When Kurt Suzuki took over the reigns from Jason Kendall as the A's everyday catcher in 2007, he continued a tradition of ironmen holding down that position for Oakland. Since the start of the new millennium, the A's have had their starting catchers play in at least 130 games in every season except two: 2004 (Damian Miller's only season as the A's starting catcher; he played 110 games) and 2007 (the year that Kendall was traded to the Chicago Cubs in July, with Suzuki replacing him at that point in the season). In fact, Suzuki's 131 games played last season was the lowest total for any A's starting catcher since 2000, with the exception of those two seasons.
It remains an open question whether the heavy game load is good for Suzuki, however. While his value to the A's pitching staff from a defensive perspective is unquestioned, his offense has historically suffered in the final months of the season as the wear-and-tear of playing every day has caught up to him. Since 2008, Suzuki's pre-All-Star OPS is 727 and his post-All-Star OPS is 686. Last season, Suzuki posted a 491 OPS during the month of August.
Whether a scheduled day off at least once through the rotation would benefit Suzuki in the long-run is still a matter of debate, and one that may never be settled, as the A's have been reluctant to give regular playing time to their back-up catchers historically. However, regardless of how much playing time the back-up catcher receives, there will be a back-up catcher on the A's roster in 2011 and the identity of that player is still very much in doubt.
In addition to Suzuki, the A's have four catchers in big league camp: Landon Powell, Josh Donaldson, Anthony Recker and Max Stassi. Although Stassi is highly regarded, at age 19 he is only in camp to learn and isn't a candidate for any major league role in 2011. Recker is a longtime veteran of the A's minor league system and of big league camp, but despite playing well at the Triple-A level the past two seasons, he remains a long-shot – barring any injuries – for the role, as he is a non-roster player.
That leaves Powell and Donaldson as the two candidates for the job. Assuming both stay healthy through the end of camp and both play well, the decision could come down to whether the A's plan to have Suzuki rest on a regular basis or not.
Throughout baseball, it is a generally accepted belief that good defense is the primary attribute for any back-up catcher. The league is filled with no-hit, good-glove back-up catchers who make a living by calling a great game and controlling the running game. Neither Powell nor Donaldson fit the mold of the no-hit, good-glove catcher, as both have strong resumes as hitters in the minor leagues.
Powell is a switch-hitter with good power (he has a career .433 minor league slugging percentage and he hit seven homers in 140 at-bats during his rookie season in 2009), while Donaldson is a right-handed hitter with power and the ability to hit for average. Both are patient hitters who can work a walk and who would be assets as pinch-hitters late in games.
Powell carries an advantage over Donaldson defensively. Powell is arguably the best defensive catcher in the A's system – Suzuki included – and he has a good working relationship with A's starters Gio Gonzalez (who he caught extensively with Triple-A Sacramento in 2008) and Dallas Braden (who he caught in the minors and whose perfect game he called last season). In the major leagues, Powell caught 50% of all attempted base-stealers in 2009 and caught nine of 26 attempted base-stealers last season.
Donaldson, on the other hand, is relatively new to the catching game, having converted to the position during his collegiate career. A natural third-baseman, Donaldson has improved his defense every season, but he is still working on some of the nuances of plate coverage and game calling.
Where Donaldson has the advantage with the glove is with his versatility. In addition to third base, Donaldson can play first base. While Powell can play first base in a pinch, he isn't as natural there as Donaldson is, in large part because Powell has had a series of major leg injuries since being drafted that have hampered his mobility.
Health is another area in which Donaldson holds the advantage over Powell. Like Suzuki, Donaldson has enjoyed a relatively injury-free career and he has played the vast majority of games every season since he was drafted. Powell, on the other hand, missed his first full pro season with an ACL tear and half of another season with another tear. Donaldson, while not speedy, is a decent base-runner, whereas Powell is a below-average runner and is likely to be pinch-run for in late-game situations. A's manager Bob Geren has often shied away from in-game roster moves that would leave only one catcher available to play the rest of the game.
Last spring training, Powell entered camp as the overwhelming favorite to be the A's back-up catcher after a strong 2009 rookie season with Oakland. In a surprise move, the A's chose to carry Jake Fox – a utilityman with below-average catching skills – as the primary back-up catcher. Suzuki's ribcage injury in May gave Oakland a chance to bring both Powell and Donaldson to the big leagues and it was Powell who eventually won the back-up job, although he wound-up with only 112 big league at-bats.
The A's clearly desired versatility from the back-up catcher roster spot last spring, but it isn't clear what direction they will go in for 2011. Suzuki is coming off of his worst offensive season of his short major league career, so the A's may privately be looking at ways to get him more time off early in the season. Should that be their thinking, the A's front office is likely to tab Powell for the back-up spot. However, if the A's plan to run Suzuki out there everyday the way they have for his first three-plus major league seasons, they may lean towards Donaldson, who would give Geren more roster flexibility with his ability to play third and first base. This is a battle that – barring injury – is likely to come down to the final days of camp.