Oakland A's Spring Training Battles: Catchers

The answer to the question of who will be the Oakland A's starting catcher in 2012 is obvious, but the race for the job of backing up Kurt Suzuki is wide-open. We take a look at the A's spring training battle for that back-up catcher spot inside.

A Look Back At 2011

For more than 10 years, the Oakland A's have counted on one primary catcher to take the vast majority of their reps behind the plate. That trend continued in 2011, as veteran Kurt Suzuki logged 129 games played behind the plate. It was the fourth straight year that Suzuki appeared in more than 120 games as the A's catcher.

Kurt Suzuki is coming off of a rough 2011 season.

Suzuki's durability was arguably his biggest asset in 2011. He suffered through one of the most difficult seasons of his three-and-a-half year major league career, both at the plate and behind it. As a hitter, Suzuki hit only .237 with a 686 OPS. His OPS was actually slightly higher than it was in 2010, thanks to a slight resurgence during the second half of the year during which he had a 763 OPS. Much of those improved second-half numbers were thanks to a strong August (892 OPS), by far his best month of the season. He struggled in September (672 OPS).

It was defensively where Suzuki experienced his biggest challenges. His catcher's ERA rose from 3.29 in 2010 to 3.78 in 2011. He had trouble throwing out runners attempting to steal, allowing a career-high 98 stolen bases. His throwing did improve as the season went on, but he finished with a 27.9% caught-stealing rate.

Despite his struggles, Suzuki was still the most productive of the three catchers the A's used in 2011. For a third consecutive season, Landon Powell was Suzuki's primary back-up. He appeared in 33 games as a catcher but struggled with his inconsistent playing time. In 106 at-bats, he hit only .170/.241/.226 with 30 strike-outs and only one homerun. Defensively, Powell played well. He had a career-best 2.70 catcher's ERA and threw out 36% of all base-stealers.

Landon Powell was a surprise demotion late in the 2011 season.

It was a strange year for Powell, however. Despite serving as the A's back-up catcher for much of the past three seasons, he was sent down to Triple-A in late August to make room for Anthony Recker. Powell would remain on the River Cats' roster from August 22 until the Sacramento season ended on September 10. He would appear in four more games in the big leagues after being recalled.

Recker got the call in late August and made his major league debut on August 25th versus the New York Yankees. Unfortunately for Recker, it was the game that the A's took an early 7-1 lead, only to lose 22-9. Recker would appear in only four more games with the A's despite remaining on the A's roster the rest of the season. In total, A's catchers hit .222/.289/.351 with 15 homers.

Good-Bye And Hello

The A's have had a lot of roster turnover this off-season, but very little of that turnover has impacted their catchers. Landon Powell was removed from the A's 40-man roster in December, but he cleared waivers and is still part of the organization as a non-roster player. The A's did add one catcher: prospect Derek Norris, who was one of the players acquired by Oakland in the Gio Gonzalez trade with Washington. With four catchers on their 40-man roster and Powell still in the fold as a non-roster player, the A's did not sign any free agent minor league veteran catchers to Triple-A contracts this off-season.

Catchers Invited To Camp

Josh Donaldson*
Derek Norris*
Ryan Ortiz
Landon Powell
Anthony Recker*
Max Stassi
Kurt Suzuki*

*Denotes player on 40-man roster

Number Of Catchers Likely On Roster – 2

Lock To Make The Team

Kurt Suzuki: In 2009, Suzuki was considered one of the rising young stars at his position. He hit .274 with 15 homers and 88 RBIs that season and was thought to be one of the better defensive catchers in the American League. Since then, however, Suzuki's star has dimmed somewhat. He has posted consecutive seasons with OPSs below 700 and his struggles to throw out base-runners have been well-documented. That all being said, the A's love his leadership of the pitching staff and, as long as he is a member of the organization, he is a lock to be the team's starting catcher this year.

Receiving more frequent time-off could aid Suzuki. The 2011 season was the first time in his major league career that he hit better after the All-Star break than he did before it. It was also the first time that the A's tried to give him some scheduled days off early in the season. It would behoove the A's to continue this practice in 2012. Suzuki, 28, is still young despite his three-plus years in the big leagues, but he isn't a big man and catching so many games early in his career could be taking a toll on him physically. The 2012 season will be a big one for Suzuki, who needs to recapture his offensive prowess from the 2009 season and show that he has improved his ability to control the running game. If he gets off to a strong start and the A's fade out of the playoff picture early in the season, Suzuki could be a trade candidate around the July deadline.

Favorites For The Final Spots

Josh Donaldson played in the bigs in 2010 but not 2011.

Josh Donaldson: Of the four catchers who spent time on the A's 40-man roster last season, Donaldson was the only one who didn't see any major league time. Despite that fact, he still has a strong chance of making the A's Opening Day roster out of spring training. Donaldson battled a number of minor injuries during the final six weeks of the 2011 regular season, which likely contributed to the A's decision not to bring him up in September. Donaldson had a solid season with the River Cats, batting .261/.344/.439 in 115 games. He played the majority of his games at catcher but also saw time at third base and, as was discussed in our corner infield preview yesterday, could be viewed as a viable option as a back-up third baseman by the A's this season. Donaldson has some power, but he has vacillated throughout his career between being a patient hitter and an aggressive one. The past two seasons he has been wearing his aggressive hitting shoes, with mixed results. The power numbers have increased, but the strike-outs have also increased and the walks have decreased dramatically. Finding more of a balanced approach at the plate would serve Donaldson well this spring. Defensively, Donaldson has improved his game-calling behind the plate considerably over the past two seasons and he has a strong arm. He is still arguably the weakest defensive player of the three candidates to back-up Suzuki, but he offers the most offensive upside, positional flexibility and he is the youngest of the trio.

Anthony Recker: At this time last year, it was expected that Recker would be playing his final season in the A's organization. A 2005 18th-round pick of the A's, Recker had consistently put up good numbers at the plate while improving behind the plate, but he was also often on the short-end of personnel decisions, seemingly stuck behind Donaldson, Suzuki and Powell indefinitely. Recker changed all of that thinking with the best season of his career in 2011. He posted an 889 OPS for the River Cats and forced his way into being an everyday player for Sacramento. Recker was a surprise call-up in late-August and he has remained on the A's 40-man roster throughout the off-season, a testament to what the A's think of Recker's future as a back-up catcher in the big leagues. Recker has always been one of the better right-handed power hitters in the A's chain, but he really made his numbers stand-out last season by improving his plate discipline. He posted a career-best .388 OBP, drawing 56 walks in 99 games. Recker also cut-down on his strike-outs. Defensively, he improved his footwork behind the plate and continued to garner praise from the River Cats' pitching staff. He also played a position other than catcher for the first time in his minor league career, logging some time at first base. While his time at first was limited, the fact that Recker now has experience playing at least one other position should help him in the battle to make the A's 25-man roster.

Battling For A Spot

Landon Powell: Powell will be entering camp in an unusual position. He is by far the most experienced catcher not named Suzuki in A's camp in terms of major league service time, but he isn't on the 40-man roster. Not being on the 40-man roster shouldn't be a huge impediment for Powell in his quest to make the A's roster, but it is an indication that he is slightly behind Donaldson and Recker in terms of pecking order at the start of camp. Powell is arguably the best defensive catcher in the A's camp, Suzuki included. The A's top pick in 2004 hasn't been given a chance at regular playing time during his three major league seasons. He received the most playing time of his career as a rookie in 2009. Probably not coincidentally, that was Powell's best season, as he posted a 726 OPS and homered seven times in 140 at-bats. The switch-hitting Powell has an excellent batting eye and power from both sides of the plate, but his swing is long, something that is likely exasperated by long stretches of inactivity. Powell also has durability concerns that have made the A's wary about using him in an everyday capacity. He does have some experience playing first base, but those durability issues have kept the A's from using him "out of position" that often. Powell has a good rapport with the A's pitching staff and had a team-best 2.70 catcher's ERA in the big leagues last season. It wouldn't be shocking to see Powell overtake Recker and Donaldson and claim the back-up catcher slot this spring.

Looking To Make An Impression

Derek Norris was acquired from Washington.

Derek Norris: There will be several new faces in Oakland A's camp this spring, and Norris will be one of the most high-profile of those newcomers. The former Washington Nationals' prospect could very well be the heir-apparent to Suzuki as the A's everyday catcher. Norris, who will turn 23 next week, has been one of baseball's top catching prospects for the past four years. His batting average has dipped the past two seasons, but he has shown above-average plate patience and good power for a catcher. Defensively, Norris has improved his glove work significantly, although he still has a ways to go before he is a major-league ready backstop. Norris' defense should get special attention from A's manager and former big league catcher Bob Melvin. Norris has very little chance of making the A's Opening Day roster, but he could position himself as a possibility to take over for Suzuki mid-season should the A's decide to deal their incumbent backstop.

Here For The Future

Ryan Ortiz: Ortiz has been quietly rising through the A's organization since being drafted in the sixth round in 2009 out of Oregon State. That progress has only been slowed by a right shoulder injury that cost him the final few months of the 2010 season and the first six weeks of the 2011 campaign. The shoulder injury impacted his throwing in 2011 but his bat didn't suffer. He had a 970 OPS in 28 games with the High-A Stockton Ports before being promoted to Double-A Midland. Ortiz started out swinging the bat well with the Rockhounds, but he slumped during the final month of the season and finished with a 660 OPS for Midland. He redeemed himself this fall by posting a 948 OPS in a 15-game stint with in the Arizona Fall League. Ortiz's bat is currently ahead of his glove, thanks in part to the shoulder problems. The A's believe that when healthy Ortiz can stick as a catcher. Ortiz will be attending his first big league camp and will be looking to soak up as much knowledge from the A's veteran catching corps as possible.

Max Stassi is on the comeback trail after an injury-shortened season.

Max Stassi: Stassi is another promising A's catching prospect who has been hampered by a shoulder problem the past two seasons. He underwent surgery on his right shoulder in May of last season and missed the rest of the year. Stassi has been on a throwing program all winter and should be close to 100 percent by spring training. Although only he is only 20 (Stassi turns 21 in May), he will be attending his third big league spring training. Stassi was thought to be a bat-first prospect when he was drafted in 2009, but his glove has moved past his bat for the moment. He is still a few years away from being big-league ready, but Stassi's time in big league camp will continue to aid his development.

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