Oakland A's Spring Training Battles: Catcher

The weather outside might still be frightful, but spring is just around the corner and that means only one thing: baseball! Every year, we preview the spring training roster battles that will take place during major league camp. While these battles may change based on a late off-season move, most of these scenarios will still hold true. We begin our series with a look at the catchers' battle.

A Look Back At 2006

Since arriving in Oakland in November 2005, Jason Kendall has seen his name in the line-up as the Oakland A's catcher a remarkable 293 times. After a disastrous 2005 campaign that saw Kendall post a career-worst 666 OPS and struggle throwing out runners, the former Pittsburgh star rebounded a bit in 2006. His throwing improved tremendously and he upped his OPS by 45 points. Although his slugging percentage was still anemic (.342), Kendall posted solid numbers in the batting average (.295) and on-base percentage (.367) categories. He excelled against left-handed pitching, batting .331 with an 832 OPS.

Adam Melhuse served as Kendall's back-up for the second-straight year and, for a second consecutive season, saw little playing time. The switch-hitting catcher appeared in 49 games (24 behind the plate) after playing in 39 the year before. He had a poor year at the plate, batting only .219 with a .273 on-base percentage. Melhuse did manage to hit four homeruns in 128 at-bats, however.

Jeremy Brown joined the team three times during the season but didn't manage to get into a game until late in September when the rosters had expanded. Brown made only one brief appearance behind the plate, serving as the DH in the other four games he appeared in at the major league level. The rookie catcher had three hits in 10 at-bats, including two doubles, at the big league level.

New Acquisitions

The A's biggest off-season acquisition, Mike Piazza, is arguably the greatest hitting catcher of all-time. Piazza, however, isn't expected to get much playing time behind the plate, as the A's are set to use the future Hall of Famer as their everyday DH. Piazza's presence on the roster, however, should allow the A's to use their back-up catcher more creatively, as Piazza can serve as an emergency third catcher.

Catchers Invited To Camp

John Baker
Jeremy Brown
Jason Kendall
Adam Melhuse
Mike Piazza
Kurt Suzuki

Number Of Catchers Likely On Roster – 3, including Piazza.

Locks To Make The Team

Jason Kendall: The A's have turned to Kendall to catch 80 percent of their games in each of the last two seasons. That isn't likely to change in 2007.
Mike Piazza: The A's are hoping Piazza will deliver the kind of offensive firepower that Frank Thomas provided the team in 2006.

Favorite For The Final Spot

Adam Melhuse: Melhuse is arbitration-eligible this off-season and there were some rumblings at the start of the off-season that the A's would non-tender him. With Kendall on the roster, the A's hardly use their back-up catchers, so it seemed that the budget-conscious A's might decide not to pay more than the minimum for a back-up catcher, especially with AAA-seasoned Brown and Baker waiting in the wings. The A's decided to tender Melhuse a contract, however, so he will enter camp as the favorite to act as the team's back-up catcher once again.

His best major league season was in 2003, when he posted a 956 OPS in 77 at-bats. He followed that up with a 772 OPS in 2004 spread over 214 at-bats. However, each of the last two seasons, Melhuse's OPS has come in under the 700 mark. He is a below-average game-caller with an average throwing arm. Teams are always looking for a veteran back-up catcher, so Melhuse could become trade bait if the A's decide they want to go in a cheaper direction during the spring.

Battling For The Final Spot

Jeremy Brown: After three frustrating seasons stuck at Double-A, Brown finally earned a promotion to Triple-A in 2006. He swung the bat well in the beginning of the season, batting .357 in April. However, he slumped in May and June, in part thanks to a couple of call-ups to Oakland where he spent significant time sitting on the bench. He rebounded in July and August, hitting seven homeruns in 127 at-bats. Brown was a September call-up and he looked good at the plate in 10 late-season at-bats. He collected two doubles and a walk.

Brown's strength is his hitting. He has a very good batting eye and surprising power for someone only standing 5'10''. Brown approaches his at-bats in a studious way and rarely swings at the first pitch, a good trait for a pinch-hitter. His defense, however, is below-average, although he has worked to improve in that area. His throwing arm is average, but his footwork when blocking balls behind the plate is suspect. Former A's manager Ken Macha didn't trust Brown's defense, thus rarely playing him during his time in Oakland. He'll need to improve behind the plate to become a back-up catcher at the major league level.

New A's manager Bob Geren, a former major league catcher himself, could help Brown with his defense. If he shows improvement in that area, Brown could be an intriguing choice to replace Melhuse as the A's back-up catcher, as Brown is likely to out-hit Melhuse over the course of a season and appears to be better suited to be a pinch-hitter than Melhuse due to Brown's famously patient hitting approach.

John Baker: After a poor 2005 campaign that saw him lose his 40-man roster spot, Baker rebounded with a solid, if not spectacular, season for the Sacramento River Cats in 2006. The 2006 season began with Baker putting together a solid showing at major league spring training camp, where he lasted until the final cuts. He didn't play much at the start of the season, as Brown received much of the playing time with the River Cats. However, when Brown was promoted to Oakland, Baker's playing time increased and he took advantage. Baker hit .309 and .314 in the months of May and June, when he was playing most regularly. For the season, he hit .273 and got on-base at a .361 clip.

Baker is a better defensive catcher than Brown and may be better behind the plate than Melhuse. He handles pitching staffs well and is a famously hard-worker. Baker has the advantage over Brown of being a left-handed hitter, and with Kendall and Piazza being right-handed, the A's might look for a left-handed hitting back-up catcher if they decide to move Melhuse.

Here For The Future

Kurt Suzuki: This will likely be the last year that Kurt Suzuki enters a spring training without a legitimate chance at winning a major league roster spot. The 2004 second round pick has impressed in each of his first three seasons in the Oakland chain and seems poised to take over the A's starting catching position in 2008 when Kendall's contract is up. Suzuki spent the 2006 season at Double-A Midland, where he hit .285 and posted an on-base percentage of .392. He also starred for Team USA in the August Olympic Qualifying Tournament and was one of the A's representatives at the Futures Game during All-Star Weekend.

Suzuki is solid line-drive hitter with great command of the strike zone and excellent balance at the plate. He walked more than he struck out last season and was a catalyst in the top two spots of the Rockhounds' line-up. His defense was criticized in 2005 when he was in High-A Stockton, but he improved tremendously in 2006, cutting down his passed balls by nearly 75 percent and throwing out nearly half of the base-runners who tried to steal off of him. He is a hard worker who has always been one of the leaders on the teams he has played on. This will be Suzuki's third spring training at major league camp and the A's are clearly grooming him as their catcher of the future.

Storyline To Watch

Suzuki will almost assuredly be at Triple-A Sacramento in 2007, meaning that there will be an overload of catchers at the Triple-A level if the A's decide not to trade Melhuse. Look for either Brown or Baker to be moved if Melhuse stays, as both catchers are too good to play as third catchers at Triple-A and are too advanced to play at Double-A, where Landon Powell will likely be getting the majority of the 2007 playing time anyway.

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