Derek Norris: The young catcher took over after Kurt Suzuki was traded last year, but he has John Jaso to contend with this season.

Norris, Jaso will battle behind the plate

Published: Thursday, Feb. 14, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 3C
Last Modified: Monday, Mar. 25, 2013 - 7:23 am

PHOENIX – For years, the A's came into spring training knowing what they would have behind home plate in Kurt Suzuki. But not anymore.

Derek Norris, who was the catcher for Oakland for most of the second half last season after Suzuki was traded, has power that Suzuki never did. John Jaso, who was part of a three-headed catching crew in Seattle in 2012, is an Oakland specialty – an on-base machine in a way that Suzuki never was.

Few teams can afford their catchers to be offense-only players, however, and the jury is out on the defensive skills Norris and Jaso bring to the mix. Much of spring training will be devoted to having manager Bob Melvin, himself a former catcher, see what he likes in each player.

For the moment, Melvin is looking at a modified platoon system that would see the left-handed Jaso, 29, get more at-bats than the right-handed Norris. That's not a long-term solution in Melvin's eyes, because down the line he sees the 24-year-old Norris as a 130-games-a-year backstop.

"It's going to be interesting to see how it plays out," Melvin said. "Both guys bring a lot to the table."

The scouting report on Jaso: Offensively, he takes pitches, hits for a decent average and has a career .359 on-base percentage. Defensively, he has an average arm and gets credit for calling a good game. But he has problems with balls in the dirt, of which there were plenty in Seattle. He gets credit for smarts and knowing how to call a good game.

More than that, he's been behind the plate for two of the better pitching staffs in the game, Tampa Bay and Seattle.

"The guys here are going to like throwing to him," A's closer Grant Balfour said. The two were teammates with Tampa Bay.

The scouting report on Norris: Offensively, he has 20-homer potential, but in his big-league debut after a .333 average in his first eight games, he hit just .179 the rest of the season, so he's yet to prove he can hit in the majors. Defensively, he has an average throwing arm but compensates with a quick release, so he can be difficult to run against. More than anything, the A's pitchers like throwing to him.

"He's going to be a decent defensive catcher one day," one American League manager said. "But he's got work to do. You could see his improvement from the time he got called up to the end of the season. And you can't overlook what he did as a rookie, dealing with a really good pitching staff."

Jaso had to fight his way into the lineup last year in Seattle, wedged as he was between veteran Miguel Olivo and rookie Jesus Montero. By the time the season was done, the Mariners were finding any excuse possible to keep his bat in the lineup.

"He gives you a good at-bat every time," Seattle skipper Eric Wedge said. "You can't underestimate how important that is."

Jaso and Norris may be competing for playing time, but their competition is also a collaboration. They already have spent time talking about the pitching staff and seeing what it will take to get the most out of what appears to be one of the deepest and best staffs in the big leagues.

"I know he wants to play every day; so do I," Norris said. "I know I can't be thinking in terms of playing in a platoon. For me, it's about continuing to develop the trust I want the pitchers to have in me."

There are other catchers in camp, notably Luke Montz, who has been hitting some monster shots in batting practice. But look for Jaso and Norris to get the bulk of the time behind the plate when Cactus League play starts.

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