Not a Rookie: Kurt Suzuki
Kurt Suzuki was drafted in the second round in 2004, out of Cal State Fullerton. He was an outstanding college player known for excellent leadership skills, clutch hitting, and solid all-around defense, though a lack of home run power kept him out of the first round. Oakland assigned him to Vancouver in the Northwest League, where he hit .297/.394/.440 in 46 games. I liked him a lot in college and gave him a Grade B in the 2005 book.
Assigned to Stockton in the California League for '05, Suzuki hit .277/.378/.440. He showed very fine plate discipline and hit 12 homers. But scouts said his defense deteriorated and his footwork was substandard. I lowered him to Grade C+ in the '06 book, speculating that perhaps he had been playing through an injury of some kind, since his defense had previously been rated very highly.
Suzuki played 99 games for Double-A Midland in 2006, hitting .285/.392/.415, again showing fine command of the zone with a touch of pop. His defense was much better: he showed more mobility and smoother footwork. I moved him back up to Grade B-.
Suzuki split 2007 between Triple-A and the majors, hitting .280/.351/.365 for Sacramento (55 games) and .249/.327/.408 for Oakland (68 games).
He opens 2008 as the regular catcher on the depth chart. What should we expect?
Offensively, Suzuki is a line drive hitter with good plate discipline and occasional spikes of power, though he will never be a big home run guy. With more experience, he projects (in my opinion) to produce major league numbers very similar to what he did in the minors: hit .270-.280 most of the time, with a solid OBP and a SLG in the low .400s. Projections for 2008:
I'm the optimist here, though I can see him struggling somewhat in '08 before doing better in '09.
Defensively, Suzuki made just two errors in the majors, but isn't the best at throwing out runners, catching just 19% for the Athletics. Of course, there is a lot more to catching than throwing out runners, much of it very difficult to measure statistically. He gets praise for his leadership skills and emotional intensity, again things that are hard to measure but that certainly exist. I doubt Oakland would be relying on him as the regular catcher to open '08 if they weren't happy with his glove, given that he's not going to be putting up huge hitting numbers even by the optimistic projections.
Here is what I think will happen with Suzuki. He'll put up non-impressive offensive numbers this year, but will hold the job due to his defense. He will improve in 2009, getting up to the .280/.360/.400 range or so. And he'll stay in that range for several years.
In 2012, at the age of 28, he'll have an unexpectedly excellent season with the bat, hit well over .300 or spike a bunch of power, or both. Then he'll come back to Earth again, back to his previous levels, and everyone will be disappointed. He eventually ends up as one of those backup catchers who lasts forever, not getting out of the majors until he's almost 40.