their 101 RBIs were tops in the league.

"If we would be fortunate enough for them to repeat that production as a twosome, we'd be elated," Reds general manager Dan O'Brien said.

All Reds manager Jerry Narron has to do is continue determining the best time to start each catcher. Last year, LaRue started 104 of his 110 games played. Valentin appeared in 76 games, with 58 starts behind the plate.

"As a two-man tandem, they were outstanding," Narron said. "I'm sure they would both like to play more. They have contrasting skills, but both contribute a lot."

Both players' personal statistics certainly thrived under the 2005 system. LaRue, who turns 32 in March, established career highs in average (.260), doubles (27) and RBIs (60), while hitting 14 home runs.

Improvements were also noticeable defensively. LaRue caught 32.9 percent of runners stealing, up from 29.6 percent in 2004, and reduced his number of passed balls allowed from 15 to six.

Last month, Cincinnati rewarded LaRue with a two-year contract for $9.1 million.

"I'm tickled to death that LaRue is signed," Narron said. "I don't think he gets the credit he deserves as a leader on this team."

Overlooked or not, that should change in 2006. Longtime first baseman and clubhouse leader Sean Casey was dealt away this winter, which made LaRue -- who first appeared in the Majors with the Reds in 1999 -- the longest tenured member on the club. He embraces the responsibility of leading.

"I try to play the game the right way -- or the old way, as I consider it," LaRue said, after his new contract was announced on Dec. 21. "I'll just go and take care of business and try to be a leader like Casey was. I'll step up, do the right things and help the younger guys along to do the right things."

Valentin, who avoided arbitration by signing a one-year, $1.15 million contract on Jan. 15, is coming off the most productive campaign of a big league career that has spanned parts of seven seasons. His .281 average, 14 homers and 36 runs scored all were career bests.

Further down the depth chart, Dane Sardinha will have a chance to win a spot on the 25-man roster with a solid Spring Training. Sardinha, a second-round pick in the 2000 First-Year Player Draft, spent the past two seasons at Triple-A Louisville. Miguel Perez, 22, made the sizeable leap from high Class A Sarasota to the Majors last season and is considered a promising prospect.

Meanwhile, issues remain for LaRue and Valentin in the present. They handled a staff that ranked lowest in the National League with a 5.15 ERA and 219 home runs allowed last year. Reds pitchers will lean on them for help working deeper into games and staying out of trouble.

"They go over and beyond to get better defensively and really make an effort to work with our pitching staff," O'Brien said. "In the second half last year, they helped our younger pitchers get acclimated to the Major Leagues. That played a part in our second-half improvement."

No doubt, that type of work will be key if there is to be any full-season progress made in the NL Central during 2006.