Live From the AFL: Kurt Suzuki

Pressure situations and winning are nothing new to the Oakland Athletics. Perennially in the AL West race, the A's and their GM, Billy Beane, have been, depending on who you are talking to, either the envy or scorn of many in baseball because of their draft philosophy. It seems to be a simple one: take players who are ready to play. Catcher Kurt Suzuki fits the bill.

Pressure situations and winning are nothing new to Kurt Suzuki either. At Cal State-Fullerton Suzuki went to the College World Series in 2004 and did something there the Athletics haven't managed in decades, he won the whole ball of wax. And he wasn't simply a part of the win, he was a key cog.

"That time in college was great, because winning is everything in this game. The earlier you start winning, the better off you are, and the higher a level you win at, the better off you are. People say you have to learn how to win, and being at CSF certainly taught me how to win."

Nicknamed 'Kurt Klutch' at CSF he was a steal, but he became a hot commodity as a pro. Growing up and playing his high school baseball in Hawaii he was barely recruited, but after his stellar college play the A's took him in the second round of the 2004 draft and after a productive first year in the Short Season Northwest League that saw him hit nearly .300 the A's wasted no time, bumping him to the Hi-A California League in just his second pro season.

While it was certainly an adjustment, Suzuki proved to be everything the A's were looking for and more. At Hi-A Stockton he hit .277 and started showing a power stroke that the A's think will only get better, hitting 12 homers. Though the A's took Landon Powell, another catcher, in the first round in 2004 Suzuki has moved ahead of him in the system and now, in the Arizona Fall League, he's continuing to impress, and live up to his nickname, by hitting .600 with runners in scoring position.

"It's definitely been a tiring year," Suzuki said from Phoenix where his Desert Dogs were prepping for a home game in the AFL, "but that is going to happen. I've played more than 140 games this year, and that's a lot different than the 60 games you play in college ball. One of my biggest goals for the year was staying healthy, and I did it. Even now, I feel great. It's hard, playing the extra games, but it's such an honor to be invited to this league that I wasn't going to miss it for the world."

Suzuki's a goal oriented kid, always looking to improve and the AFL, where the top prospects from each organization are joined by top coaches, is perfect for him.

"I'm working on how to call games here," he says, "and I've got a lot of help. A lot of these coaches, and some of the players, these are guys who have been to the big leagues. It's a great place to learn."

Which isn't to say that he's not having fun down in Arizona as well. The Desert Dogs have had three of the top catching prospects in the minors on the squad at the same time, with the Braves' Jarrod Saltalamacchia getting the most playing time and attention, and the Diamondbacks' Miguel Montero spending the first three weeks here before heading south to play in the Venezuelan League. Notoriously a joker, Saltalamacchia keeps things loose, and Suzuki thinks the joking around really helps.

"There's no pressure. Everyone wants to do well, but everybody realizes that they are down here to work, and they all know they are thought of pretty highly if they are here. I've had great relationships here with everybody, and when you're tired, that's important."

Defensively Suzuki has impressed scouts since joining the A's organization, displaying an arm that might have been a little underrated coming out of college, but he knows defense is an area every catcher can improve on, and he's not about to exclude himself.

"You get to watch all these other great catchers, and you can watch their technique. You might not do something exactly the same way, but you can pick things up. The competition just gets better and better the higher up you go, and you look for every advantage. Footwork, the transfer from glove to hand, everything."

It sounds like catching is all work, but Suzuki will argue that point, and contend that there are actually advantages to being behind the dish, especially when you're at it.

"There's just a natural advantage for catchers when they are hitting. You are tracking the ball from hand to glove all the time, so it's a natural thing that you can track it from hand to bat. It helps you recognize the rotation on the ball, the way a ball is sinking or breaking, plus you can build a real relationship with the umpires. It's not like they are going to give you a call that another position player might not get, but you know right away if they are calling the outside corner, the high strike, all that stuff."

Suzuki knows his development is far from over, and that's one of the biggest reasons he's been so comfortable hitting all over the lineup. In '05 he saw significant time hitting number two, number three and number five, and hit leadoff, cleanup and sixth at various times as well. He's added at bats in the seven and eight hole in the AFL, and while his emerging power and ability to drive in runs figures to steer him toward the middle of the order, he's not ready to lock into one of those spots.

"Scoring runs is just as important as driving them in," he smiles, "so I'm ready to go where ever I'm going to help the team. If I had to say I'd admit that I like hitting in the middle of the order because it gives you more opportunities to drive in runs, but I don't mind hitting at the top or at the bottom. In the American League you're going to get your chances everywhere."

Kurt Suzuki is talking about driving in runs, but in his situations that last statement could apply to much more. Catchers are perhaps the hardest working, toughest players on the diamond, and finding a good one is a priority for any organization. Suzuki will likely get a chance to start 2006 in Double-A, and once a player hits that level, he's just a phone call away from the big leagues. Getting chances is something Kurt Suzuki has had to fight to do, but when he has, he's taken advantage, and that seems unlikely to change soon.


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