A's facing difficult choice behind the plate

Phegley, Hundley competing to join Herrmann in catchers' platoon

February 24th, 2019

MESA, Ariz. -- The A’s have three catchers to fill two spots, complicating matters behind the plate this spring.

Offseason acquisition is expected to land one of these jobs, leaving longtime A’s backup and recently signed vet in a battle to join him in a platoon partnership.

The catch: the former is out of options, and the latter has an opt-out clause built into his Minor League deal -- ahead of Opening Day, no less.

“We truly have three guys that we like,” A’s manager Bob Melvin said.

The left handed-hitting Herrmann, brought in on a $1 million deal that includes incentives, has never started more than 35 games behind the plate in any of his seven big league seasons, yet the A’s appear ready to give him the bulk of playing time there.

“We envision Herrmann being one of the guys,” Melvin said. “It’s why we signed him. Things change along the way, but we brought him in to give him a pretty good opportunity.”

Phegley, meanwhile, wasn’t shy when voicing his desire for a similar opportunity, saying, “I feel like I can come in and compete for the starting spot. I don’t really want to be a platoon guy anymore. I think I can be a starter, everyday guy.”

After coming to the A’s from the White Sox with Marcus Semien and Chris Bassitt in the 2014 Jeff Samardzija trade, Phegley served as the right-handed complement to Stephen Vogt for two seasons, then Bruce Maxwell and, most recently, Jonathan Lucroy. That is, when healthy. A hodgepodge of injuries has derailed Phegley at times, limiting his at-bats.

Not since 2015 has he had more than 200 of them in a single season, getting just 93 in 2018 and batting .204 with two home runs. But the 31-year-old Phegley, whose offense got him to the big leagues, has largely remained here because of his defense.

He’ll take home $1.075 million in his second year of arbitration-eligibility.

“I think I’ve proven that I can win games behind the plate,” he said. “My whole career, I’ve been a hitter first, then a defender, but being a backup and not getting those at-bats, my defense is what’s kept me up here. I think getting some steady playing time I can get back to producing.”

Phegley looks to 2014, the last time he accrued more than 400 plate appearances, and points to his 23 homers at Triple-A Charlotte. His swing, he thinks, has since regressed, which he worked hard to rectify this winter.

Phegley pinpointed the issues plaguing him almost inadvertently; his brother-in-law is a high school baseball player and was seeking hitting advice from Phegley, who in talking through approach with him identified his own faults and created a better bat path.

What he discovered was “the best swing I’ve had in maybe a decade," he said.

“It kind of helped me break down those little pieces and realize that my lead wrist was getting in a weak position, so I wasn’t leading into the zone. I kind of figured that out, and I’ve noticed some pretty incredible results in spring already, just gained a lot of power back with less effort, handling the entire plate, driving pitches to all fields and just being able to kind of stay in the zone and attack instead of just bailing out.”

Hundley, a career .248 hitter with 11 big league seasons behind him, has his own case to make, and the A’s risk losing whomever is left off the roster.

“I’ve been here a few years, so I don’t feel like I need to prove anything, but I just think I’m ready to get that opportunity to show them what I can do on an everyday basis,” Phegley said. “I think I’m the right guy for the job. I feel like I can get a lot out of our staff, and there’s some trust there.”

“As long as he’s healthy,” Bassitt said, “it’s hard to find a better defensive catcher. I think it’s more about giving him a chance. ... I seriously think if you give him a normal amount of at-bats he can easily hit 20-plus home runs. I’ve literally seen it.”