CLEARWATER, Fla. - Sometimes it's better to have a question mark at a position than an answer.

For years, the Phillies' answer at catcher was Mike Lieberthal, who went from undersize first-round pick to solid major-league player and two-time all-star. He had a decent career with the Phillies before his contract expired at the end of last season and the team did absolutely the right thing by letting him walk away.

Instead of the familiar presence of a 13-year veteran, the Phillies suddenly had a big question mark. General manager Pat Gillick tried to provide at least one possible answer by signing free agent Rod Barajas, who played the last three seasons for the Texas Rangers. Barajas joins Carlos Ruiz, Chris Coste and Rule 5 draftee Ryan Budde in the pool of possible replacements for Lieberthal.

Bottom line?

"Our catching is much better," manager Charlie Manuel said yesterday. "Lieby was a good catcher for all those years, you know, but he had bad knees. Now I feel like our catching is pretty strong."

It's a bit like the situation at third base. Wes Helms could hit with enough pop, especially at Citizens Bank Park, to be a factor in the Phillies' lineup - maybe even the alternative to having Pat Burrell hit behind Ryan Howard. And Abraham Nunez was more productive last season as he grew more comfortable playing every day.

Neither one is a lock to be a great contributor to a contending team. Both are preferable to David Bell, the injury-ravaged vet they are replacing.

Out with the old, in with anything new.

It would be a nice plus for the Phillies to get some offense out of the catcher spot. Coste was a pleasant surprise there last season, hitting .328 in 65 games, but it seems risky to count on him as a full-time catcher. Ruiz, a rookie, hit .261 in 27 games last season.

"That's the most that Coste has caught over a period of time," Manuel said. "He might have been getting a little tired there at the end."

The intriguing guy here is Barajas, who had a tentative deal with Toronto that paid more than he wound up taking from the Phillies.

"It was never a done deal," Barajas said of the Blue Jays' offer. "It just didn't feel right there. When this offer turned up, this is what I was looking for. Philadelphia was knocking on the door. I know David Dellucci, and he told me he liked what they were building here, so the Phillies were high on my list. Going to a winner was my No. 1 priority."

Imagine: the Phillies as a destination for players looking to win. It's a nice change.

Over the last three years, the period Barajas was the Rangers' regular catcher, he hit 47 home runs. The Phillies' media guide makes a point of letting you know that's the fourth most in the American League, behind Jorge Posada's 62, Victor Martinez's 55, and Jason Varitek's 52. Pudge Rodriguez is fifth at 44.

Again, the Bank may bring out the best in Barajas, power-wise.

But Barajas is likely to be batting seventh or eighth most of the time. He won't be in the heart of the order, and he understands that. His main job, his real job, is the part of the game where Lieberthal was most suspect - handling the pitching staff.

"That's exactly what I do," Barajas said. "You have to work with the pitching staff. All your focus has to be on the pitcher. That's the way I was brought up."

But he added: "You want to be productive offensively. Situational hitting is probably the biggest responsibility for a catcher, being able to bunt and move a runner along. Unless you're going to hit 30 home runs, you have to be able to do the little things."

Ultimately, the everyday catcher will be the one who shows Manuel and pitching coach Rich Dubee he has the best handle on this staff. Early in camp, Dubee told the catchers that he wants them to be more assertive during games.

"It's all about communication," Barajas said. "You have to have a game plan going into each game, know what you have to do. And you have to learn the different pitchers. I'm going to handle Jamie Moyer, who has been doing this for a long time, different from a younger pitcher."

It will be fascinating to see if a more hands-on approach from the catcher will be reflected in the pitchers' performances. It won't be as noticeable as the offensive production from Barajas, Coste or Ruiz, but it will be more important to this team.

It may be that none of the three is the answer, but they'll have to do until the answer comes along.

Phil Sheridan |

The Phillies' payroll approaches $100 million.

D4.

Post a question or comment for Phil Sheridan at http://go.philly.com/asksheridan,

or by email at psheridan@phillynews.com.