Spring Training Battles: Catchers

Although the Oakland A's currently appear to have their 25-man roster set, injuries or trades could open up a spot before Opening Day. We finalize our pre-season look at the players battling for a spot on the 25-man roster. In the sixth and final installment in our series, we look at the three catchers (and a prospect) in the A's camp who will be hoping to find their way onto the crowded A's 25-man roster.

The Oakland A's catching situation is so unique that even if a catcher were to make the 25-man roster, there is no guarantee that he would see action in more than a handful of games. That is because the A's starting catcher is Jason Kendall, who has redefined the term "iron man" amongst catchers over the past few seasons. While some teams carry three catchers on their 25-man rosters, carrying two catchers almost seems superfluous with Kendall on board. Well, that might be a little overstating things, although there were times last season when back-up catcher Adam Melhuse had to feel like the forgotten man on the A's bench.

Despite a disappointing first season in Oakland, Kendall is expected to start and to play often for the A's again in 2006. Although he may not appear in quite as many games, he should see action in well over 100 contests. Sitting behind Kendall on the depth chart will be Melhuse once again, who enters his third season as the A's primary back-up catcher. Melhuse, too, had a down season offensively in 2005, although it is hard to stay sharp when playing so infrequently. The A's like Melhuse's defense and game-calling when he is in there, so it would likely take a monster spring by one of the other catchers in camp to push him off the 25-man roster.

That being said, if the A's like what they see from one of their three "veteran" minor league catchers in camp, they could be tempted to trade Melhuse to a team looking for a solid back-up catcher. It isn't likely, but stranger things have happened. Let's take a look at the three veterans in camp to see how they stack up:

Jeremy Brown

It seems that Jeremy Brown has been a fixture at the A's major league camp for the past ten years, but in reality, this is only his fourth spring since being drafted in 2002. Despite all of his exposure to the A's major league coaching staff, Brown has still yet to advance beyond the AA level. This should be the year that he gets his shot at AAA, as Brown is coming off of his best offensive season as a professional.

Brown, who was one of the featured players in Moneyball, may never become the star that Michael Lewis hinted he'd be in the book. However, Brown still has a good shot at being a solid back-up catcher in the major leagues, along the lines of a Doug Mirabelli or Vance Wilson. Brown has never been a wizard with the glove, but his defensive play has improved over the past few years. He added power to his plate patience in 2005, and he has proved to be durable, starting more than 100 games in each of the past two seasons after an injury robbed him of much of his 2003 campaign.

Brown is the only catcher besides Kendall and Melhuse who is on the A's 40-man roster, so he has some advantage over the other catchers in camp in that regard. However, the A's would likely want to see him face some AAA pitching before he received consideration for a 25-man roster spot. If Melhuse or Kendall were to be injured in camp, Brown would certainly get a long look, but chances are he still needs a little more seasoning at AAA.

John Baker

The saga of John Baker's tumultuous off-season has been well-documented on this site. Baker was released from the A's 40-man roster in December and claimed by the Florida Marlins soon after. The Marlins then cut Baker off of their 40-man roster in early January, and the A's scooped Baker back up again. However, Oakland jettisoned the East Bay native once more in February when they needed to create a 40-man roster spot for Frank Thomas. Baker re-signed with Oakland on a minor league deal and was invited to big league camp for the second straight season.

At this time last year, it seemed that Baker was on the verge of pushing Melhuse for the back-up role in Oakland. Baker had had a strong season at the plate in 2004, and his defense had made notable improvements. He also was a coach's favorite thanks to his solid work ethic and intelligence behind the plate. However, Baker had a very poor season at the plate for the River Cats in 2005. He posted a Kendall-esque 667 OPS and managed only five homers after hitting 15 the year before.

Baker will probably start the season back at AAA-Sacramento, although with the newly signed Raul Casanova on board, along with Brown and possibly Casey Meyers, there may not be enough playing time for Baker at AAA. However, Casanova was signed before the A's re-inked Baker, so it isn't clear whether Casanova fits into the A's plans with Baker back on board. In any case, Baker will be looking to show the A's brass that his 2004 swing is back. No matter where he begins the season, he can erase a lot of the effects of the 2005 campaign with a hot start in 2006.

Raul Casanova

Raul Casanova has the advantage of being the only member of the trio of catchers in A's camp to have major league experience. The 34 year old has appeared in 338 games over seven big league seasons. Most recently, Casanova saw action in six games with the World Champion White Sox last season. Casanova, like Alberto Castillo was for the A's last season, is a typical veteran back-up catcher who floats between AAA and the big leagues. He is valued for his defense and experience, but he has never hit much at the major league level.

If Melhuse or Kendall were to be injured in camp, Casanova would probably be the first candidate to take their place - despite not being on the 40-man roster - because of his experience in the major leagues. However, it is his health which has been of concern at the start of camp, as Casanova has already required treatment for his back. He'll need to be healthy to familiarize himself with the A's coaching staff and to make an impression behind the plate.

Prospect to Watch:

Kurt Suzuki

Kurt Suzuki wasn't even expected to participate in major league camp last season, but when 2004 first round pick Landon Powell was felled by a knee injury, that opened up an opportunity for Suzuki. The Hawaiian native seized the chance and wowed the A's coaching staff with a mature approach at the plate and a cannon throwing arm. He was sent to high-A Stockton (one level higher then was originally planned), and he held his own there, posting an 818 OPS and smacking 12 homers in 114 games. That performance earned him a repeat chance at major league camp this spring.

Suzuki had his struggles defensively with the Ports last season and, undoubtedly, that will be one of his main focuses this spring. He is an above-average hitting catcher, and he could turn into a special catching prospect if he can up his defensive skills, especially in regards to his footwork behind the plate. Suzuki is a hard worker and a noted big game performer. He probably won't be major league ready for two more years, at least, but he'll be someone to watch.

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