December 25, 2013
By signing Jason Kubel last week the Twins added to what was already a logjam at designated hitter and the outfield corners. Ryan Doumit's role seemed particularly tenuous with his ability to remain an option at catcher in question, possibly leaving him as merely a bad defensive outfielder with a mediocre bat. Apparently the Twins assessed the situation exactly that way, because less than 48 hours after adding Kubel they subtracted Doumit (and then added Kurt Suzuki).
Doumit is under contract for $3.5 million in 2014 as part of a two-year extension handed out by the Twins midway through his first season in Minnesota, but he wasn't worth that money in 2013 and ceased being a good fit for the current roster. Simply clearing his entire salary off the books and removing him from the bad-fielder logjam is an accomplishment for the Twins and getting a recent first-round draft pick from the Braves in exchange for Doumit is an added bonus.
Heading into the 2011 draft there was some talk of the Twins targeting Sean Gilmartin and as a soft-tossing college left-hander he certainly fit their longstanding drafting approach, but they picked 30th that year and the Braves took him two spots earlier. Three years later the Twins essentially acquired Gilmartin for nothing, but that mostly speaks to how far his prospect stock has dropped and how modest his upside was to begin with.
As you'd expect from an experienced college pitcher Gilmartin dominated in the low minors, but he managed just 6.5 strikeouts per nine innings in 20 starts at Double-A and then fell apart at Triple-A this year with a 5.74 ERA, .304 opponents' batting average, and 6.4 strikeouts per nine innings. Plenty of former first-round picks bounce back from struggles in the minors to thrive in the majors, but with a high-80s fastball Gilmartin doesn't seem like a good bet to be one of them.
On the other hand he's still just 23 years old and with only three pro seasons Gilmartin doesn't even require a 40-man roster spot yet, which no doubt played a part in the Twins asking for him in the deal. Gilmartin has had extreme splits in the minors--including an .859 OPS versus righties and a .635 OPS versus lefties this year--and could find a bullpen niche as a southpaw specialist. He's more "minor leaguer" than "prospect" at this point, but the deal is about shedding Doumit.
It's been clear all offseason that the Twins prioritized adding a veteran catcher and after missing out on both Jarrod Saltalamacchia and A.J. Pierzynski they were linked to second-tier options like Suzuki and John Buck. They ended up settling on Suzuki, who'll get $2.75 million to compete for playing time with and hopefully mentor Josmil Pinto. Suzuki was once a young building block for the A's, but huge workloads early in his career seem to have caught up to him.
Suzuki was a college superstar at Cal-State Fullerton, hitting .413/.511/.702 in 2004 before being drafted 67th overall. He debuted with the A's as a 23-year-old rookie in 2007, led the league in games caught in both 2008 and 2009, and then ranked third in games caught in 2010 and 2011. Through his first four full seasons in the majors Suzuki averaged 132 games and 1,145 innings behind the plate, which is a great path to being washed up before age 30.
Suzuki hasn't topped a .250 batting average or .700 OPS since 2009 and combined over the past two seasons he hit .234/.282/.332 in 212 games. That's backup-caliber offense at best and while Suzuki has a strong reputation behind the plate his actual defensive numbers have also been ugly recently. His caught-stealing numbers were consistently mediocre until this year, when 57 of 65 stolen base attempts were successful against Suzuki for an abysmal 12 percent throw-out rate.
Perhaps more importantly, Parker Hageman of Twins Daily notes that Suzuki fares very poorly in his ability to coax strikes out of borderline pitches. Dating back to 2008 he ranked 52nd out of 66 regular catchers in getting called strikes on pitches deemed to be within the strike zone, a metric which rated Doumit dead last during that same span. Breaking that down further into actual runs, Suzuki's pitch-framing graded out to 24.2 runs below average from 2010-2013.
So why do the Twins want Suzuki if he can't hit, his work framing pitches grades out poorly, and this year at least he couldn't throw? First and foremost because the veteran catcher market isn't exactly overflowing with capable options, so it's basically about holding your nose and deciding which huge flaws are palatable. Beyond that the Twins clearly believe more in their scouting and Suzuki's reputation than any defensive numbers.
He's a better option than Eric Fryer or Chris Herrmann, although the risk with Suzuki is that it's easy to envision Ron Gardenhire falling in love with his veteran-ness. As spring competition and eventually a backup and mentor for Pinto he's a perfectly reasonable, inexpensive fit, but if Suzuki finds his way into the lineup 4-5 times per week or perhaps even convinces the Twins to send Pinto back to the minors the signing will look a whole lot different.
For a lot more on the Doumit trade and Suzuki signing--plus the Mike Pelfrey re-signing--check out this week's "Gleeman and The Geek" episode.