Suzuki Ready For The Next Big Step

Kurt Suzuki may be a laid-back guy off of the field, but he plays baseball with intensity. The Cal-State Fullerton alum has been on the fast-track to the big leagues since he was drafted in 2004. We spoke to the Hawaiian native in Sacramento on Tuesday, two days before the start of his season at Triple-A Sacramento.

Kurt Suzuki was a late addition to the non-roster invitee list to major league spring training camp in 2005, filling in for the injured Landon Powell. Suzuki took advantage of the opportunity to impress the major league staff, as he hit .417 in 13 games that spring. The right-handed hitter followed that spring performance with a good season offensively in High-A Stockton, batting .277 with 12 homers and 65 RBIs in 114 games for the Ports. However, Suzuki struggled at times in Stockton with his defense, particularly his footwork.

After another turn in major league camp in 2006, Suzuki headed to Double-A Midland, where he continued to shine offensively. The most notable aspect of his 2006 campaign, however, was the significant improvement he made on defense. Suzuki was among the Texas League leaders in every defensive category for catchers and he cut down his passed ball totals by more than half.

"I always knew I could play defense. I've always worked hard my whole life trying to improve in every aspect of the game," Suzuki said on Tuesday before the Sacramento River Cats' scrimmage with the Stockton Ports.

"These past couple of off-seasons, I have mainly focused on my defense. Knowing that the offense would come along, I have really had a defense-first mentality and it's really helped."

Suzuki has always had a patient approach at the plate and that didn't change when he made the difficult leap from High-A to Double-A. He even improved his plate discipline while he was in Midland. For the first time in his career, he walked more than he struck out (58 walks to 55 strikeouts). Suzuki posted a .392 OBP while often batting in the first or second slot in the order for the Midland Rockhounds.

"The pitchers were more consistent throwing strikes and throwing what they wanted to and trying to get you to hit their pitch [in Double-A]. There was a lot more effort to try to stay with your game plan and not fall into doing what [the opposition] wants you to do. You've really got to set your approach and stick with it. That is definitely the most important thing I learned last season," Suzuki said.

During the final month of the 2006 season, Suzuki left the Rockhounds to join Team USA in the Olympic qualifying tournament. He helped lead the Stars-and-Stripes back into the Olympic tournament by batting .417 in the tournament and belting a walk-off homerun against Brazil.

"You are playing against the best in the world. It was a great experience. I got to play with a lot of guys from different organizations and I learned a lot from them too," Suzuki said.

Suzuki points to his time in big league camp over the past three seasons as one of the reasons for his improvement each year of his minor league career.

"I was honored to be asked to participate in camp with the major league club and I have just tried to learn as much as I can. Like I have the last few years in major league camp, I was just trying to be a sponge and absorb as much as possible [this year]," Suzuki said.

"It's different [from being in minor league camp]. You are around guys like Mike Piazza and Jason Kendall and Eric Chavez. I've been working mostly with the catchers so I have been teamed with Piazza, Kendall and [Adam] Melhuse. There has been a bunch of information for me to take in and try to use to get myself better. They talk about the rigors of the game and how they went about their business coming up through the minor leagues."

This spring, Suzuki had the opportunity to pick the brain of a future Hall of Famer in Piazza and he took full advantage of the opportunity.

"[Piazza] is a great guy. He is always willing to teach and to give information to try to get you better. He knows that I am a young guy and that I'm trying to learn and he is always willing to give information to help you try to learn," Suzuki said.

One of the highlights of Suzuki's spring came in the final game of the spring schedule. In his last at-bat of the spring, Suzuki launched a long homerun to left off of San Francisco Giants' reliever Vinnie Chulk in front of the A's home crowd at McAfee Coliseum.

"It was an awesome feeling. It was just great to be able to participate. There was a lot of adrenaline running through me [after the homer]," Suzuki said.

Moving up a level for the third consecutive season, Suzuki is ready to tackle the next step in his development towards becoming a major league regular.

"[My goal] is just to keep improving. I think everyone in this game can keep improving and, for me, just improving in all aspects of the game is what I am looking to do," Suzuki said.

With Kendall eligible for free agency after this season, Suzuki's time in Oakland may be fast approaching.

"I'm just trying to get myself ready to the point that the upper brass knows that I am ready to jump in any time they need me to."

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