MLB: Do Twins need a hitting catcher to complement Suzuki?
OAKLAND, California -- Nearly a full year has passed since the Twins locked up their unlikely successor to Joe Mauer behind the plate. Last July 31, they signed veteran catcher Kurt Suzuki to a two-year, $12 million contract extension with a vest...
OAKLAND, California - Nearly a full year has passed since the Twins locked up their unlikely successor to Joe Mauer behind the plate.
Last July 31, they signed veteran catcher Kurt Suzuki to a two-year, $12 million contract extension with a vesting option for 2017. Fresh off his first all-star appearance - at Target Field, no less - Suzuki appeared primed to take his career to another level.
His production since that time, however, has left the Twins wondering if they might need to get him some help behind the plate.
With 11 days remaining until the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline, the Twins are closely monitoring the likes of A.J. Pierzynski, Jonathan Lucroy, Derek Norris and Alex Avila for potential short- and long-term upgrades behind the plate.
The Atlanta Braves are open to trading the 38-year-old Pierzynski, a pending free agent who is still highly productive for the position, but they are said to be wary of turning the job over to young Christian Bethancourt after his first-half struggles.
An A.J. reunion would be a natural fit for the Twins, who offered him a two-year deal before signing Suzuki. Plan A, however, remains for Suzuki to start hitting again the way he did in his first four months with the Twins.
“He’s done it before, so you know it’s in there,” Twins general manager Terry Ryan said. “I don’t know if you could expect him to get that hot again, but he’s done it before, so it’s not like he couldn’t. We’ll certainly take it.”
The GM smiled and issued a mock directive.
“Go ahead, Kurt, turn it on,” he said. “That would be nice.”
It also would be highly surprising after the 31-year-old’s lengthy slump at the plate.
In his first four months after signing a one-year deal with the Twins, Suzuki hit .306 with a .369 on-base percentage and a .391 slugging percentage. He hit 20 doubles and two homers, drove in 42 runs and benefited from a .326 batting average on balls in play in those 307 at-bats and 90 games.
Since last Aug. 1, however, Suzuki has struggled to a .235 batting average, .285 OBP and .326 slugging percentage, leaving him with a combined on-base/slugging percentage (.611) that is nearly 150 points lower than his initial four-month production with the Twins.
Over his past 114 games and 396 at-bats, Suzuki has 24 doubles, four homers and 45 RBIs.
He has enjoyed seven multi-games in the past six weeks but has just one extra-base hit (a double) and a .236 OBP in his past 57 plate appearances.
For the season, Suzuki’s OPS is an anemic .586. Of 46 catchers with 100 plate appearances, he ranks 38th in weighted and adjusted Runs Created, 40th in Isolated Power (.076) and 29th in OBP (.285).
Asked about this sustained downturn since the extension, Ryan takes pains to view the bigger picture.
“He had a very good offensive half leading up to that,” Ryan said. “He has given us stability. He has given us veteran presence and leadership. I think he’s given us a lot of respect back there with our pitching staff. You can count on him.
“I’m not going to say he’s going to end up hitting the ball over the fence a bunch, but the one thing he does is he gives you a competitive at-bat. Good or bad, he’ll get up there and he’ll battle it. He’s just been a good addition to this club.”
Winner of the 2014 Bob Allison Award for Outstanding Leadership, Suzuki has played through any number of bumps and bruises that accompany his role. He has earned the respect of his teammates with his outright refusal to leave the game, no matter how much short-term pain he endures.
“He’s available,” Ryan said. “Even though he gets those nicks behind that dish, it seems like he’s always ready to play. He’s a good person, a good teammate. For a catcher that’s slight of frame - I don’t know if he’s 185 pounds - he’s quite durable.”
Finding a productive complement for Suzuki has been a problem.
Josmil Pinto held the role for the first 2 1/2 months last season, but his defensive deficiencies finally overshadowed his bat and caused his demotion to Triple-A Rochester. Pinto has yet to return from a concussion setback in early June; he has resumed baseball activities for the Red Wings, but it’s unclear if he’ll be allowed to catch again this season.
Chris Herrmann backed up Suzuki for the first half of this season and hit .156 in 64 at-bats before being swapped out for Eric Fryer just before the break.
Despite Suzuki’s offensive shortcomings, the Twins are generally pleased with him.
“He’s just a catcher who understands his responsibility goes far beyond what he can do offensively for a team,” Twins manager Paul Molitor said in June. “Preparation-wise, video-wise, game-plan wise, the guy takes a lot of pride in the defensive side of the game. That’s why we re-signed him last year and wanted to keep him around. We saw the value that he brought.”
Through nine seasons and more than 4,000 plate appearances, Suzuki’s park- and league-adjusted OPS is 13 percent below league average. He is 38 percent below league average in that category this season.
“I’m not sure anybody was expecting him to retain the type of productivity he gave us the first half of last year,” Ryan said. “That’s out of the norm. We knew that. He had a heck of a first half. People do that on contract years a lot.”
Still, Ryan insists the Twins didn’t overpay for a short-term surge.
“You look at a guy’s norm and say, ‘OK, we know what the norm is here? He’s having a heck of a go, and we’re going to reward him for it. He’s been a productive player this year.’ ”
Not so much in 2015, when he has spent the bulk of his time hitting eighth (19 starts), fifth (18 starts) or sixth (17 starts).
“Every once in a while, Kurt will ambush you and hit a ball over that fence when you least expect it,” Ryan said. “He did (that) the other day up there in Target Field. I was shocked how far that ball went. It went off the second deck.”
Ryan shook his head in admiration for a player that hasn’t hit more than six homers in a season since 2011.
“He’s got a little strength in his bat,” he said. “A little more than meets the eye.”
The Twins would love to see it a little more often.