BY TIM SULLIVAN
The Cincinnati Enquirer
PLANT CITY, Fla. - Eddie Taubensee has all the tools. What he lacks is a little craftsmanship.
The Cincinnati Reds' catcher has a big bat and a strong arm, but these obvious assets are offset by a shortage of subtleties. Taubensee has yet to gain a full-time gig because he is more powerful than precise, and slightly less smooth than Joe Oliver.
He continues to share his position because some Reds pitchers do not totally trust him.
''Eddie at times has shown us he has the potential to handle a staff and run a ballgame,'' said Reds General Manager Jim Bowden. ''But just when you're looking for him to do that, it hasn't happened on a consistent basis.''
It takes a discerning eye to see Taubensee's shortcomings, for catching is as much an art form as a science. Pitches must not only be caught, but ''framed,'' received in a position that improves their prospects of being called strikes. Catchers must sense what each pitcher wants to throw on every possible count.
A most demanding job
The pitcher is judged by his ERA. The catcher is judged by his ESP. It is the most demanding job in baseball.
''The last couple years we've had Benito (Santiago) and Joe (Oliver), who are great defensive catchers,'' Taubensee said. ''When they see me and them, I guess there's a little difference. But I know I'm not a liability back there. I know I can go back there every day and do a good job.''
The record shows the Reds have won more often with Taubensee behind the plate than any other catcher. It also says that the games he plays in tend to involve more runs. Some of this is a function of his bat - Taubensee hit .291 last season, and homered 12 times in 327 at bats - and some of it could be because his pitchers don't get some of the close calls on the corners.
Theoretically, a strike is a strike regardless of the finesse of the receiver. In practice, however, it is sometimes possible to improve an umpire's opinion.
A catcher can sometimes steal a strike simply by moving his feet. He might expand the umpire's perception of the plate by an inch or two by crouching on the outside corner, or even by where he sets his target.
This is where Oliver excels, and where Taubensee sometimes has trouble. It might seem a small matter to the casual fan, but it can be critical.
''It makes all the difference in the world,'' said shortstop Barry Larkin.
It might have made all the difference in the World Series. Had Steve Avery's pitches been better framed in Game Four, Wade Boggs might not have been able to draw the bases-loaded walk that enabled the Yankees to even the series at two games apiece.
Disappointed, not defeated
Conversely, catchers sometimes serve as convenient scapegoats for mediocre pitchers - a commodity never in short supply in Cincinnati. Eddie Taubensee would certainly look a lot better behind the plate if Greg Maddux were on the mound.
Though he and Oliver maintain a good rapport, Taubensee resents the notion that he isn't ready to be a regular. With Oliver a free agent for most of the offseason, Taubensee wanted to believe the Reds had gained more confidence in him. When Oliver signed, he became resigned to another season of platoon play.
From the Reds' standpoint, it is an attractive arrangement. Taubensee and Oliver combined for 23 homers and 94 RBI last year. Individually, however, it is awkward.
''I'm definitely disappointed,'' Taubensee said, ''but I'm not defeated.
''In years past, when they brought Joe back, I used to be quiet and not say anything. I'd just go out there and play hard. This year I'm still going to go out and play hard, but I'm going to say, 'Hey, you didn't have to go out and get anybody else because I feel like this is my job and I can handle it.'Ç''
Until he can prove that to his pitchers, Taubensee will probably remain a part-time player. He is one of those catchers who can't seem to catch a break.