Oakland Athletics 2012 Spring Training Preview: Catchers
“No matter how cold the winter, there’s a spring time ahead…” – Pearl Jam
Football season is over, the NBA is going Linsane and hockey is doing its thing. Meanwhile, baseball is ready, waiting in the on-deck circle.
Pitchers and catchers have arrived to their respective camps in Arizona and Florida, with most position players due to report this upcoming weekend. Spring training is always an exciting time of the year, a symbol of blossoming new growth, where anything and anybody can get a fresh start to their baseball careers.
No team exudes the essence of springtime more than the Oakland Athletics, a franchise that has almost completely re-harvested its roster over the past few months. Out with last year’s crop of All-Stars Trevor Cahill, Gio Gonzalez and Andrew Bailey. In with a fresh seeds like Jarrod Parker, Brad Peacock, Josh Reddick and Yoenis Cespedes.
As the A’s cultivate their young, budding roster, there are many questions regarding the 2012 season? Which players will bear fruit? Which ones will wilt? Which produce will be re-sold?
Let’s take a look at the Athletics' roster as they approach spring training. Here we’ll analyze the position of catcher.
Hard to believe that Kurt Suzuki is entering his sixth major league season with the A's. That makes him one of the veterans on the ballclub, and the most seasoned and longest-tenured Athletic (tied with Daric Barton and Dallas Braden.) Crazy.
No one is more anxious to reap the benefits of a spring rebirth than Suzuki. His 2011 campaign was unmemorable, as he posted career lows in batting average (.237), on-base percentage (.301) and hits (109). Additionally, opponents stole 98 stolen bases on his watch, most in the American League.
Needless to say, it was a tough season for Suzuki all around.
To make matters worse, this past winter saw him lose several battery mates via trade: starters Trevor Cahill, Gio Gonzalez, Josh Outman and Guillermo Moscoso and relievers Andrew Bailey and Craig Breslow. Suzuki now has to develop new relationships and groom several young pitchers who'll vie for spots in the starting rotation.
Though that may be a daunting task for any catcher, it's especially tough for Suzuki, who aims to rebound at the plate. A deeper look finds that Suzuki had trouble against left-handed pitching, posting a lackluster .308 slugging percentage in 133 at-bats. He struggled mightily in adjusting to his woes. His ground-ball-to-fly-ball ratio was the worst of his career, despite posting a career-high 3.93 pitches per plate appearance. His mechanics may need some massaging this spring, in an effort to adapt to the tendencies that saw him lose his pitch recognition.
His performance gave the A's trouble when constructing their lineup, as he provided little right-handed power, leading some to believe he could also be expendable this past offseason.
New manager Bob Melvin is also a former big league catcher, so hopefully he'll be able to impart some wisdom and guidance in getting Suzuki back up to par. Suzuki is still a rock when it comes to handling pitchers, so his starting spot is more than secure. But it's possible that with added depth at catcher, Suzuki will be able to take more breathers whenever he is in a slump.
Former manager Bob Geren almost overly coddled Suzuki, because in part of his own experience as a MLB catcher. He'd leave Suzuki in the lineup or sub him in for defensive purposes for the sake of it, leaving the bench without a catcher in extra-inning affairs. Hopefully, Melvin will be more realistic with how to handle Suzuki, especially if the catcher does falter for extended stretches.
Look for Suzuki to bounce back—not all the way, though. He'll have a modest season at the plate and a difficult time acquainting with his new pitchers and keeping the staff as good as they had been the past several seasons. But after last year, things can only go up for Suzuki.
How he'll fare in 2012: If the A's find themselves in position to do so, Suzuki is a candidate to be dealt at the midseason trading deadline.
There is an open battle for the backup catcher spot on the roster, and there’s no clear-cut candidate to replace the departed Landon Powell. But Josh Donaldson is making a name for himself by widening his range—literally, it has been reported that he has been taking grounders at third base this spring training. This is his effort to augment his versatility and provide the A’s with some infield depth as well.
Donaldson would be the incumbent to be the backup, if only because he’s been in the Oakland A’s system for the past three seasons. He received a call-up in September of 2010, but did not earn any playing time in the big leagues in 2011. The likelihood that he finds his way on the roster for 2012 is iffy, however.
His numbers at the minor league level are worthy, though. At Triple-A Sacramento last year, he batted a respectable .261 with 17 HRs and 70 RBI. He even swiped 13 bases. During the 2010 campaign, Donaldson smacked 18 homers, so he does provide some right-handed pop.
In previous regimes, the Athletics liked to complement starting catcher Kurt Suzuki with a left-handed bat (past backups, Landon Powell, Rob Bowen and Adam Melhuse were each switch-hitters). But Oakland does not have a left-handed hitting catcher on its 40-man roster, and Melvin likes what he sees so far with Donaldson. That bodes well, noting that the more Donaldson can do to expand his versatility can only help his chances to make the club.
Odds he’ll make the club: 3-2
Anthony Recker is another strong right-handed catcher looking to make the big league roster after a number of years waiting in the wings of the A’s farm system. The 28-year-old Recker saw several seasons in the minors before finally earning his first big league action last season—five games, 17 at-bats and three hits, including a double.
Like Josh Donaldson, Recker too has a bit of pop in his bat. Last season with Triple-A Sacramento, Recker banged 16 HRs and 24 doubles, while batting .287, with a .501 slugging percentage. Certainly he has the power credentials to warrant a spot on the roster.
But why hasn’t Recker, who has sifted through the Athletics’ farm system, been brought up sooner? The book on Recker is that he needs to work on his defense. While he does have a solid bat, his athleticism around the plate—blocking balls—could use improvement. That’s something he’ll work on vigorously during the spring, especially under the guide of manager Bob Melvin.
Overall, Recker has the offensive power to make the roster. Truth be told, his bat looks a lot more attractive right now than that of Kurt Suzuki. Should Suzuki find himself mired in a slump at any point this year, Recker seems to be capable of filling in nicely and generating some bottom-of-the-order firepower if needed.
Look for Recker to contend with Donaldson for that backup catcher spot. If he does make it ahead of Donaldson, it'll be primarily based on his offensive skill set.
Odds of making the Opening Day roster: 50-50
Acquired in the deal that sent left-handed pitcher Gio Gonzalez to the Washington Nationals, Derek Norris is a young (22) catcher with some right-handed power. Last season, with the Double-A Harrisburg Senators, Norris hammered 20 home runs and 17 doubles. In his four-plus seasons in the minor leagues, Norris has accumulated 69 home runs in 1,419 at-bats.
Power-wise, Norris is probably the most naturally gifted of the Athletics’ catchers. But his youth and overall inexperience at the plate are evident in his .210 batting average last season with Harrisburg. Additionally, his defense needs tremendous work, as he has been flagged for 49 errors in his minor league career (although his fielding percentage has actually improved as he has climbed through the ranks).
In the end, Norris will be a prime candidate to become Oakland’s catcher of the future, if, or when, Suzuki departs in the next couple of years. Until then, Norris will head into spring training looking to groom his fielding abilities and see how he fares against some top-level big league pitching.
Opening Day destination: Triple-A Sacramento
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