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Can Oakland A's Catcher John Jaso Succeed as Full-Time DH?

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Can Oakland A's Catcher John Jaso Succeed as Full-Time DH?
Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

The Oakland Athletics avoided arbitration by signing John Jason to a one-year contract Thursday, according to the team's official website. Salary numbers have not yet been released.

This is great news for both parties. The Athletics re-sign Jaso, a veteran catcher who was out of commission for the last two months of the season last year, unable to recover from the concussion he suffered during a game in late July. Now he has been cleared to resume baseball activities at full speed, which is wonderful news for Jaso.

But simply being healthy to play does not make his return any more clear, however.

While getting Jaso and his .387 on-base percentage back in the mix is important for the A’s, his role with the team is still somewhat cloudy. Given the seriousness of his concussion history, the A’s are rumored to be considering erring on the side of caution by eliminating his catching duties. That of course means Jaso would be the top candidate as the primary designated hitter.

Though Jaso has stated he certainly does not want to hang up his catcher’s mitt and gear, protecting the future of his body, at least in the short term, is something to be mindful of. So the opportunity to serve primarily as a hitter this upcoming would do wonders for his physical health.

Will he be successful in that role?

There are many aspects of his offensive game that indicate he can be. Most notable is his robust .387 OBP, the highest mark on the team (in 249 plate appearances), which is boosted by the Athletics’ pet statistic: bases on balls. His 38 walks were one more than the totals of both Yoenis Cespedes (529 at-bats) and Derek Norris (264 at-bats). Certainly, Jaso’s keen eye and ability to get on base is an asset for an offense that depends strongly on the long ball and putting up crooked numbers.

For the A’s, (plate) patience is always a virtue.

But is that enough to make Jaso a successful DH? Will he truly be of service, an asset, in that role?

He can’t do worse (it seems) than the Oakland designated hitters of last season. The A’s produced a .230 batting average from the DH slot in the batting order, with 20 home runs and a shrug-worthy .698 OPS. Granted, the DH slot was the largest carousel for manager Bob Melvin, with eight different Athletics earning more than 25 at-bats at that position throughout the year. Having a player who is comfortable performing in that type of platoon is key. Many A’s players have struggled with the part-time duties.

Jaso seems like he could fit nicely in that role, though.

As a left-handed hitter, he would receive the brunt of the playing time against righties. And the interrupted playing time could be a long-term benefit for him during the course of the lengthy season.

However, while Jaso’s slash line of .282/.405/.398 against right-handers last year was more than adequate, there are some areas of his game that would be missing with him as the primary DH. Most obvious is his power. Or lack thereof.

In 2013, Jaso smacked as many home runs (three) as Daric Barton, one fewer homer than Adam Rosales and Stephen Vogt and only one more than Kurt Suzuki during his extremely abbreviated cameo reunion with the A’s during the team’s stretch run to the AL West title. With a .391 career slugging percentage, power numbers are seemingly not Jaso’s strong suit.

Not that the DH spot is solely reserved for powerful home run hitters. Jaso clearly doesn’t need to fill the one-dimensional shoes of recent Athletics designated hitters Matt Stairs, John Jaha, Jack Cust et al (however, his strikeout rate is high enough to be in that class of free-swingers). Clearly, given his special skill, Jaso’s job won’t be to hit the home runs; it’ll be to get on base in front of the home runs.

Which he can do. If so, Jaso could turn out to be an updated version of Scott Hatteberg: If he gets an extra-base hit, great. If he gets on base via walk, even better.

It will be interesting to see how Jaso handles full-speed action, particularly after a somewhat lengthy layoff. Jaso could struggle out of the gate. He could re-acclimate smoothly. Chances are that he won’t necessarily outpace his output from last year. But Oakland will probably be OK with his sliver of productivity. It’s the whole pie that the team is worried about, not just his small portion.

For the Athletics, the hopeful scenario is that Jaso performs at or just below last season’s level. The team will take his on-base rate as the left-handed portion of the DH platoon. Best-case scenario, Jaso is able to fill in at catcher—provided he’s healthy enough—should Vogt’s performance slip below tolerable.

Worst-case scenario, he spends a good chunk of time in Triple-A and becomes an injury stopgap whenever needed. In any possibility, the A’s have their bases covered at co-DH and co-catcher. And they (presumably) haven’t spent a lot of money doing so. Which is to be expected from the versatile Athletics ballclub.

 

Follow me on Twitter: @nathanieljue.

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