DENVER -- Like any sensible catcher, the Rockies' Wilin Rosario sees Cardinals six-time Rawlings Gold Glove Award winner Yadier Molina as a role model, but with a twist.
Molina has gone from a pedestrian offensive player -- .216 batting average in 2006 -- to a force. His .319 batting average in 2013 nearly won him the National League Most Valuable Player Award. Rosario, the Rockies' primary backstop the last two seasons, believes he can do with his defense what Molina has done with his offense.
"If he can hit after a couple years playing in the big leagues, why can't I be a good catcher?" Rosario said at the end of the season.
In recent days, the Rockies flirted with going in another direction, but it looks as if they'll continue to give Rosario opportunities to make that progress. Colorado pursued defensively adept free-agent catcher Carlos Ruiz, but was unwilling to escalate its bid. But Ruiz reached a three-year, $26 million agreement this week to return to the Phillies. Had the Rockies signed Ruiz, they would have had to decide whether to use Rosario at other positions such as first base or right field, or test the trade market.
Not signing Ruiz means the Rockies are staying with their original plan of improving the defense of Rosario, one of the Majors' most effective offensive catchers.
Rosario, who turns 25 on Feb. 23, has led NL catchers in home runs each of the last two seasons -- 27 in 2012, 21 in 2013 -- and has had more homers since his Sept. 6, 2011, debut (51) than any other Major League catcher. He set the club's record for RBIs by a catcher in 2012 with 71 and broke it this past season with 79. He finished fourth among NL catchers with 218 total bases in 2013, in a year when he was limited to 121 games because of a right calf injury he suffered in September.
But the defensive numbers, based on statistical and subjective information and partly dependent on pitcher effectiveness, aren't nearly as kind.
Rosario made progress in the passed ball category, reducing his figure from a Majors-leading 21 in 2012 to nine, which was tied for the NL lead and fifth-most overall. But TheScore.com, which takes into account stolen bases, caught stealing and errors, placed Rosario 97th out of 101 catchers surveyed. The StatCorner Catcher Report, which examines balls and strikes in an attempt to rate the ability to "frame" pitches (whether the catcher can steal a strike on a borderline pitch or make it look worse than it is) places Rosario second-lowest among 121 catchers. Baseball Info Solutions, however, had Rosario ranked ninth among Major League catchers in defensive runs saved.
The rough defense was expected. Rosario underwent right knee surgery in August 2010, which reduced development time. Colorado called him up in 2011 knowing he needed work on pitches to his left, and on pitches close to a batter. The plan was to break him in as backup to Ramon Hernandez in 2012, but Hernandez suffered multiple injuries and Rosario was forced into action.
Yorvit Torrealba, brought in last season as Rosario's veteran backup and mentor, didn't see Rosario in 2012 but heard the horror stories. Torrealba, a free agent this winter, told Rosario that the two of them would go through pregame fundamental drills -- catching, blocking pitches and footwork. To add spice to the process, Torrealba also instituted a system of small fines for the two of them for mistakes.
"When you're born, you start taking baby steps -- you don't get up and start walking right away," Torrealba said. "I don't care what I heard, I really believe he was 100 percent better than what I heard. Next year, I'm sure he'll be even better."
Rosario will have to continue building his recognition in several areas.
Early in the year, Rosario seemed robotic from an overload of scouting information. Torrealba helped in-game by helping him read his pitcher's effectiveness and the swings of hitters. A glaring weakness is controlling the rebound when he blocks a pitch so runners can't advance. He must improve at reading the flight of the ball out of the pitcher's hand and anticipating the bounce.
Rosario is catching for Aguilas in the Dominican Winter League and spending time with former Major League catchers Tony Pena, the Yankees' bench coach, and Alberto Castillo, Aguilas' third-base coach, to learn more about calling a game.
"I'll keep working on my game -- blocking, receiving, calling the game, all those things that I can do better behind the plate," said Rosario, who plans to return to Denver in December for the birth of the second child for him and his wife, Genesis, and will work out over the winter with his brother, Rockies catching prospect Jairo Rosario.
Rosario has seen limited time at third base and first base, but that was more to help the team in a pinch rather than an audition for another permanent switch. Jordan Pacheco, who also plays corner-infield positions, is expected to serve as backup.
"Wilin is our catcher," said Bill Geivett, the Rockies' senior director of Major League operations. "We just need to find ways to keep his bat in the lineup. He's in a good place and has always been willing to help the team. But at his age, we don't worry about him playing catcher."
Rosario has no desire for a position switch, and believes he can make up ground defensively. He believe the degree of difficulty is overstated, at least compared to the task that Molina completed of becoming solid with the bat.
"When you're catching, you worry about a whole lot of things -- calling a game, who's hitting, who is on deck, are they going to run, if it's late in the game who's going to pinch hit," Rosario said. "You've got to watch the scoreboard. It's everything. But when you're hitting, you've only got one thing but it's the hardest thing.
"If you're a hitter, you don't even know where the ball is going. What if the first pitch is at your head, then the next one is on the outside corner? Hitting isn't that easy. If it was, so many guys would be great."