FORT MYERS, FLA. – Twins catcher Kurt Suzuki was enjoying his offseason when manager Paul Molitor interrupted it with an unexpected phone call.
Another catcher was coming to town.
The Twins traded for John Ryan Murphy on Nov. 11, and Molitor called Suzuki right before the deal went down to make sure he was not blindsided.
“I told Molly it is what it is,” Suzuki said. “I believe I still have a lot left.”
So let the catcher controversy commence, right? Nope. Not going to happen.
Despite coming off a season in which his production dipped and opponents had success stealing bases against him, Suzuki will head into the season as the clear No. 1 catcher.
“I’m heading into camp thinking that Kurt is going to be our starting catcher,” Molitor said. “And to think that you try to make some kind of an assessment that John Ryan Murphy is ready to be more than someone who backs up Kurt. At least it gets things started.”
Suzuki, 32, says he had no trouble understanding the reasons behind the deal. He has played in 131 games each of the past two seasons, and his production in 2015 was down in most offensive categories.
“To have someone come in and help our ballclub I thought was great,” Suzuki said. “And it wasn’t about, ‘I’m this or I’m that,’ and playing time. It was about helping the team.”
Suzuki batted .288 with 61 RBI in 2014, earning an All-Star selection and a midseason contract extension through 2016. Last season he slumped to .240 with 50 RBI while throwing out only 15 percent of runners attempting to steal. The Twins believed they needed to provide Suzuki with some help, so they sent outfielder Aaron Hicks to the Yankees for Murphy.
“Initially, I was shocked,” Murphy said of the trade. “I didn’t know it was going to happen. The more I thought about it, the more excited I got about it.”
Murphy, 24, actually introduced himself to the Twins on July 25, when his three-run homer in the ninth inning off Glen Perkins capped an 8-5 comeback Yankees victory. Little did Twins fans know then that Murphy would play a role in solidifying the Twins’ catching spot.
With Suzuki only signed through this season with a $6 million vesting option for 2017, the Twins needed to bridge the gap to the future. They feel good about prospects Stuart Turner, who was at Class AA Chattanooga last season, and Mitch Garver, who was at Class A Fort Myers. Turner is strong defensively and working on his hitting; Garver came into the organization with his offense ahead of his defense but has made strides behind the plate.
Murphy, who hit .277 with three home runs and 14 RBI in 67 games with the Yankees last season, can be that bridge. Or he could take the job and not give it up.
Twins General Manager Terry Ryan told fans at TwinsFest in January that Murphy could be as good as former All-Star Jonathan Lucroy. One edge Murphy might have on Suzuki is he threw out 28 percent of runners attempting to steal last season.
Molitor cited Murphy’s lack of experience as a reason why he’s not ready to make the catching spot a timeshare. He also won’t handcuff Murphy to one starter.
“There’s a lot of likable things there,” Molitor said. “I think he knows he has to earn anything he gets.”
Twins righthander Phil Hughes likes working with Suzuki but knows Murphy from when both were with the Yankees organization.
“If he provides anything with his bat, that’s great,” Hughes said of Murphy. “He handles a staff real well. That was his background coming over here. He’s a good catch-and-throw guy and knows his pitchers.”
Suzuki continues to work on his footwork and throwing to improve his chances of throwing out base stealers, but that’s a team-wide issue. The club wants its pitchers to hold runners on base better to help out the catchers.
Murphy’s presence makes it easier for the Twins to reduce Suzuki’s role if they choose. While Molitor won’t reveal his hand as far as how he’ll use both catchers, Suzuki understands playing less might keep him fresher during the season and lead to more production.
“I’m not getting younger but I feel like I’m in great shape still and that I can catch however many games they need me to catch,” Suzuki said. “Obviously, the wear and tear of catching throughout a season grinds on you and the fresher you stay, the better you feel and the more you may produce.
“You look at it that way and it might help the team. If instead of catching 130 games you’re down to 110, 115, I don’t know, whatever it plays out to be. I’m just throwing a number out there. I’m always ready to catch.”