Veteran leader Suzuki already earning rave reviews
Catcher known for superior game-calling skills taking initiative to learn new-look staff
PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. -- Scott Diamond sat alone at a table in the middle of the Twins' clubhouse at Hammond Stadium, just relaxing after throwing early in camp.
He was sitting at one of two tables located in the middle of the clubhouse, which are popular spots for Twins players to sit and chat, play cards or simply pass the time during the long days of Spring Training.
Kurt Suzuki noticed his teammate sitting at the table, and joined the left-hander, but instead of engaging in the usual chit-chat, he wanted to know more about Diamond's throwing arsenal. Diamond, one of the more cerebral pitchers in the clubhouse, took the time to explain his pitching philosophies to Suzuki, who listened intently from the other side of the table.
It was just another example of Suzuki trying to learn the pitching staff as a newcomer to the Twins after joining the club on a one-year, $2.75 million deal this offseason. He's already earning rave reviews for his pitch-calling and defense this spring, and he has had fun picking the brains of the pitchers in camp.
"That's my favorite part," Suzuki said. "I just like going out there and helping pitchers get through games, especially when they don't have it. It's more fulfilling then. Just give us a chance to win. That's my whole deal there."
Suzuki didn't sign with the Twins until mid-December, or about a month after the team officially announced Joe Mauer would be moving from catcher to first base after suffering a season-ending concussion in mid-August.
But the Twins began their unofficial courting of Suzuki late in the '13 season, as pitching coach Rick Anderson asked the A's coaching staff about the catcher when the Twins were playing in Oakland from Sept. 19-22.
The A's had nothing but positive things to say about Suzuki, who played with Oakland from 2007-12 before being traded to the Nationals in August of '12, and re-acquired in a trade in August of '13.
"Andy always finds out about guys, personality and all those things, which is really good," Twins manager Ron Gardenhire said. "And I get a chance to talk to a lot of different people myself. You always throw out names. When they brought Suzuki back over there, that was one of the first things we asked them. Leadership was huge for those guys over there, because they had a young team ... full of guys that come from everywhere else. Leadership is big and we needed that."
Suzuki, 30, is known for his defense and is well-regarded for his pitch selection, pitch-framing and ability to block balls in the dirt. But he did struggle throwing out runners last season, as he threw out 12 percent of attempted base stealers, which was a drop from his career average of 26 percent.
The Twins wanted to go with a defensive-minded catcher after losing Mauer to first base and one who could help mentor top prospect Josmil Pinto, whose bat appears Major League ready, but he needs work behind the plate.
So they turned to Suzuki, and ultimately traded backup catcher Ryan Doumit, whose value was tied to his offense and versatility, but is generally regarded as a poor defensive catcher by advanced metrics.
Suzuki was the fourth free agent added during an offseason that saw the Twins sign right-handers Ricky Nolasco, Phil Hughes and Mike Pelfrey to multi-year deals worth a combined $84 million.
"Obviously, we tried to address our starting pitching, so the second part of that was finding a guy who works well with pitchers and calls a good a game," Twins assistant general manager Rob Antony said. "He really helps the pitchers. And the clubhouse and off-the-field makeup is also really good."
Suzuki will be tasked with working with a re-made rotation after Twins starters finished last in the Majors in innings pitched and ERA last season.
He worked with strong pitching staffs during his time in Oakland and Washington, and he believes Minnesota's rotation will be improved this year after their high-priced additions. He said the key is for the starting pitchers to go deeper into games, which was one of the club's biggest problems last season.
"It's been great just going out there and catching them," Suzuki said. "Just learning about them and seeing what they can and can't do. It helps me out a lot. I'm just trying to learn as much as I can right now."
Suzuki is expected to be the club's primary catcher this year, but unlike Mauer, he's never been known for his bat. He hit .232/.290/.337 with five homers and 32 RBIs in 94 games last season, which was a drop-off from his career slash line of .253/.309/.375.
But the Twins have high hopes for Pinto offensively, so Gardenhire said he could see a scenario in which the two split time behind the plate. The Twins are still determining how that'll work during the season -- there's a chance Pinto could start the year at Triple-A -- but so far, they like what they see in Suzuki.
"He's exactly what we thought we were getting,' Gardenhire said. "He's a guy who knows how to handle a pitching staff and enjoys the catching part of it. He's great in the clubhouse and great with everybody around. And he's not afraid to tell a pitcher what he thinks, and I like that a lot. He's not here to make friends with the pitchers, he's here to help them win ballgames."