Evaluating the American League West: Catchers

Jesus Montero could be most improved of the group

Over the coming month SeattleClubhouse will be evaluating the American League West -- one position at a time. In our initial piece below, take a look at the backstops who are slated to begin the 2013 season.

Oakland Athletics

If there is a General Manager in the Major Leagues that understands how best to utilize his clubhouse, it's Billy Beane of the Oakland Athletics. Kurt Suzuki, gone. Anthony Recker, gone. George Kottaras, gone.

All three players saw time at catcher for the Athletics in 2012, while all three now vie at their respective positions within other organizations. That's quite a transition, one that you can hardly blame the Athletics for inducing following a full season line of .204/.262/.325 from the backstop position.

Their solution, platoon, but not relevant only to rotational fielding of the position; regarding left-handed and right-handed pitchers as well.

For the 2013 season the Athletics will be returning Derek Norris behind the plate alongside former Seattle Mariners standout, John Jaso, who was acquired in a three-team deal this January.

Jaso projects to be the club's majority starter when facing right-handed pitchers, while Norris will undoubtedly see both – but should get the majority of left-handed pitchers.

While Norris was a prospect of some hype in Oakland, Jaso burst onto the scene with Seattle in his previous season, posting league Top-15 numbers against right-handed pitchers in wOBA, OBP, OPS, and wRC+.

While his line of .201/.276/.349 in 2012 leaves questions on the table, Norris has displayed above-average patience at the plate since being drafted in 2007. The right-handed catcher accrued 365 base-on-balls in 489 minor league contests, posting an OBP of .394 in 2,000+ PAs.

While neither catcher jumps out in caught stealing with Jaso at 21% in 2012 and Norris at 28%, Jaso adds a twinge of big-game receiving behind the plate, catching the 'Perfect Game' tossed by Felix Hernandez during the 2012 season. A performance strong enough to propel him to catch the majority of his outings as the season progressed.

SUMMARY: Oakland brought in Jaso to compliment Norris at the plate. Both can be patient, timely hitters with a focus for getting on base – a quality that the Athletics have stressed over recent seasons. Expect this duo to well outshine the .204/.262/.325 line of their predecessors during the 2013 season.

Houston Astros

While there is far less movement behind the plate for the Houston Astros, there is a story to follow. That story being the return of former Baseball America Top-50 prospect, Jason Castro. The Astros projected starting backstop is returning from not one – but two surgeries – over the past two years.

Following knee surgery to repair an ACL injury -- which resulted in missing the entire 2011 regular season -- Castro underwent foot surgery following his stint with Salt River in the 2011 Arizona Fall League. Things brightened a little in 2012 as Castro totaled 94 games played, suiting up for the big league Astros in 87 of those contests.

Although he exhausted his rookie status in 2010, taking 195 at-bats for Houston, his level of experience at – and behind – the plate are more in line with his most recent season representing his rookie showcase. He struggled against left-handed pitchers, as many young players encounter, but hit right-handed pitchers to the tune of .286/.373/.458 in 2012. Additionally, he was strong at home (.276/.374/.431) and projected well into the second-half of the season. Possibly a sign that any lingering effects from previous injuries subsided as he continued to get onto the field consistently.

Houston projects to enter the season with Carlos Corporan serving as Castro's back-up. Corporan, who has split time in the minor leagues over the past 10 seasons following a 12th round selection in the 2003 draft, has seen 79 games with the Astros over the past two-seasons. He has failed to impress with his bat, hitting .216/.272/.319 over this time – falling off with the glove as well, recording 22% of base-runners caught.

At the Triple-A level, fellow minor league veteran Jason Jaramillo is familiar with the Major Leagues if the need to promote an additional backstop presents itself.

SUMMARY: While the Astros are rebuilding, Castro represents one of the bigger potential talents on this young club. If Houston is to continue looking at him as a piece they will extend long-term, eventually re-building alongside, he needs to be healthy throughout 2013. Keep your eye on Chris Wallace. He's a local kid from Pasadena, drafted in 2010 from the University of Houston who has rocketed into the Pacific Coast League in just under three full-seasons.

Texas Rangers

Catcher Mike Napoli was not offered by the Texas Rangers as he entered Free Agency following the 2012 season. The catcher – amid a previously undisclosed hip injury – has signed with the Boston Red Sox and will play his first game outside the American League West, previously drafted by the Angels.

While few players offer the kind of offensive game-changing ability, certainly from the behind the plate, that Napoli offers – Texas has taken a positive step towards replacing the slugger, bringing in a Free Agent of their own.

While Geovany Soto returns with the Rangers, likely to compose much of the back-up services at catcher – he could platoon from the plate alongside new acquisition and two time-time All-Star A.J. Pierzynski, much like the Athletics above.

Pierzynski provides an amount of experience that is rare in the game of baseball today. Only 52 Major League players have total 1,600 games dating back to the 1998 season, Pierzynski being among that group. Over that time he has balanced a nearly equal batting line against both left-handed and right-handed pitchers for a career line of .284/.324/.429.

While his .324 OBP is nothing to write home about, the veteran backstop slugged over .500 for the first time in his career during the 2012 season. He finished the season with 27 home runs, tying his career high for runs batted in with 77. If Pierzynski can replicate such a season in Texas, his numbers could top the recently departed Mike Napoli.

He has caught Johan Santana, Mark Buehrle, Freddy Garcia and Jake Peavy to name a few and while his clubhouse presence has been called into question on occasion – his ability to call a game behind the plate has not.

SUMMARY: Soto's upside comes in his ability to hit left-handed pitchers, balancing a career line of .283/.379/.486 while he is .230/.313/.411 against right-handed pitchers. While Soto will see action behind the plate, the Rangers are all in with Pierzynski in what could be one of baseball's biggest – and quietest – off-season moves.

Back-stops Eli Whiteside and Konrad Schmidt are also listed as Major League depth for the Texas Rangers as Spring Training commences.

Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim

The Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim made a key acquisition in Josh Hamilton as they look to improve on their third place finish in the American League West last season. However, at catcher they project to return two familiar names – long-term prospect Hank Conger and Chris Iannetta.

While both saw time behind the plate for the Angels in 2012, Iannetta saw the bulk of that time between them and is projected as the starter for the 2013 season. Following early season wrist surgery – Iannetta finished strong, catching 79 contests for the Angels. He hit .258/.341/.400 after the All-Star break, returning in late July following nearly three months on the disabled list, pacing the team in August with a line of .306/.378/.500 before cooling off in September.

If Iannetta is to keep his starting position, he will need to be productive at the beginning of the season and avoid cooling off as he did last season. If he cannot sustain production the Angels may turn to their back-up.

Former Baseball America Top-100 prospect Hank Conger is the second catcher the Angels will carry into the season. Conger maintains a productive minor league line over 2,000+ plate appearances at .297/.359/.467, however -- that success has not yet carried over into the Major Leagues.

Over parts of the last three seasons, Conger is hitting .201/.280/.330 in the Major Leagues. Possibly more concerning of his Major League readiness moving into 2013 is his .205/.277/.340 line against right-handers over that time, seeing minimal success against any pitcher from the plate.

An area of concern for the Angels with Iannetta and Conger heading into 2013 is stolen bases against. While Iannetta maintains a career ratio of 25% caught stealing in the Major Leagues – Conger sits at 20%. As the American League West gets younger, it also gets faster.

SUMMARY: The Angels need to commit Major League time to Conger. Working with him to get through his struggles – if he returns to the minor leagues, it would be his fourth consecutive season in Triple-A. While Carlos Ramirez arguably has the strongest arm in the upper half of their system, throwing out 37% of runners last season – he has not played above Double-A. Former Indians back-stop Luke Carlin remains in the system but expect Conger and Iannetta to break camp with the Angels, nearly regardless of their Spring Training performances.

Seattle Mariners

The Seattle Mariners dedicated significant Major League time behind the plate last season to three players; Jesus Montero, John Jaso and Miguel Olivio. Of the three, Montero is the only player returning for the 2013 season with Jaso in Oakland, as covered above, and Olivo signing with the Cincinnati Reds.

As SeattleClubhouse covered yesterday, the Mariners are loaded on catching depth in the minor leagues; led by Baseball America's top club prospect, Mike Zunino. What may be over looked in the hype surrounding Zunino is that fellow Seattle backstop Jesus Montero was listed as the third overall prospect in baseball just two seasons ago.

Montero, a rookie in 2012, hit .260/.298/.386 amid a season full of adjustments in one of the baseball's toughest stadiums to hit, Safeco Field. Manager Eric Wedge in an interview with MLB.com said of Montero's season, "Being so young and inexperienced, the mental grind, we ask a great deal of our catchers here. And then the physical grind that goes along with it, that's pretty real."

His arm behind the plate has been called into question -- many analysts have labeled him a career designated hitter – a label that Montero has rejected, remaining adamant that he can be a Major League catcher through-and-through. This mind-set is no more evident than in his numbers from the plate where he is a .309/.350/.493 hitter when catching and .242/.285/.356 when entering the game as designated hitter.

While recording just 17% of runners caught stealing in 2012, the Mariners have reiterated throughout the off-season that they are comfortable with him behind the plate, citing his work this winter as a positive sign towards his development in that position. Skipper Eric Wedge in an interview with Greg Johns touched on his thoughts, "I don't have any doubt he can handle it from a talent perspective, that he can handle the role fundamentally.

In a further steptowards developing the young catchers in their system, Seattle signed Kelly Shoppach. He is an eight-year Major League veteran, tossing out a career high 41% of runners in 2011 and 33% of those in 2012. Shoppach, already seen lending a helping hand with Zunino and Montero in Spring Training, will certainly provide a helpful presence for the younger players in 2013.

SUMMARY: Mike Zunino took a big step forward in his inaugural professional season in 2012 -- in return Baseball America named him the number one overall catching prospect. While the reigns to the club will almost certainly be in his hands within the next two full seasons, do not expect Seattle to rush his development if Montero hits a cold patch to begin the year – at or behind the plate. Fellow farmhands John Hicks and Jesus Sucre will likely not see the Major Leagues in 2013 but should be under surveillance – Hicks led all minor league catchers in caught stealing percentage last season at 54%.

Ranking the AL West Catchers:
1. Texas Rangers
2. Oakland Athletics
3. Seattle Mariners
4. Los Angeles Angels
5. Houston Astros

Looking for more Mariners player interviews, news and articles? Want to keep up with which prospects are hot and cold for the M's? "Like" SeattleClubhouse on Facebook and follow SeattleClubhouse Contributing Writer Josh Dobner on Twitter at @JPDobner and site Editor Rick Randall at @randallball.

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