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Oakland A’s catching position has improved dramatically in 2020

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Instead of veteran stopgaps, there are now three top prospects battling for time in Oakland.

Oakland Athletics Summer Workouts
Allen, Murphy, and Heim
Photo by Michael Zagaris/Oakland Athletics/Getty Images

The Oakland A’s have developed into a contender over the last few years, but one area of the organization that remained relatively weak was catcher. After All-Star Stephen Vogt left in 2017, and prospect Bruce Maxwell failed to pan out and got derailed off the field, there wasn’t much left in the cupboard.

In 2018 and ‘19 the A’s relied on a series of buy-low veteran stopgaps and career backups, like Jonathan Lucroy, Josh Phegley, Chris Herrmann, and Nick Hundley. That group combined for a 75 wRC+ and 0.3 bWAR over two seasons, far below the MLB team averages of 85 and 2.9, respectively, and ranking deep into the bottom-third of the league’s catchers in both metrics. They didn’t stop Oakland from winning 97 games each year, but there was clear potential for improvement.

That upgrade may have arrived in 2020. The A’s have three catchers on their 40-man roster, each young at age 25 or 26, and all of them bring some sort of exciting upside. Even if only one or two work out, that could still be better than relying on the next round of replacement-level veterans.

The primary name is Sean Murphy. He’s a near-consensus Top 50 national prospect, and he already crushed all levels of the minors. He reached the majors last September, and in his MLB debut he homered and caught a shutout. By the end of the year he had four homers in 60 plate appearances and another well-above-average batting line, but his offense is secondary to his elite work behind the dish — he’s considered the best defensive catching prospect in the sport, including universal 70-grades on his throwing arm.

Murphy has the chance to be a star on both sides of the ball, making him the A’s most likely Catcher Of The Future. They already showed what they thought of him last fall, when he drew the start in the Wild Card Game after just a month in the majors.

  • Murphy, 2019 AAA (140 PAs): .308/.386/.625, 136 wRC+, 10 HR, 10.7% BB, 22.1% Ks
  • Murphy, 2019 MLB (60 PAs): .245/.333/.566, 133 wRC+, 4 HR, 10.0% BB, 26.7% Ks

Also in good position to make the active roster is Austin Allen, who was acquired over the winter in the Jurickson Profar trade. He’s not as well-rounded as Murphy, bringing a big bat but questionable defense, but that might be enough if the A’s plan on giving Murphy the bulk of the playing time. Allen debuted last year for the Padres and didn’t do much in 71 plate appearances, but in the minors his power numbers are huge and he’s shown solid plate discipline. He also provides a left-handed swing in a righty-heavy lineup desperate for them.

  • Allen, 2019 AAA (298 PAs): .330/.379/.663, 143 wRC+, 21 HR, 7.4% BB, 18.8% Ks
  • Allen, 2019 MLB (71 PAs): .215/.282/.277, 39 wRC+ 0 HR, 8.5% BB, 29.6% Ks

Rounding out the trio is Jonah Heim, who is on the 40-man roster but might have to wait his turn to make his own MLB debut, depending how many catchers the A’s choose to carry. He was a nondescript acquisition a couple years ago (for Joey Wendle, keeping the Brandon Moss trade tree alive), but in Oakland’s system he’s broken out and skyrocketed his stock.

Heim was always known as a plus defender with a strong arm, but now he’s also hit well all the way up through Triple-A. He’s not a slugger but also not devoid of power, and he’s shown productive on-base skills thanks to excellent walk and strikeout rates. As an extra bonus, he’s a switch-hitter, addressing the same lefty shortage that Allen does.

  • Heim, 2019 AA (208 PAs): .282/.370/.431, 125 wRC+, 5 HR, 11.5% BB, 13.0% Ks
  • Heim, 2019 AAA (119 PAs): .358/.412/.557, 135 wRC+, 4 HR, 9.2% BB, 15.1% Ks

Three catchers, all with promising bats, and two of them also top-notch defenders. It’s been a long time since the A’s had this much talent on both sides of the ball at this position, as even the likes of Vogt and Jaso/Norris were considered liabilities behind the plate. Murphy in particular has the chance to be the best catcher in Oakland history, if he reaches his ceiling.

Of course, that’s the rub. The one thing this 2020 trio lacks is experience, with everything yet to prove. They’ve got wonderful scouting reports and impressive track records in the minors, and there’s every expectation that they have what it takes to make the jump and succeed in the bigs, but they still have to actually do it. For now they’re just potentially the best group of catchers the A’s have had in at least a generation.

But as mentioned before, all three don’t even need to pan out. Even if only one of Murphy or Heim succeeds, it could give the A’s a primary starter for years to come. If neither does but Allen sticks, then at least there could be a big bat at the position to pair with a platoon partner. If all three do, they could have two stars sharing time behind the plate plus a bench slugger capable of filling in there when needed. That’s a big step up from scanning the scrap heap for warm bodies.

On top of all that, there’s some more catching help developing in the system now. In June the A’s spent their 1st-round draft pick on high schooler Tyler Soderstrom, though it will likely be several years before he can make an impact in Oakland. Somewhat closer to consideration are two 2019 college picks who cracked the bottom of some preseason A’s prospect lists last winter. Kyle McCann brings lefty plus power, and he’s part of this year’s 60-man player pool and training at the team’s alternative camp. Drew Millas is a switch-hitter with potential on both sides of the ball.

(I also have to mention a personal favorite in Collin Theroux, a 32nd-round pick and Bay Area local who has ridden strong defense and plus power all the way to the upper minors. He’s not on prospect lists and he strikes out a ton, but he’s already far outplayed his draft position and he even earned a non-roster invite to original spring training this year.)

What has recently been the organization’s biggest weakness now has the chance to become a strength, starting immediately and lasting for years to come. That’s one big reason why A’s fans can look at their two-time postseason team and legitimately wonder, “Can they be even better in 2020?”