The parallels between the Tampa Bay Rays and the Oakland A's organizations are not hard to draw. Both are clubs with limited revenue streams playing in big money divisions. Both have creative, dynamic front offices and strong player development programs that have keyed their success. And both were the post-season last year.
Given those similarities, it isn't a surprise that both clubs have had personnel overlap. Before the 2011 season, the A's signed free agent reliever Grant Balfour away from the Rays. After three successful years in the green-and-gold, Balfour returned to Tampa this off-season to serve as the Rays' new closer. Former A's outfielder David DeJesus is also on the Rays' 40-man roster.
The A's big league camp roster is littered with former Rays. Oakland's biggest off-season signing was starter Scott Kazmir, who made his major-league debut with the Rays in 2004. The A's non-roster invitee list includes two former Rays: outfielder Sam Fuld and right-hander Matt Buschmann. However, it is the ‘catcher' portion of the A's 40-man roster where Tampa is best represented in the west coast Bay Area. Oakland is currently carrying four catchers on their 40-man roster – and three spent time in the Tampa organization (John Jaso, Chris Gimenez and Stephen Vogt).
Vogt, who joined the A's last season after spending his entire pro career with Tampa, isn't surprised that the two organizations have had so much overlap.
"I would say that between the Tampa Bay Rays and the Oakland A's, those are two of the best organizations in baseball," Vogt said last Friday.
Jaso spent nine years in the Tampa organization. He never crossed paths with Gimenez (in fact, he and Gimenez swapped places in 2012, with Gimenez going from Seattle to Tampa before that season and Jaso going the other direction). Vogt's tenure with Tampa overlapped with both Jaso and Gimenez. In fact, Vogt and Gimenez were teammates in 2012 and competed for a spot on the Tampa Opening Day roster last spring.
While Jaso – health permitting – is a lock to be on the A's Opening Day roster, Vogt and Gimenez will be competing for a spot with Oakland. Although it is possible that both Vogt and Gimenez will be on the A's Opening Day roster, it is far more likely that the A's will carry one – or neither, if the A's feel Jaso is healthy enough that Oakland can carry only two catchers on the 25-man roster. Consequently, the two friends will be in an uneasy situation of competing against each other. Complicating matters further is the fact that Gimenez is out of options, so if he doesn't make the A's 25-man roster out of camp, Oakland could lose him to the waiver wire.
The friendly competition is something both Gimenez and Vogt are used to.
"We've actually had a couple of conversations about it," Gimenez said during the A's pre-FanFest media session. "I guess we can't seem to really get away from each other. [laughs]
"But I don't necessarily think that it is a bad thing. He was one of my best friends when we were in Tampa together and he's definitely helped introduce me to a few guys here and to the coaching staff. He's been a good crutch to lean on. We are just looking forward to playing together. We bring out the best in one another. I wish the best for him and he wishes the best for me."
Selected in the 19th-round of the 2004 draft by the Cleveland Indians, Gimenez has been fighting to stay on a major league roster since he made his MLB debut with Cleveland in 2009. He has logged MLB time in each of the past five seasons, but he has appeared in just 143 MLB games. While every opportunity to make a major league squad has been special for Gimenez, this spring presents a unique opportunity for the Gilroy native, who grew up an A's fan. He and his father went to a lot of games at the Coliseum and he said his favorite player was Mark McGwire.
Gimenez was disappointed when he was designated for assignment by the Rays this off-season, but when he learned that he had been claimed and the claim had been from the A's, Gimenez was thrilled.
"It caught me off-guard a little bit, just for the fact that it was Oakland. I almost thought it was too good to be true because my whole family is from here and I live in Reno, so it is so close," Gimenez said. "It was a great feeling knowing that someone else was aware of what I was doing. My situation in Tampa, I kind of got squeezed out by some things that happened. That's baseball and I understand the game. It was really cool that it happened to be the A's. It was a lot of fun being able to think that I could possibly get to wear white cleats. That's cool."
Vogt suffered a similar rollercoaster of emotions last April. The Southern California native had six-plus years with Tampa when he was designated for assignment at the end of spring training. After a few days in limbo, Vogt was traded to Oakland for future considerations. He was initially hurt by Tampa's decision, but ultimately the move was a boost for his career.
"When all that happened at the end of spring training last year, it was kind of devastating for me. The one organization that you know kind of says ‘we're moving on,'" Vogt said. "What helped me out so much was just the mental stuff that I have gone through in baseball. Allowing myself to be upset and allowing myself to be in a state that you don't want to be in for long, but allowing yourself to go there for a little while. Once that happened, I was able to move on from that and everything was fine.
"As soon as I found out I was traded here, it kind of presented me a new life, so to speak. It gave me a new outlook on baseball. Here I am walking into a new organization where I need to make a new impression. I already had an impression with Tampa Bay, but now it was walking into uncharted waters. That was very exciting for me. It was a chance for me to start all over."
It didn't take Vogt long to make a strong impression with his new organization. He hit .438 in April and immediately put himself on the radar for the A's front office for a spot in the big leagues.
"To get off to a good start is huge for any season, but you want to get off to a good start with a new organization, as well," Vogt said. "For me, it was just that: a good start. I know my capabilities as a player and I knew I was capable of doing that. Obviously sustaining a .400 average for a whole season was a little unrealistic, but it was nice to get off to a good start to show what I could do."
Vogt made his debut with Oakland on June 25 and on June 28, Vogt collected his first major league hit. The hit was a homerun and it helped the A's defeat the eventual National League champion St. Louis Cardinals. For Vogt, the hit was more meaningful than most first big league hits because it snapped an 0-for-32 streak in the big leagues that dated back to 2012 with Tampa. It was a streak he feared would never end.
"It was a long time waiting for it and a long time coming," Vogt said. "I had some good at-bats and hit some balls hard, but right at people. You start to think to yourself, ‘am I ever going to get a hit?' Then you start to hear from people, ‘how are you feeling? 0-for-27, 0-for-28' and it just keeps building up. To finally get that hit, I could exhale finally.
"That being said, yes it was weighing on me and yes it was tough, but never once did I step into the box nervous. I never once stepped into the box thinking that I would never get a hit. I always had that confidence and I was having good at-bats, for the most part."
Vogt would return to the minor leagues a few days later, but when Jaso was sidelined with a severe concussion in late July, it was Vogt who replaced Jaso as the A's everyday catcher versus right-handed pitchers. Although Vogt has always considered himself a catcher first, he wasn't an everyday backstop for much of his time in the Tampa organization. The 65 games he played for Sacramento as a catcher were the most he caught in any minor league season in his career. He would catch 44 games for the A's during the regular season and then all five of the A's post-season contests.
"When I got traded here, Oakland said, ‘you are going to catch.' That was a huge deal for me because I had never had the opportunity to do it," Vogt said. "I DHd a lot and played a lot of outfield in the minor leagues, and caught a little bit. For me to have an opportunity to catch everyday in Triple-A, that was a huge boost."
Vogt's defense improved steadily throughout the season, and he finished the year with strong defensive statistics. He caught 31% of potential base-stealers, an above-average number. His catcher's ERA was 3.35 and he finished with a .997 fielding percentage.
"You don't get better at something that you don't do. Getting to catch every day, it was amazing how much better I got defensively from the beginning of the season until the end," Vogt said. "A lot of the credit I have to give to [A's bullpen coach] Darren Bush and the other coaches who have helped me. Derek Norris talking to me about the things that he did and Kurt Suzuki when he came back. Norris especially from day one, if he saw something, he'd let me know because he knew the staff and he had more major league experience than I did.
"Everybody was great. I'm a guy that likes to work and everyone is willing to work here. It's awesome.
His best defensive effort came during the post-season when Vogt caught Sonny Gray's gem in Game Two of the ALDS. In that game, Vogt not only helped Gray through his first post-season start, he also threw out a runner stealing and had the walk-off hit in the bottom of the ninth. The entire game is a career highlight for Vogt.
"You think about that whole night – Sonny throwing a shutout against Verlander, the strike-em out, throw-em out in the fifth inning and then the walk-off basehit, that night was definitely the highlight of my baseball career thus far," Vogt said. "Just to be able to help the team like I could and to do it on that stage was so much fun. I would definitely say that walk-off hit offensively and the whole game defensively were the highlights of my baseball career."
Like Vogt, Gimenez has spent a lot of time playing positions other than catcher. The Indians used Gimenez mostly in the corner outfield and infield spots early in his career before giving him an extended look behind the plate in 2006. He didn't catch more than 70 games in any season until 2008, when he caught 99 for the Indians' Double-A and Triple-A squads. Last year in Triple-A, Gimenez caught 56 games, played in the outfield 31 times, DHd five times and logged seven games at first and one at third.
Gimenez says he feels comfortable anywhere on the field and he hopes that his versatility will help him land a spot on the A's roster. In fact, his ability to play first base will allow Gimenez to compete with Nate Freiman for the role of Brandon Moss' platoon partner this spring, as well as the back-up catcher spot.
"I think [versatility] has enabled me to stay a little bit longer in the big leagues," Gimenez said. "Catching is its own kind of animal but the fact that I can play a lot of different positions, certain teams like the A's and Tampa Bay really like that sort of thing. It's just other avenues for me to explore and other opportunities.
"I'm really looking forward to being able to play a lot of different positions. I enjoy that. I know some guys don't, but I really feel comfortable wherever I am on the field. I look at it as a chance to prove myself in a different area every day."
The biggest challenge for Gimenez this spring will be getting to know a new pitching staff. After being claimed by the A's, Gimenez watched video of the A's staff, but he knows he will have some catching up to do as the only catcher on the A's 40-man roster that wasn't with the team last year.
"That's actually the tough part. Last year was my second year in Tampa and I really felt like I started to have a good grasp on everyone there. Now that's kind of accelerated," Gimenez said. "Being in the position that I am in, I have tried to watch video on these guys. I was on MLB.com watching as much video as I could just to try to have an idea coming into it of what they like to do in certain situations. That's really what it comes down to, getting that comfort level with that guy on the mound.
"[Video] helps some in terms of knowing what they have, what their repertoire is. Now I try to talk as much as I can to guys because you can get a pretty good idea of the kind of pitchers that they are just by having a conversation with them. You have a feel of what they might like to go with. Luckily for me, I have faced a lot of these guys in the past, so I kind of have an idea there too. But it's always different when you get back there behind the plate because the movement factor is a big part of it. I'm just trying to learn that as best I can and I'm trying to learn tendencies."
On Friday, Gimenez and Vogt will both report to their first spring training with the A's. While the jerseys and hats are no longer in blue and teal and palm trees have been replaced with cactus, spring training will have a familiar feel for Gimenez and Vogt because of the parallels between their new organization and their old one.
"From everyone that I have talked to from around here, it's a very similar experience [to Tampa]," Gimenez said. "It's very easy to fit in. Really, you kind of already have an idea of what to expect, so to speak."