The Catcher Problem

John Jaso has done decently with the bat so far, but lefties own his soul and his work behind the dish leaves something to be desired. (Photo: Steve Bowles – Left Field Bleachers)

During the off-season I spent a considerable amount of time thinking about the areas where the A’s needed to improve the most. Shortstop, catcher, and second base stood out as the positions where the team had some glaring issues to address. Billy Beane engineered a series of moves to shore up each position, and those moves have had varying results thus far (where you at Hiroyuki Nakajima?). Although the middle infield situation is still a bit murky with Adam Rosales slumping and Jed Lowrie looking as though he’s better suited for second than short, I believe the A’s need to consider making an upgrade at catcher in order to really make some noise in the second half of the season.

When Billy traded Kurt Suzuki to the Washington Nationals last August it signaled that he was handing over the catching reins to Derek Norris for the foreseeable future. Norris performed well initially, hitting .348 with two homersone a memorable walk off shot against the Giantsand five RBI in his six games in the big leagues. He struggled mightily afterward however, and by the end of the season his average had dropped all the way down to .201 with a repulsive .276 OBP to match. He was miserable in the ALDS as well, getting just one hit in 12 ABs with six strikeouts.

I didn’t have much confidence in Norris coming into 2013, and I figured it would only be a matter of time before he made a move. Sure enough, Billy traded for John Jaso in January, giving the A’s a more established backstop that is known for getting on base and being a superb base runner, leading all MLB catchers in base running value since 2010.

Unfortunately, Jaso is also known for shoddy defense and an inability to hit lefty pitchers, and so far he has done nothing to dispel those perceptions.

While Jaso’s slash line (.279/.381/.372) is much preferable to Norris’s (.192/.308/.314) his lack of power and struggles against lefties (.190 in 21 ABs with no extra base hits) make it difficult to overlook his sub par defense and give him the job full-time. However, it should be noted that Jaso is batting .366 with a .481 on-base percentage in 12 games this June, putting him on pace to have the best month of his career, according to MLB.com. Jaso should continue to draw starts at DH and platoon against righties, but somebody needs to be the receiver.

With all that in mind, it would behoove Billy to scan the trade horizon and see who may be available. The market for catchers is still as thin as ever, but there are some intriguing options out there.

Possible Trade Targets

Brian McCann – When I first thought about putting this entry together McCann was the first guy that came to mind. A free agent after this season, McCann is among the best catchers in the game. He struggled last year, hitting .230 with a .300 OBP, but after missing the start of the 2013 season due to offseason shoulder surgery McCann has hit .243 with seven homers and a 118 OPS+ in 34 games, and looks to be regaining the form that had him named to six consecutive All-Star games from 2006-11.  He’s also proficient behind the dish as well, having posted a positive Defense Wins Above Replacement every year in the league. The emergence of Evan Gattis could be the prelude to McCann being shipped out, especially with free agency looming, but McCann is a top-tier talent and would be sure to fetch a decent package in a trade. The Braves are also right in the thick of the playoff race and don’t need to move McCann, giving them more leverage in trade talks.

Johnathan Lucroy – 2012 was a breakout season for Lucroy despite spending significant time on the Disabled List last season after the love of his life broke his hand by dropping a suitcase on it. Although he isn’t hitting at the same rate as last year, his .274/.322/.442 slash line is fine and should get better. His work around the plate has improved considerably over the past two seasons and he posted a 1.0 dWAR last year in just 96 games. The Brewers shouldn’t come close to even sniffing the playoffs, so they may begin offloading pieces soon. However, prior to the 2012 season Lucroy signed a five-year extension with an option for a sixth-year, and his small salary ($750,000 this year, two million in 2014 increasing by one million each year until 2016) won’t have the Brewers rushing to get him off the payroll. They also don’t have any top catching prospects down on the farm either, so it’s unlikely he gets moved.

Jason Castro – Playing for the Astros doesn’t come with a lot of glory these days, but Castro has been one of the few bright spots for Houston this season. His OPS+ currently sits at 122, and he has slugged 10 homers and 20 doubles so far. His .483 slugging percentage is fifth in baseball. He’s also played pretty good defense so far. With the Astros not figuring to contend for at least another two or three years until their top-rated farm system begins to bear fruit, Castro could find himself donning another uniform very soon. However, he is only being paid the veteran minimum and he is under team control until 2017. Castro is only 26, so he’s still young enough to be the catching cornerstone of an up-and-coming team looking to prove its worth.

Internal Option(s)

Stephen Vogt – I have to admit that I’m only familiar with this guy’s name because of my battles with Tampa Bay in MLB2K12. Acquired for cash considerations or a PTBNL on April 5th, Vogt made his big league debut last year at age of 27 by going hitless in 25 ABs. While that shouldn’t instill any confidence in anybody, Vogt is a career .301 hitter in the minors and is tearing apart the Pacific Coast League to the tune of .324/.390/.548 with nine round trippers. It’s always a bit of a risk to put faith in players who debut long after they’re too old to be considered a prospect, but his numbers in the minors say that he knows how to hit. Besides, I like giving long shots a chance to show they belong in the bigs.

Luke Montz – Looking at his Minor League numbers shows me he can hit some home runs, and not much else. He’s performing fairly well at Sacramento (.266/.372/.617) but his call-up earlier this year didn’t really impress me much. He may get another shot simply because the A’s don’t really have that many options at catcher.

So, do you think the A’s should swing a trade, make a promotion, or just stand pat with what they have? I would personally kill to see the A’s make a trade for any of the three targets I mentioned, but the they would likely have to part with at least one highly regarded prospect to make it happen.

We’ll just have to wait and see. I’m sure Billy has something up his sleeve as always.

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