When the Twins signed Kurt Suzuki back in December, it looked like they were adding a veteran backup catcher to the roster. After all, Suzuki has hit like a backup over the past four years (.650 OPS), served as a backup with two different clubs last season, and is getting paid like a backup at $2.75 million.
However, folks around camp are talking about the new addition as essentially a lock to open the season as Minnesota's starter behind the plate. That's not entirely surprising, considering that his only real competition for the assignment is a rookie with raw receiving skills and only 40 games of experience above Double-A, but it does mean that if Pinto doesn't emerge as a capable replacement relatively early in the season, the catcher position could be a major offensive liability this year.
I'd like to believe that Suzuki has some upside at the plate. He was a very good hitter in college, in the minors and early on his major-league career. But since 2010 he has been consistently anemic with the bat, and at this point his flashes of solid production feel like distant memories.
Suzuki is considered an asset defensively, so he ought to hold his own on that end, but if he's the regular backstop for a prolonged period, the Twins are going to be looking at a massive offensive drop-off from the position's previous tenant.
Since improving the lineup is a high priority this year, receiving minimal output from catcher (in addition to shortstop and perhaps a couple others) would be difficult to stomach. So undoubtedly the Twins are hoping that Pinto can show enough early in the season to take over the reigns and provide some meaningful potential with the stick.
Early this month, Parker took a detailed look at Pinto's game, lauding the 24-year-old's ability to handle offspeed pitches and drive the ball to all fields. Pinto obviously won't replicate what Joe Mauer was able to do at the dish, but his strong marks in the minors over the past two years and his outstanding MLB debut last September are grounds for belief that he can be a quality contributor at catcher, where the average AL player hit just .246/.312/.396 in 2013.
It's not out of the question that Pinto could take the starting job right out of the gates if he tears it up over the next month, but I think it is far more likely the Twins will wait until they're fully confident he's ready for the task, offensively and especially defensively. Based on the signals they're sending, it sounds like they're not there yet -- maybe not close.
Pinto has been labeled by some as the "favorite" to back up Suzuki but I'm skeptical the club would take away regular at-bats from a developing player, especially one with so little experience in Triple-A. Chances are that Suzuki will be backed up by Chris Hermann (who offers some platoon appeal as a lefty) or Eric Fryer, who is considered to be one of the strongest defensive backstops in the organization. It's doubtful we'll see a third catcher since Gardy no longer must juggle part-time designated hitters at the position.
If the Twins are truly counting Suzuki as their Opening Day starter, Pinto has about five weeks to change their minds. And if he can't accomplish it in Ft. Myers, we'll all be crossing our fingers that he can do so in Rochester, because otherwise there's little reason to have confidence in the catcher position this year.