Further Catching Complexities

Thearon W. Henderson

The A's have four catchers right now. Something's gotta give for 2014, right?

Last week, I examined the two lefthanded-hitting catchers the A's have employed this season, John Jaso and Stephen Vogt, and laid out the case for each to return to the Oakland roster in 2014. But of course, the decision between the two southpaw-swinging backstops is not the only catching-related matter for Billy Beane and the front office to consider over the course of the offseason. There are three auxiliary pieces.

The first is Derek Norris. Norris, as most A's fans know, is a promising young catcher with a massive platoon split. This year, he is hitting .310/.399/.556 against lefthanded pitchers and .148/.260/.176 against righthanded pitchers. Of the 230 batters who have faced lefties at least 100 times, Norris ranks 20th in wOBA and 17th in wRC+; conversely, of the 386 who have faced righties at least 100 times, he ranks seventh-worst in wOBA and eighth-worst in wRC+. Defensively, he's dead-average in caught-stealing rate (26%) and has committed just six passed balls in 85 games; he's a roughly average defensive catcher. Further, he's just 24, cheap, and has significant long-term upside, even if it's just as a slaughterer of southpaws.

The second is Kurt Suzuki. He needs little introduction--he's a longtime Athletic who is a tremendous defensive catcher in all aspects except throwing--since leaving Oakland in a trade last July, he's cut down a mere 13 of 98 base thieves. He's lauded for his blocking, receiving, and work with the pitching staff. There's no question that between among the quartet of catchers currently on the A's 40-man, Suzuki is the superior defender. Of course, he's also the worst hitter--he has a 64 and 65 wRC+ each of the last two seasons--and two weeks from his 30th birthday and with a lot of mileage accrued in 800 MLB games caught, he also offers the lowest upside.

The A's have four catchers that all have their uses. Jaso gets on base against righthanded pitchers at exceptional rates. Vogt offers solid contact and power from the left side while also boasting a good arm--like Norris, he also makes essentially the league minimum, always a plus for the budget-conscious A's. Norris is young, already crushes big league lefthanders, and has power, discipline, and defensive skills that could all round into big assets as time passes. And Suzuki is the sort of reliable defender everyone loves to have as a backup who can work with the young pitching staffs the A's always seem to build.

Trouble is, the A's can't roster four catchers. Now, here's where we get to the third consideration--position changes. In the plentiful comments on last week's piece, many of you called for Vogt and Jaso to remain on the roster for 2014, but Jaso to move to DH or first base in the aftermath of his concussions.

Such a move is, of course, possible, and in fact it's not the only potential flexibility the A's have with their catching group, seeing as Vogt has experience at first base and the outfield corners and Norris' bat is plenty good enough to justify giving him DH/1B time against lefties.

The downside of doing something of this nature is that it boxes the A's into a situation where they are employing a player who provides no defensive value--while the catchers can stand around at first, and I wouldn't be surprised if Vogt or Norris did solidly over there, 1B-only guys still don't really have any defensive value. Plus, the A's already have two 1B-only players on their roster in Daric Barton and Nate Freiman, which further clouds the picture. Rostering three of the four catchers in some configuration is doable, though it does come at the cost of roster flexibility--even keeping all four (Jaso to DH, Suzuki as a third/personal catcher beyond a Vogt/Norris platoon, with Vogt maybe getting spot 1B/OF duty when Suzuki starts) is theoretically possible, but such a configuration would essentially force Freiman and Barton out of jobs, because a roster of 13 position players can't have six of those players confined to just two positions. There wouldn't be any room for Freiman and Barton to play, anyway.

The other wrinkle in the situation is that while ostensibly there are two righty-swinging catchers and two lefty-cutting ones, we have this:

vs. LH: .232/.299/.345
vs. RH: .260/.313/.385

Those are Kurt Suzuki's career splits, and therefore anyone who suggests using him in any sort of platoon-with-Jaso-or-Vogt role is way off base. The idea of optioning or trading Norris and giving Suzuki the short half of a platoon would be disastrous, as the A's would go from the best lefty-mashing catcher in baseball in 2013 to the third-worst regular catcher against lefties of the past six years. Thirty-one backstops have faced lefties at least 500 times since 2007, and the only two to hit worse than Suzuki in those plate appearances were the legendarily-bad Jeff Mathis and, somewhat surprisingly, Jarrod Saltalamacchia.

In this sense, Norris becomes the easiest of the four to slot onto the A's roster. He's the one guy who projects to hit lefties well, and "well" really understates it.

Of the three catchers who hit righthanders better than lefthanders, I think it's easiest to rule Suzuki out. He just gives away far too many outs at the plate; it would be one thing if he was a terrific all-around defender to compensate, but his increasingly noodly arm prevents him from earning that distinction. He also has an $8.5 million option for next year. He's not going to start, and there's no way the A's are going to pay him that much to be a backup. And if the A's do decline the option (which I'm sure they will), he's still a veteran who will automatically command more money than Vogt or Norris while providing less production. His return to Oakland is a nice story, and I'm glad he's having a nice little stretch, but that sentimentality need not inspire a misallocation of the Athletics' precious resources.

That seems to leave three options:

1) Vogt/Norris platoon, Jaso traded
2) Jaso/Norris platoon, Vogt sent to Sacramento as insurance
3) Vogt/Norris platoon, Jaso DH/1B

As with last week's piece, I don't want to explicitly endorse one of these courses of action over the others. After all, they depend on several pieces of information we don't really know, like:

1) What could the A's get for Jaso on the trade market?
2) How is Jaso feeling now? How will he feel in April? Is there a high risk of recurring concussions from him catching?
3) How well will Vogt play down the stretch and in the playoffs? After all, he only has 40 games in an A's uniform--our MLB context for his production could increase by 50% by the time we're in full offseason rosterbation mode.
4) What will the A's do with Barton and Freiman?
5) Depending on the above, what's the situation with Brandon Moss--first, outfield, or both? If outfield, who is he displacing?

And on goes the chain of roster dominoes.

In sum, there are a lot of pieces in this catcher/first base situation that have key areas of strength juxtaposed with areas of clear weakness. This sort of situation may not work itself out until next spring--it could be that Barton, Freiman, and Vogt will need to play their way into jobs in March. Of course, this being the A's, it's also quite possible that Billy Beane will blow the whole thing up and all of these guys will be playing for the Cubs or something. I don't think there's a clear, slam-dunk answer to this, but I do know that having too many useful catchers is a good problem to have. It'll be interesting to see what path the team elects to take with this group as they shape the roster for 2014.

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