Tupman could return to Royals in 2009
Team would like to re-sign Minor League free agent catcher
KANSAS CITY -- Matt Tupman was in the Dominican Republic, ready to start the season as Licey's catcher. He'd had a great time there last winter as the Tigers won the Caribbean Series. But now his shoulder was aching.
So Tupman got on the phone to J.J. Picollo, the Royals' assistant general manager.
"The day he called me to tell me it was bugging him, it was their opening game and I told him, 'Well, don't play tonight,'" Picollo recalled, "and he said, 'Ahh, I want to play.' "
That's Tupman for you. He's one of those gritty, feisty guys who doesn't want to quit. So he played that night for Licey.
"Yeah, I had to make sure," Tupman said. "That winter league is my insurance policy. I need that winter ball, so I had to play that one game to make sure that I couldn't deal with the pain. I could barely make it to second base. On some throws here and there, it was OK, but for the most part it was just really painful."
So, reluctantly, he returned to the U.S. and Dr. Steve Joyce, the Royals' team surgeon, operated on Tupman's right shoulder. According to Tupman, it was "just a cleanup" of a little tear in the rotator cuff and some labrum damage.
"It wasn't just a one-time thing," Tupman said, "it was just years of wear and tear. I think the previous year, when I went to the Dominican and never came home, might have had something to do with it."
At any rate, this plays into the Royals' catching plans for next season. Miguel Olivo and John Buck, of course, are in place as the catching tandem, but Tupman again could be behind them on the depth chart. There's one small item to be taken care of -- Tupman, at the moment, is a Minor League free agent.
However, Picollo said, the Royals want to re-sign him, and Tupman said he "mostly likely" will do that.
"My situation is I didn't have a great year [at Triple-A Omaha] -- and I'm injured -- so there's really not much of a market out there right now for me," Tupman said.
The Royals' ninth-round Draft pick in 2002, Tupman has spent his entire pro career in the organization and feels comfortable, and vice versa.
"He got a taste of the big leagues last year, [as] a left-handed-hitting catcher. In our situation, we should be set with Buck and Olivo, but a lot can happen and Brayan Pena is out of options," Picollo said.
Pena shared the catching with Tupman last year at Triple-A Omaha and, if he doesn't make the club in Spring Training, Pena could be lost on waivers.
On May 18 at Florida, Tupman's last day with the club, he finally made his Major League debut as a pinch-hitter in the ninth inning and singled to right field against Kevin Gregg. Then, Tupman caught Yasuhiko Yabuta in the bottom half of the inning and was shipped back to Omaha.
So Tupman was 1-for-1 in 2008, and you could say, with a 1.000 average, he led the Royals in hitting.
"That's one way to look at it," he said good-naturedly.
However, Tupman didn't lead Omaha in hitting; in fact, his average sank to .229 from .281 in 2007.
"I hit about .230 this year, I did terrible," he said. "That's not like me. I'm a better hitter than that. I didn't want to make any excuses, but the more I think about it, maybe I was sucking it up and maybe the shoulder was just weak and affected me."
The right shoulder, for a lefty batter, leads the way.
Omaha manager Mike Jirschele, though, saw no problems with Tupman's defense.
"He's a gamer, he plays the game hard and does a good job as far as keeping the pitchers under control," Jirschele said.
Jirschele also saw Tupman's approach to pitchers become "a little more politically correct" this year.
"Yeah, it's an on-going process," Tupman said. "Dealing with pitchers, you really have to talk to them and figure out their personalities. You have to earn their respect before they're ever going to listen to you. You can't just come on and say, 'You do this and you do that.' "
Tupman, recuperating from his Oct. 22 surgery at his Concord, N.H., home, expects to start throwing by Jan. 20 and to be game-ready by mid-March during Spring Training.
"And Spring Training this year goes like an extra week so that'll give me three weeks to actually play some games, which is really good," he said.
Dick Kaegel is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.