It now seems obvious that the Nationals have been looking for a catcher from the moment that Wilson Ramos went on the disabled list — while hoping, the whole time, that Jesus Flores would make that search unnecessary. But on Saturday, Nationals’ G.M. Mike Rizzo traded catching prospect David Freitas to Oakland for Kurt Suzuki, making it clear that Flores would be his back-up.
The swap elicited a community wide ho-hum from the usual national baseball gurus, but it was big news in Oakland, where Suzuki was a fan favorite and once deemed a crucial part of the A’s future. Oakland G.M. Billy Beane signed Suzuki to a five year contract worth $16.25 million back in 2010 — an unusual, if not unheard of, splurge for the small market White Elephants.
“Trade Shocks Kurt Suzuki, A’s Teammates,” was the headline of the San Francisco Chronicle article that gave details of the Suzuki swap. “The move shook the clubhouse, left the team without its longest-tenured player and turned Derek Norris into the No. 1 catcher,” the article intoned, and then went on to imply that not everyone in green was pleased.
“Kurt took me under his wing when I got here,” A’s righty fastball artist Jarrod Parker told the Chronicle, “like the other young (pitchers) without much experience, and made my transition easier. I attribute the success I’ve had to him. It sucks, but it’s the nature of the beast.”
Pitcher Brett Anderson was also circumspect, describing Suzuki as “an integral part of our team on and off the field, especially for a guy like me who throws a lot of balls in the dirt. We’ve got ‘Ninja’ back there. He’s the most agile catcher I’ve ever seen.” Beane apparently knew the move would be controversial but defended it by implying that Suzuki needed a change of scene. “I think this will be good for Kurt,” Beane said. “He gets a chance to play every day.”
The “I’m not doing this for me, I’m doing this for you” explanation is standard practice for raising children, but it doesn’t wash in baseball. What Billy Beane means is that having paid Suzuki for performing as a backstop that everyone believed would be at the heart of the Oakland franchise for years to come, he became disenchanted with Suzuki’s performance at the plate.
There’s nothing worse than someone who heads to the bank and then fails to produce.
This was certainly the case with Suzuki, who’s batting average plummeted after Beane signed him through 2014. If Beane didn’t make his views known to Suzuki, the veteran catcher certainly got the message when Derek Norris arrived from Washington last winter, and was then reemphasized when Beane traded for Brewer George Kottaras. Suzuki had become Oakland’s Hanley Ramirez.
The Nationals on the other hand, are thrilled to be getting an every day backstop with a strong record of managing pitchers and throwing out potential base stealers. “We’re going to have two pretty good catchers when Ramos gets healthy at the beginning of spring training,” Rizzo said in explaining the move. “And we’ll have a veteran presence behind a good, young player.”
Nats’ skipper Davey Johnson was also pleased: “When Mike brought it up to me that Oakland would move Suzuki, I said, ‘Man, that would definitely bolster our catching corps.’” But Johnson wasn’t simply thrilled with getting Suzuki, he was pleased that his front nine now had a backstop with a history of throwing out runners — which wasn’t true for Jesus Flores, the odd man out in the Suzuki swap.
While Jesus Flores has been less than stellar either defensively or at the plate, he’s been a steady and serviceable presence behind the dish. So far as he knew the front office thought he was doing fine. So the Suzuki acquisition took him by surprise. And he’s not pleased. “I don’t even want to talk about it,” he is reported to have said. “I’m just in shock. I didn’t know we had a new catcher.”
Flores has a point, but it’s a weak one. While Suzuki matches Flores’ modest numbers as a hitter, his prowess as a defensive catcher is well-known. Flores has had trouble throwing out baserunners this season, or even holding them on, while Suzuki sports a 38 percent CS on the season — which is 23 of 60 runners. The Nationals will need that in the stretch run.
And what does Oakland get? Freitas is a respected and good hitting prospect who might well be headed to the majors. Analyst John Sickles calls him “Derek Norris lite,” but he’s agile behind the plate and much better than average hitter: he hit .288 with 13 homers at Hagerstown last year and .271 this year at Potomac. That’s good, even very good, but for the Nationals — deep in catching prospects — he was expendable.