The Starting Job
This one is pretty simple. Unless something completely unforeseen occurs this winter, Kurt Suzuki will be the A’s starting catcher on opening day. As things stand right now, that’s probably in addition to roughly 140 more games to follow, including his role as DH from time-to-time. While his total games played in 2010 turned out to be a personal low for Suzuki among his first three full seasons in the Majors, his 131 appearances still placed him in the top 4 among Major League catchers-not necessarily to the Athletics’ benefit. Of those four catchers, Suzuki’s .669 OPS was the worst. If you think fourth out of four of the most “everyday” of the everyday catchers might be too small of a sample size, Suzuki’s numbers only look worse with further examination. There were 19 big-league catchers to appear in at least 100 games in 2010; only Alex Avila, Ivan Rodriguez, and Jason Kendall had an OPS lower than Kurt Suzuki’s.
Although 2010 was undeniably a down year for Suzuki, he’s been one of the more overrated catchers in baseball ever since his first full season in 2008. Not to take anything away from what he could quite conceivably do in the future, it should be noted that his WAR’s actually fallen each year since then. That could certainly be attributed to the league-wide mediocrity of the catching position, but that’s really only applicable to his first couple years. More offensive-minded catchers seem to be cropping up all over baseball. In 2009, Suzuki finished fifth in WAR, despite putting up somewhat pedestrian numbers compared to the non-catching majority. Among the top 30 MLB catchers in games played in 2010, 13 of them had a higher OPS than Kurt Suzuki did in 2009, his best season to date. Yes, that means the 2009 version of Kurt Suzuki would place 14th among these 30 catchers, which is “good” by comparison at the very least. But the 2009 version of Kurt Suzuki was among the better catchers in a pool of inferior talent compared to that of 2010. Brian McCann, Joe Mauer, Buster Posey, Carlos Ruiz, Jorge Posada, John Buck, Ramon Hernandez, and Geovany Soto all posted an OPS over .790 in 2010. If Victor Martinez still counts as a catcher then add his name to the list also. That means there are twice as many good-hitting catchers now as there were a year ago. What does this mean for next season? Kurt Suzuki’s poor 2010 means his relative value has dropped even more than it appears. The recent emergence of league-wide talent behind the plate has consequentially made Kurt Suzuki nothing much more than a “tolerable” catcher entering the 2011 season. Despite not yet having reached the Bengie Molina zone of the WAR scale, his +1.6 wins in 2010 leave a bit to be desired-especially for a player as celebrated among A’s fans as Kurt Suzuki.
Suzuki’s numbers could change depending on the roster alterations that may or may not occur in the upcoming winter. If a big-time impact bat (or two) is added, and/or perhaps Daric Barton or Chris Carter become legitimate contributors, then it wouldn’t be surprising to see Suzuki earn his way back into the upper-echelon of MLB catchers. It’s definitely worth noting that he’s never been a part of a truly formidable lineup. Suzuki was written in as the third hitter in the A’s lineup 59 times last season, tied with Ryan Sweeney. Using him as the A’s three-hitter was just as unfair to him as it was to A’s fans. It also speaks to how anemic the offense really was (Ryan Sweeney?!). The fact that Suzuki was even considered a three-hitter is a reflection of the few options Bob Geren actually had when he was writing names down.
Kurt Suzuki at a Glance
OPS among MLB C (min 350 PA): 20th out of 23
ISO among MLB C (min 350 PA): 15th out of 23
WAR among MLB C (min 350 PA): 18th out of 23
2010 was still no excuse to panic about Kurt Suzuki’s future. It’s still completely within reason to expect him to match, or even improve on his 2009 numbers, which were actually above the 2010 MLB average of .257/.325/.403, and just about on par with the 2010 AL average of .260/.327/.407. It’s really only the emergence of certain catchers that decreased his relative value among players at that position (in conjunction with the down year). In that respect, A’s fans shouldn’t grow too worrisome because the catching position won’t become the slugger safe-haven that 1st base has traditionally been. With that said, A’s fans aren’t going to complain if a few more big bats make it so their everyday backstop doesn’t even have to think about hitting 3rd again, or being penciled in as the designated hitter. Kurt Suzuki probably wouldn’t complain either.
The Backup Plan
The backup catching position is far less certain than the starting situation. Josh Donaldson is expected to compete with Landon Powell for the job. Most A’s fans know of Landon Powell’s health conditions that essentially prevent him from ever being an everyday catcher. What will be interesting is how the spring plays out. Assuming both guys are still around for it, the backup job is Powell’s to take, but Donaldson will get the closest look behind him. Josh Donaldson hasn’t had enough MLB appearances to compare his big-league numbers to Powell’s, but one could argue that not even Powell has gotten an adequate amount either, despite having been on the team for the better part of the last two seasons. A decent comparison of the two could be drawn from their minor league numbers. Landon Powell put up a line of .255/.361/.433 in 306 minor league games while Josh Donaldson has a more favorable line of .271/.366/.460 in 373 minor league games. The defensive aspect however, is in Landon Powell’s favor. A 2007 scouting report of Josh Donaldson notes his strong, accurate arm as his greatest defensive asset, while his inexperience at the position, along with his poor footwork, and subpar ball-blocking ability left some scouts questioning his ability to remain a catcher on his way to the big leagues. Landon Powell on the other hand, was named the best defensive catcher in the Athletics organization by Baseball America going into the 2009 season.
Obviously Max Stassi should get an invite to big league camp, but his performance his first year of professional baseball implies that he has a few things to work on in the lower levels before he becomes a real candidate. Besides, the A’s wouldn’t waste Stassi’s time as a backup anyway.
Anth ony Recker has put up solid numbers in 6 minor league seasons with the A’s and is subject to the Rule 5 Draft unless he’s put on the 40-man roster before November 20
The Catching Market
When the Athletics signed Kurt Suzuki to a 4-year extension this past June, they did it because they plan on him being around for awhile. That extension, combined with Suzuki’s poor play, all but squashed the rumors surrounding Boston’s interest in the Maui native. If the A’s are even mentioned as a team with interest in the Russell Martin’s or Mike Napoli’s of this years’ offseason, it’s because the aforementioned “unforeseeable” has happened…or is about to happen…or may potentially happen…or you’re dreaming. The last of which is the most likely. In other words, regarding the A’s pursuit of a starting or backup catcher via trade or free agency, all signs point to NO. The A’s have too many lineup issues glaring them straight in the face to waste their time debating how much worse Chris Iannetta’s numbers could get when 0% of his games are played at Coors Field instead of 50%, or whether a Ramon Hernandez reunion that forces the A’s to give up two draft picks could turn out worse than the Jason Giambi reunion of 2009.
As much as I’d like to be bold, I’d prefer not looking like an idiot in the end, so I’ll try for both ends of the spectrum. I think Suzuki’s extension gives Max Stassi time to develop into the A’s starting catcher of 2014 or 2015. Additionally, Landon Powell has done fine as the second option over the past two seasons. And while Josh Donaldson is unquestionably talented, he’s probably too talented to be a backup. But he’s also not going to be the starting catcher. The organizational conditions surrounding Kurt Suzuki, Landon Powell and Max Stassi make Donaldson expendable in my opinion. He’s not going to bring back Albert Pujols, but he could add value to a trade package designed by the A’s that helps them attain one of the bats they so desperately need.
Starting Catcher on Opening Day 2011: Kurt Suzuki
Backup Catcher on Opening Day 2011: Landon Powell
If Josh Donaldson is on the Opening Day roster, I still think he’ll get traded. It’s a fair possibility because the A’s may try showcasing him during the spring, and the exchange may not actually commence until later into the season.
About the Author
Written by Patrick Ryan