Suzuki now out of picture, Norris assumes catching duties
The A’s only keep getting younger.
Even in the heat of a playoff run, Oakland hasn’t shied away from playing the kids. Four of the club’s five starters are rookies, and for the remaining days of the season, they’ll be throwing to one.
Derek Norris, all of 23 years of age, overtook full-time catching duties on Friday, when the A’s dealt one of their longest-tenured players in Kurt Suzuki to the Nationals in exchange for Minor League backstop David Freitas.
Oakland kicked in some cash to offset the money owed to Suzuki, who has roughly $1.6 million left on his contract for the season and a $6.45 million salary to be had in 2013. He cleared waivers Friday morning, three days after the non-waiver Trade Deadline passed, to allow the two clubs to complete the swap.
“We just think it’s a good time to turn the bulk of the catching duties over to Derek,” A’s general manager Billy Beane said. “We think very highly of him. From Kurt’s own personal standpoint, I think he’s going to be much happier in a situation where he gets to play every day, which probably wasn’t going to happen here.”
That hadn’t happened since before June 29, when Norris was first promoted to Oakland, where he started 20 of the club’s next 32 games, with the A’s going 15-5 over that span.
Suzuki’s offensive production had greatly declined since he was signed to a four-year deal in July 2010, and he was most recently batting just .218 with a .536 OPS, one home run — he collected at least 13 in each of the previous three seasons — and 18 RBIs in 75 games. He hasn’t hit above .245 since 2009.
Norris, meanwhile, shows great power potential, though the A’s will have to be patient with him, after watching him hit .333 over his first eight games with the team, before landing in an 0-for-30 slump and, ultimately, finding his groove again with a .278 average over his final five contests. He was demoted to Triple-A on Monday, when the A’s brought in veteran backup George Kottaras, but was allowed to be recalled less than 10 days later on Friday because of an injury to Seth Smith.
The reins are his going forward.
“He’s a young kid, but we think he has a chance to get better, and as he’s shown when up here, we think he’s perfectly capable of handling the staff, and that the team is capable of performing well with him,” Beane said. “This is a good time for him to take over and get better, and he should get better over the course of the next couple of years.”
“Derek’s our guy,” manager Bob Melvin said. “Derek’s going to get the brunt of the time behind the plate. Certainly performance going forward will dictate how much, but obviously we have a lot of confidence in him, otherwise we wouldn’t have made this move with Suzuki.”
There was no question doing so was difficult, though. Suzuki, recognized as one of the true class acts in the game, provided an unmatched presence both in the clubhouse and on the field, particularly with a pitching staff that adored him. His 669 games caught are second most in Oakland history only to Terry Steinbach (1,050).
“I kind of thought he would be here throughout the season, but it is what it is,” righty Jarrod Parker said. “Everything he did was commendable — the way he prepared for the game, the way he played the game. He took me under his wing and was able to teach me a lot, and I obviously appreciate everything. I can’t thank him enough. I don’t think it really mattered to us what he was hitting. He was who he was to us because of what he did behind the plate. Our ERA is a reflection is what he has been to us.”
Oakland’s staff does lead the American League with a 3.43 ERA, though Beane was quick to note Norris’ equivocal success with that same group, having gathered a 2.85 catchers’ ERA in his time with the team.
“There’s no sense in creating a catching controversy when it’s best for Kurt and his career to go to Washington, and it’s probably best for our long-term interests to let Derek take over this young staff and grow with them,” he said. “Derek was catching most of the previous month, anyway, so there really shouldn’t be any transition problem. Kurt was great in helping Derek starting off working with these guys, and that’s a testament to his character.”
More of that was revealed in the afternoon, when Suzuki issued a statement to the A’s organization and its fans that read like this:
“I would like to thank the Oakland A’s organization for eight memorable years. They gave me the opportunity to fulfill my dream of playing in the big leagues and for that I am eternally grateful. To all of my coaches, teammates, clubhouse staff and members of the media, the bonds that we’ve made during my time here will always be cherished and never be forgotten. I’d also like to thank the City of Oakland and the greater Bay Area for embracing me and my family as one of your own. Last but not certainly not least, I’d like to thank the Oakland A’s fans for supporting me during my career.”
Said Norris: “That’s the type of guy he is. We had a great relationship when he was here. He was teaching me everything I need to know about calling a game. I called him on my way down here today to wish him luck, and he gave me a little advice, and I told him a bit about the team he’s going to.”
That team, of course, is the same club that sent Norris to Oakland in the offseason as part of the Gio Gonzalez deal. This time around, Washington parted ways with a catcher who has an attractive offensive profile. Freitas, drafted by the Nationals in the 15th round of the 2010 Draft, was batting .271 with five home runs and 46 RBIs in 78 games with Single-A Potomac. He’ll report to Double-A Midland, Beane said.
The A’s general manager insisted Friday’s deal was not made for financial reasons, but there’s no denying it does lend the club some flexibility, now and in the offseason. Oakland is expected to keep close watch on the waiver wire this month, in hopes of landing an offensive upgrade for the left side of the infield.
In the meantime, they’ll ride their streak — the A’s are 14-5 since the All-Star break — with a quickly maturing roster that will move on without its most popular member.
“If you know Kurt at all, you know what type of impact he had here in the clubhouse, what kind of person he is, what he meant to the team, all of the above,” Melvin said. “With Derek, I don’t think I’ve been around a younger catcher that was accepted by the pitching staff as quickly as he was. Now that had a lot to do with Kurt Suzuki.”