Since Jason Kendall was traded to the Chicago Cubs in 2007, the Oakland A's have had one man behind the plate for more than 70 percent of their games. On Friday, they bid adieu to Kurt Suzuki and ushered in a new catching era in Oakland.
Just days after the close of the non-waiver trade deadline, the Oakland A's traded Suzuki to the Washington Nationals along with cash considerations for minor league catcher David Freitas. Freitas, a 15th-round pick of the Nationals out of the University of Hawaii in 2010, is not a member of the 40-man roster. The A's now have two open spots on their 40-man roster, although one will be filled later today by recently promoted starter Dan Straily.
Suzuki has spent his entire professional career as a member of the A's organization up until this point. Oakland's second round pick in 2004 out of Cal-State, Fullerton, Suzuki zoomed through the A's minor league system. He made his major league debut midway through the 2007 season and was the team's everyday catcher by the end of that year, supplanting veteran Jason Kendall.
At the start of Suzuki's career, the Hawaii native was a solid contributor offensively, as well as a defensive asset. He hit better than .270 in 2008 and 2009. The 2009 season was his best offensively in the big leagues, as he hit .274/.313/.421 with a career-high 15 homers. Since that year, however, Suzuki's offensive production has dropped precipitously. He posted OPSs of 669 and 686 in 2010 and 2011 and had a 536 OPS so far this season. Although Suzuki reached double figures in homeruns in each of the 2009 through 2011 seasons, he had homered only once this season.
Widely respected for his game-calling and ability to block pitches in the dirt, Suzuki had struggled in recent years controlling the running game. However, this season his caught-stealing percentage was back up to 38 percent, a big improvement from the 28 percent figure he posted last year. Suzuki also owns a .996 fielding percentage this season and has done wonders handling a young staff, something he will continue to do in Washington, where Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez, Jordan Zimmerman and Ross Detwiler are all relatively new to the majors.
In return for Suzuki, the A's have increased their minor league depth at catcher, which has been a position of strength for the A's the past few years. Ironically, two big parts of that young catching depth have come from the Nationals' organization in the form of Derek Norris and now Freitas. Norris will likely take-over for Suzuki as the A's everyday catcher -- if not this season, then by next year.
Freitas, in some ways, is very similar to Norris. The 23-year-old is a very patient hitter who has also hit for power during his brief minor league career. Last season, Freitas hit .288/.409/.450 with 13 homers in the Low-A Sally League. This year, Freitas has played in the Carolina League and is hitting .271/.374/.407. He was a mid-season Carolina League All-Star.
Freitas is relatively new to catching, having been a first baseman and a pitcher in high school. He made the conversion behind the plate during his college days and has improved defensively every season, although he is still a work-in-progress with the glove. At 6'2'', 225, Freitas is on the bigger side for a catcher, but he is athletic and has shown quick feet and soft hands. The former pitcher has a strong throwing arm but isn't yet consistent with his throwing mechanics.
It hasn't been announced where Freitas will be sent once he arrives in the Oakland organization. At High-A, the A's currently have Max Stassi and Ryan Ortiz holding down the catching duties. Stassi has been red-hot of late, homering four times in his last 10 games. He has an 815 OPS for Stockton. Ortiz began the year with Double-A Midland but struggled badly and was recently sent back to Stockton. The A's have been high on Ortiz in the past but he has a 569 OPS between Midland and Stockton this season.
If the A's decide to send Freitas to Double-A, they will need to fit him in with the current catching rotation of Beau Taylor and Ryan Lipkin. Taylor was promoted to Midland when Ortiz was demoted to Stockton. The A's 2011 fifth round pick has a 621 OPS for the Rockhounds in 17 games, but an 804 OPS overall in 69 games. Lipkin, a strong defensive catcher, has been with Midland all season. He is batting .207 wtih a 550 OPS in 52 games.