Around the Horn: Catcher

A's confident at catcher position

The following is the third in a series of weekly stories on MLB.com examining each Major League club, position by position. Each Wednesday until Spring Training camps open, we'll preview a different position. Today: Catcher.

OAKLAND -- A's catcher Jason Kendall, acquired in a November 2004 trade with the Pirates, did his best at Spring Training 2005 to downplay the significance of changing leagues after nine seasons in Pittsburgh.

He maintained that stance throughout the season, too, but the numbers suggested that Kendall might have been in denial.

A career .306 hitter who batted .325 and .319 in his previous two seasons, Kendall struggled through an inconsistent campaign that ended with him batting .271 -- the second-worst mark of his career. His league-high 101 stolen bases allowed, an Oakland record, only added to his misery.

"I was awful," he said after the season. "I still don't think it was changing leagues, because with Interleague Play and Spring Training and free agency, you've seen pretty much everyone before, but I won't argue that I stunk."

A's manager Ken Macha, however, has a different take.

"I think changing leagues does have an impact on guys, and it was probably a factor for Jason," Macha said Tuesday. "He's right that you're seeing a lot of guys you've seen before, but it's not always the individual you're facing; it's the way certain teams are going to pitch you. [Mark] Kotsay went through a little of that [in 2004, after being acquired from the Padres]. You change leagues and you've got a whole new batch of teams that might have a different philosophy on how to get you out."

That Kendall rallied late in the year, batting .324 in September, provided hope for 2006 and seems to support Macha's contention. The A's played the majority of their games down the stretch against American League West foes, and by that time Kendall knew what they were trying to do.

"I'd have to agree," Macha said. "Jason's a very smart hitter."

A clutch hitter, too. As a team, the A's batted .275 with runners in scoring position in '05, but Kendall's .344 mark (44-for-128) in such situations was the seventh best in the AL. He was even more productive with runners in scoring position and two outs, batting .386 (22-for-57).

Kendall's late-season surge was all the more impressive considering he set Oakland's single-season record for games caught, at 147. But while Kendall takes great pride in being something of an iron man, having caught an MLB-high 848 games since 2000, Macha plans to give his 31-year-old starter more time off this coming season.

"He's been catching a lot of games for a lot of years," Macha said. "And he's a year older now, so it's probably time to get him some more of those day games after night games off."

That statement, no doubt, is music to Adam Melhuse's ears. After belting 11 home runs with 31 RBIs in 69 games as Ramon Hernandez's backup in 2004, Melhuse saw his number of games played drop to 39 in 2005 while his number of at-bats dropped from 214 to 97. He started just 16 games behind the plate and batted .247 with two homers and 12 RBIs.

"Adam was very productive for us a couple of years ago, and he didn't get much of a chance to play last year," Macha said. "But I think he'll play more this year for a couple of reasons. One is that Jason is probably going to play a little less, and another is that with the depth of our bench, I think we're going to be able to get quite a bit of playing time for everyone."

Oakland Athletics
Starters: Staff may be AL's best
Bullpen: A's have depth, versatility
Catchers: A's confident at catcher
Corner IF: Chavez in his prime
Middle IF: Crosby, Ellis a solid duo
Outfielders: A crowd in center
DH/Bench: Bench could be deep

Melhuse, who signed a one-year contract this week, has made great progress as a defensive catcher over the past few years; he takes a 66-game errorless streak into 2006, and he threw out three of 11 runners trying to steal against him last season. Kendall's 15.1 percent success rate against would-be thieves (18-for-119) was the second-lowest in the Majors, but Macha expects the A's to do a better job containing opponents' running games this year.

"Jason had some trouble throwing the ball at times," Macha conceded, "but he's a hard worker, and it's not always the catcher who gives up a stolen base. We had a pretty young pitching staff last year, and I expect we'll improve in areas such as holding guys on and getting the ball to the plate a little quicker to give our catchers more of a chance."

Kendall's handling of that young starting staff -- Barry Zito was the only member of the Opening Day rotation with more than two years of starting experience -- was, in Macha's mind, an vastly underappreciated aspect of the veteran catcher's season.

"To a man, they all raved about his game-calling, and they all had a great deal of trust in him," Macha said. "You look at guys like Dan [Haren] and [Joe] Blanton and [Kirk] Saarloos, who came in unproven and ended up having pretty nice years, and you have to look at the catcher, too. Jason was a big part of that."

Kendall expects to be a big part of the offense now, too.

"I can't get any worse than I was this year," he said in October. "I need to pull my weight, and I will."

Don't expect him to start swinging for the fences, though. Kendall hasn't homered since July 27, 2004 -- a string of 206 games and 822 at-bats. But that doesn't mean he's can't dramatically improve on the career-low .321 slugging percentage he posted in his first year with the A's. His previous low was .356.

"Jason is a table-setter," said Macha. "He's a top-of-the-order guy, not a power guy. But he's certainly capable of getting his fair share of doubles, and he'll drive some runs in. When it's all said and done this year, I expect him to have the kind of numbers we saw when he was in Pittsburgh.

"If he does that and Melhuse does his thing, we'll be fine at catcher."

Mychael Urban is a national writer for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.