Will Johnson have a big impact on A's?
Derek Norris hit .246 with nine home runs in 98 games last year; Stephen Vogt hit .252 with four homers in 47 games. (USATSI)
Unless the A’s pull a surprise move to obtain a catcher, what you saw in 2013 is what you’re likely to get in 2014.
That would be a platoon of Derek Norris and Stephen Vogt behind the plate. Both offer their strengths, but neither player’s game features a dominant component that gives them the edge for the everyday job.
John Jaso will be back for a second season with Oakland after a concussion ended his 2013 campaign in July, but Jaso’s biggest contributions figure to come as a designated hitter. Chris Gimenez was claimed off waivers from Tampa Bay, but he’ll have to really turn heads to make the big league club out of spring training.
Kurt Suzuki, who returned to the A’s in a trade from Washington in August, left as expected via free agency.
Whoever is behind the plate, their most important task will be shepherding a pitching staff that’s replacing two important parts in starter Bartolo Colon and closer Grant Balfour, who departed as free agents.
Here’s a deeper look at Oakland’s catching situation:
STARRING CAST: A’s manager Bob Melvin, a catcher during his own playing career, believes Norris has the tools to be an everyday catcher. Perhaps Norris, 24, grabs the reins and takes the starting job in spring training, but what he’s shown over 1 ½ seasons would suggest he’s still best in a platoon. Norris has a good rapport with the A’s returning pitchers, and he embraces the hard work and preparation that the job demands. But his batting splits are drastic. Norris hit .320 (48-for-150) against left-handed pitchers last season, with all nine of his homers and 25 of his 30 RBI coming against lefties. Against right-handers he batted just .149 (17-for-114). But Norris also showed a knack for coming up big off the bench, as his three pinch-hit homers tied for second in the American League.
The left-handed hitting Vogt, 29, was a feel-good story last season as he contributed to a division-winning club after spending most of the previous six seasons bouncing around the minors. He made 39 of his 40 starts against right-handers in 2013 and batted .252 overall with four home runs and 16 RBI in 47 games. That broke down to .256 (34-for-135) against right-handed pitchers and .222 (4-for-18) against lefties.
Vogt was better than Norris at controlling the running game, throwing out 8 of 28 (28.6%) attempted base stealers. Norris threw out just 7 of 42 attempted base stealers (16.7%), and he’s enjoyed just a 15.9% success rate for his career. Both catchers had some problems last season blocking balls in the dirt, so keep an eye on how they do in that area throughout spring training. How did A’s pitchers fare last season with each behind the plate? They posted a 3.35 ERA with Vogt catching and a 3.66 mark with Norris, though Vogt’s sample size was considerably smaller. He started just 40 games behind the plate compared to Norris’ 71.
CAMP COMPETITION: All signs are that Jaso will be cleared to return after his post-concussion complications of last season. His biggest value to the A’s, however, comes with his hitting from the left side and his high on-base percentage. Melvin says Jaso, 30, could get lots of at-bats as the DH, so he doesn’t figure to take significant playing time away from Norris or Vogt defensively.
Could the right-handed hitting Gimenez, a Gilroy native, wedge his way on to the 25-man roster? It seems he would need a big spring camp. He spent most of last season at Triple-A and hit just .224. But Gimenez, who turned 31 on Friday, has got versatility going for him, as he’s also played first base and both corner outfield spots in the majors.
PAY ATTENTION TO: What kind of chemistry Norris and Vogt develop with the A’s most important new pitchers -- starter Scott Kazmir and closer Jim Johnson. Both catchers will use spring training to familiarize themselves with each pitcher and figure out which pitches to call in particular situations. Developing trust with pitchers is a huge part of the job, and the catcher who seems to bring the best out of these new guys could gain an edge for playing time.