Programming note: This article is part of an ongoing feature series, as Insider Joe Stiglich breaks down each A's position group over the offseason
The A’s catching situation took an intriguing turn on Dec. 18 when Derek Norris was traded to the San Diego Padres.
Gone is a major piece of the platoon puzzle that the A’s have utilized behind the plate for the past two seasons. It’s unclear how Oakland will handle the catcher’s spot in 2015.
Does Stephen Vogt take on a lion’s share of the workload? Will he be healthy enough to do that after offseason foot surgery? Is recently acquired Josh Phegley ready to be the right-handed hitting portion of a platoon? Does John Jaso still factor into the equation after concussions ended his season early in both 2013 and 2014?
[RELATED: Position-by-position breakdown: Bullpen]
Or might the A’s swing a move to import a catcher who has starting potential?
The answers at this position aren’t likely to materialize until the Cactus League season begins playing out.
STARRING CAST: A right foot injury prohibited Vogt from getting behind the plate for the final three months of last season. In October, he had surgery to repair the plantar plate in his foot, and he’s expected to be full strength when pitchers and catchers report Feb. 19. Vogt’s biggest value to last year’s team came with his versatility, as he held his own defensively at both first base and right field when the A’s needed him there. He hadn’t played either position previously in the majors. The left-handed hitting Vogt batted .351 combined over June and July, but just .186 through the rest of the regular season. But with Norris’ departure, Vogt again becomes a central figure at catcher.
One of the A’s biggest weaknesses last season was controlling the running game. Opponents were successful in 100 of 128 (78.1%) stolen base attempts, the third highest rate in the A.L. Then the Wild Card loss to Kansas City exposed this weakness big-time, as the Royals stole seven bases, six of those off Norris after he replaced the injured Geovany Soto at catcher (Soto is a free agent and it’s assumed he won’t return). Vogt has thrown out 11 of 31 attempted base stealers for his career (35.5 percent), and if he’s healthy enough to catch at least semi-regularly in 2015, it could boost Oakland’s ability to slow down opposing runners.
CAMP COMPETITION: The Norris trade appears a signal that the A’s feel confident Phegley can play a role on the big league club. The right-handed hitting Phegley, one of four players acquired from the White Sox for Jeff Samardzija, hit just .207 in 76 major league games split over two seasons with Chicago. He did hit 23 home runs for Triple-A Charlotte in 2014. “He has a strong arm behind the plate and a chance to be a good defensive catcher,” A’s director of player personnel Billy Owens said. Phegley won an International League (Triple-A) Gold Glove in 2012. He got a shot at regular playing time with the White Sox in the second half of 2013 but hit just .206 with four homers and 22 RBI in 65 games total.
Jaso would seem a long shot to jump back in the catching mix considering that concussion-related symptoms cut short each of his past two seasons. But manager Bob Melvin suggested it’s Jaso’s call about how much he wants to try catching. “The doctors cleared him,” Melvin said during the winter meetings. “It’s really up to him and how tenacious he wants to go about the catching position. (The concussions) did happen two years in a row, which gives you a little bit of trepidation.” G.M. Billy Beane has mentioned Jaso as a possibility at first base, but that’s already a crowded spot with Ike Davis, Rule 5 pick Mark Canha and Billy Butler available there. Given the chance the A’s could still look to add a second baseman – and will need to carry a backup infielder of some kind – Jaso remains a potential trade candidate.
PAY ATTENTION TO: How much the A’s work with pitchers on controlling the running game in spring training. That will have a big impact on how effective Oakland’s catchers are in throwing out base stealers. The numbers weren’t pretty last season, but the responsibility doesn’t fall solely with the men behind the plate.