[Editor's Note: This is the first piece by new contributor and research analyst John Choiniere! Please welcome him to our team.]
With Joe Mauer moving to first base full-time in an effort to help prevent additional concussions, the Twins had a huge hole to fill behind the plate for the 2014 season. Josmil Pinto, the Venezuelan catching prospect who's entering his age-25 season, showed real potential in 21 games played at the end of 2013. Pinto hit for a wOBA of .418 -- though that was certainly inflated by an unsustainable .440 BABIP. However, the potential perils of rushing a prospect to a full-time role in the majors too quickly are likely fresh in the minds of the front office staff after the Aaron Hicks debacle of last year. Reports have indicated that the club had pursued multiple free agent catchers this offseason -- guys like A.J. Pierzynski and Jarrod Saltalamacchia -- presumably to relieve Pinto of some of the pressure of being the team's primary catcher after just 138 career games combined above Single-A.
This morning, Susan Slusser of the San Francisco Chronicle reported that the club signed seven-year veteran Kurt Suzuki to a one-year, $2.75 million contract, plus incentives. This is a good signing for the club, as it gives them the ability to allow Pinto, who at least has the potential to be the catcher on the club's next successful team, to develop on a more relaxed schedule. At that price, in terms of dollars and years, it makes as much sense as any other catching move the Twins have been rumored to be a part of.
Suzuki comes to the Twins off of several consecutive disappointing seasons, which were almost entirely due to a lack of offensive production. Driven by at least in part by a .245 BABIP, Suzuki finished 2013 with a wRC+ of just 68, good for 250th among players with as many plate appearances -- a rank sandwiched between two members of his new team, Pedro Florimon and Clete Thomas. Incidentally, Florimon had the glove to make up for such limited production and will likely open the season as the Twins’ starting shortstop, while Thomas was merely average in center field and recently signed a minor-league contract with the Phillies.
Now, a reasonable person might look at that .245 BABIP, and then see Suzuki’s 22.5% line drive rate and 0.92 GB/FB ratio, and think "Oh, well, that should be higher next year." I’d think that too, except .245 is just about in line with where his in-play numbers have been for four consecutive seasons now, so while both Steamer and Oliver see a return to his .260ish career average, I just can’t see it. In fact, both projections seem too optimistic, offensively-speaking, across almost all categories.
The only number I come close to believing there is the increased ISO. Suzuki's a dead pull hitter when he hits for power, with all of his home runs in 2012 and 2013 having been hit to straight left field. Target Field plays shorter in left than either O.Co or Nationals Park, so there's a chance his HR/FB takes a slight uptick, but for everything else I'd bet on his lower recent-year averages rather than the projections.
Suzuki has a reputation as an above-average defensive catcher, which helps to make up for the lack of hitting, but even his defensive numbers took a downward turn in 2013. Among catchers who caught as many innings as he did last year, he ranks 18th in FanGraphs composite defense metric on a per-inning basis, and 20th on an absolute scale.
|Rank||Player||Innings Caught||Def||Def per 9|
He also takes a hit in the pitch-framing department, though given who the Twins have had behind the plate in the last few years outside of Joe Mauer, there's no evidence they actually care about that at all. According to StatCorner, in the last four years Suzuki's ranged from three to nine runs below average.
Now, defensive stats are notoriously unreliable in single-year sample sizes, so there's plenty of reason for the club to be optimistic that he still is at least an approximation of the top-five defender he once was. The possibility certainly exists, though, that they've just signed a defense-first catcher who's in the middle of losing his defensive skills.
Although I know that's a lot of negativity about Suzuki, the Twins probably don't need to care about any of that. The 2014 Minnesota Twins certainly are a better team than the ones that have lost 90-plus games for three consecutive years, but no one should reasonably expect them to contend for a playoff spot quite yet. I'm not saying it can't happen, but with uber-prospects Miguel Sano and Byron Buxton unlikely to make an appearance in Minneapolis until mid-season at the earliest, far too many things would have to go improbably well.
So, barring some sort of batting revelation, Kurt Suzuki's a stopgap measure -- $2.75 million is basically nothing for a team that's cut payroll by $30 million in three years. He'll let the Twins develop Pinto at whatever pace he needs, while simultaneously saving them the embarrassment of having either Eric Fryer or Chris Herrmann as a starting catcher on a major league roster. Even if his batting numbers stay low and his defense continues to drop, it'll be fine. Kurt Suzuki's not the catcher for the next great Twins team, but he's definitely good enough for right now.
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John Choiniere is a contributor to Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter at @johnchoiniere.