MINNEAPOLIS — New Twins catcher Kurt Suzuki wants to make one thing clear: He’s not Joe Mauer.
Suzuki joins his new team in part because Mauer switched positions this offseason, moving to first base full time. That left a void behind the plate for Minnesota, which inked Suzuki to a one-year, $2.75 million deal this winter. A career .253 hitter, Suzuki isn’t close to the same hitter that the three-time batting champion Mauer is, but he feels he can fill in admirably with the Twins in 2014.
"I’m not trying to be Joe," Suzuki said this past weekend at TwinsFest. "I feel like I’ve got a lot to offer still in this game. I still feel on top of my game. Obviously the last couple years haven’t gone the way I wanted to, but the way my body feels, I’m in a good spot mentally right now. I’m looking forward to this season."
A native of Hawaii and a product of Cal State-Fullerton, Suzuki spent most of his seven major league seasons with two different stints in Oakland, along with parts of the 2012 and 2013 seasons in Washington. He played in just 94 games last year, mostly as a backup for the Nationals, and batted a career low .232 with just five home runs.
Yet the Twins didn’t necessarily sign Suzuki for his bat. The 30-year-old catcher has a reputation as a solid game-caller, a good clubhouse presence, and someone who can help transition Minnesota’s starting rotation that includes a pair of free agents in Ricky Nolasco and Phil Hughes.
"It definitely takes a little bit," Suzuki said of learning a new staff. "With Oakland, we had a quick turnover, and then going to Washington and learning that pitching staff. Some guys it might take a little longer. Some guys it might be fast. You just never know. Having faced a lot of the pitchers, I kind of have an idea of what they like to do. Knowing the hitters in the league, it should be a lot easier and simplify things."
It remains to be seen just how many games Suzuki will catch in 2014, but general manager Terry Ryan essentially anointed him the starter this past weekend. The Twins’ backup catcher job will likely be a battle this spring between Josmil Pinto, Chris Herrmann and Eric Fryer.
Pinto appears to be the team’s catcher of the future, but he’s still a bit raw defensively. Despite that, the 24-year-old Pinto impressed fans with his bat as a September call-up last year, hitting .342/.398/.566 with four homers and 12 RBI in 21 major league games.
If Suzuki was brought in to mentor Pinto and help bridge the gap to 2015, the veteran catcher doesn’t see it that way.
"I don’t think anybody goes anywhere, obviously, to sit on the bench. You want to play as many games as you can," Suzuki said. "The better you play, the more you play. That’s how it has to be, and that’s how you have to believe, because if you don’t think otherwise, you can get complacent. You definitely have to earn your playing time."
Mauer insists his catching days are done. The move to first base was one made to preserve the six-time All-Star’s health; he suffered a season-ending concussion this past August and doesn’t want to risk another one via a foul tip off the mask.
So even though Mauer won’t put on the catcher’s gear again, he’ll still be willing to help Suzuki adapt to the new surroundings and a new pitching staff. Suzuki will be all ears whenever the 2009 AL MVP offers his advice.
"I told him, too, ‘I don’t want to step on anybody’s toes but I’m here to win and if I can help, that’s what I’m going to do,’" Mauer said. "He’s here for the same reason, so it’s good. The guys we brought in are good players and they have the right mindset, too."
Added Suzuki: "I have a lot of respect for Joe. He calls a great game. He’s a premier catcher. To have a guy like that to lean on, on my team now, will be fantastic."
Suzuki has familiarity with the Twins organization, having faced Minnesota 43 times over the last seven years — the most of any non-divisional opponent. He’s also played 11 games at Target Field and raved about his new home while there this past weekend for TwinsFest.
Minnesota might not have a six-time All-Star and three-time batting champ behind the plate anymore, but the Twins feel confident that Suzuki can hold his own with Mauer now at first base.
"We talked to Oakland when we were out there and they had nothing but the best things in the world to say about Suzuki as far as a leader, a catcher, calling the ball game, very intelligent, helping everybody out," said Twins manager Ron Gardenhire. "He brings a lot to the table."