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Updated: March 17th, 2014 10:56pm
Mackey: Why the Twins probably are going to start Suzuki over Pinto

Mackey: Why the Twins probably are going to start Suzuki over Pinto

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by Phil Mackey
1500ESPN.com

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Barring injury or a last-minute change of heart by manager Ron Gardenhire, Kurt Suzuki is slated to be the Minnesota Twins' starting catcher when the season begins in two weeks. This much has been decided.

At first, this was a notion Twins decision-makers - front office and field staff combined - weren't all-in on simply because of how poorly Suzuki has performed offensively the past two years. After posting a respectable .706 OPS his first five years in the league, Suzuki's OPS dropped to .614 the past two seasons. The 31-year-old veteran hit the same offensive cliff most catchers do around age 30.

A team that already figures to struggle somewhat offensively surely isn't aided much by adding another 550 plate appearances by a light-hitting catcher. Josmil Pinto, on the other hand, has mashed at every level, including during his big league debut last year.

There appear to be three main reasons why Suzuki will start over Pinto:

1.) The Twins have had some atrocious starting pitching lately, and they feel like Suzuki can help squeeze the most out of the current crop of pitchers.

2.) Pinto's game-calling and defensive skills still need a lot of refinement. The Twins want Suzuki's work ethic and good habits behind the scenes to rub off on Pinto, who could very well stay on the 25-man roster as the backup catcher who plays a couple times per week.

3.) Gardenhire loves Suzuki's vocal leadership, which is something the Twins don't have much of among position players. One player even compared Suzuki's presence to that of former Twins catcher Mike Redmond.

"Position players, they need to lead by example. They need to be in the dugout, when you see a guy screw something up, they need to get in your face," Gardenhire said. "Those are the guys - Torii Hunter - who will get in your face. 'That's not the way we play. That's not the way this organization plays.' Those are your true leaders. They absolutely help. Do you need them to be winners? No. But it always helps when you have somebody up there, and it's not always a coach. ...

"There's no doubt in my mind (Suzuki) will be that this year. He has so much respect in this clubhouse already. He's not afraid to get in a pitcher's face. 'Hey, that ain't good. We've got to do better.'"

Gardenhire added, "If the pitching doesn't do well, he's ticked - more ticked than the pitcher. That means you take pride in it. He's accountable for the pitching staff, and he takes pride in it."

Most of the Twins pitchers rave about working with Suzuki. Glen Perkins cited a specific example earlier this spring when Suzuki caught the first few innings, then exited with the rest of the starters. Perkins came in to pitch the next inning, with a different catcher behind the plate. After his outing, Perkins came into the dugout to find Suzuki still hanging around, rather than back in the clubhouse (it's common for starters to start changing midway through a spring game immediately after they exit).

'What are you still doing out here?' Perkins asked him.

'Watching you pitch,' Suzuki said. 'I want to know what you throw.'

"I love him," Perkins said. "I love how he comes in here and asks me what did you do? What do you throw?"

Here's where things get tricky: Pinto is, without much doubt, by far the superior offensive player at age 25. But Gardenhire has stated he likely will not use Pinto as a DH when Suzuki catches, for fear of losing the DH slot in case of an injury (an extreme long shot, yes). If regulars like Trevor Plouffe, Pedro Florimon, Aaron Hicks and others don't turn a corner, how long can the Twins keep running out Suzuki five days a week? And even though the Twins expect Pinto to learn plenty from Suzuki - especially in the film study realm, according to coaches - would Pinto learn even more by playing every day in Rochester?

Ultimately, the job will be Pinto's at some point, which is Gardenhire's hope. But the temptation to help improve the starting pitching is, at this point, too great for the Twins to pass up. 

Phil Mackey is a columnist for 1500ESPN.com. He co-hosts "Mackey & Judd" from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. weekdays on 1500 ESPN Twin Cities.
Email Phil | @PhilMackey | Mackey & Judd
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