Piazza getting prepped for new role
Longtime catcher adjusting to season as full-time DH
PHOENIX -- Mike Piazza will be Oakland's third-string catcher this season, but don't expect to see Adam Melhuse walking around with his chest puffed out because he's ahead of a future Hall of Famer on the depth chart.Like everyone else in the world, Melhuse knows exactly why the A's signed Piazza. It's the same reason he's a lock to someday land in Cooperstown, and why new manager Bob Geren respectfully declined Piazza's offer to catch in the bullpen on Thursday during the club's first full-squad workout at Papago Park. "Just get yourself ready to hit," Geren told Piazza, who admitted that adjusting his new role as a full-time designated hitter won't be easy. "It's not a completely foreign thing to me, because I've been doing a little bit of it every year since 1997, with Interleague Play," said Piazza, a full-time backstop for most of his 15 years in the Majors. "But it is a challenge, and I'm looking forward to the challenge. Just like last year with the Padres, who gave me the opportunity to prove myself after a couple of rough years with injuries with the Mets, this is a great opportunity for me to see if I can really [be a full-time DH]. I know it's a lot of responsibility, and I don't take it lightly, but it is going to be an adjustment. "I'm just as curious as anybody." Based on the number of cameras, notepads and recorders surrounding Piazza's first live media briefing since signing a one-year, $8.5 million deal with the A's, a lot of people are curious to see how Piazza fares this year. Not only is he a DH for the first time, but he's also playing in the American League for the first time at the age of 38. Oh, and he's replacing Frank Thomas, who carried the A's to the AL West title with an MVP-caliber season of 39 homers and 114 RBIs. Like many veteran players who have switched leagues, Piazza suggests that free agency and Interleague Play have eased the adjustment. "There's not a lot of guys you haven't seen [before] these days," he said, "and at the end of the day, it's still baseball." As for filling the Big Hurt's massive shoes, Piazza said he'd be "foolish" to think of his new job in those terms. "I just want to kind of slide in and be consistent," he explained. "Frank set the bar incredibly high for the DH here last year."
General manager Billy Beane, however, seems to think Piazza has a shot at measuring up to Thomas' production last year given the numbers Piazza put up for the Padres -- .283 batting average, 22 homers, 68 RBIs -- in 439 plate appearances.Thomas, who batted .270 last year, had 556 plate appearances. "We knew if we lost Frank, Mike would be a natural segue way for us," Beane said. "[Piazza] had a good year last year, and it would have been an even better year with more at-bats." Said Piazza: "From the start, Billy was adamant about how much I can help this ballclub." New Giants manager Bruce Bochy, who managed the Padres last year, is with Beane. "The guy can flat-out hit," Bochy said of Piazza. "He swung the bat very well for me last year and did a great job in the cleanup spot. He's going to take that to Oakland. He still has the ability to do a lot of damage to a baseball. That's a great pickup for them." Though his .309 lifetime batting average, 419 homers and 1,291 career RBIs were obviously the primary reasons Oakland targeted Piazza over the winter, and Beane and Geren have made it clear that he'll catch only in emergencies, Piazza conceded that he isn't ready to put the "tools of ignorance" on a shelf just yet. "I'll play it by ear," he said. "I'll probably start with some bullpens. It's something I'll use to get myself in shape and keep myself in shape. I understand why they brought me here. ... [But] I plan to stay connected. I'm an old catcher at heart." Geren said he doesn't want his DH to catch any bullpen sessions for fear of jammed fingers and the like, but he said Piazza will contribute on the "mental side," sitting in on the catchers' meetings and chipping in on game plans. "He's our DH, and that's why we signed him," Geren said. "We've had that talk several times." During his first workout, Piazza could be seen talking with a number of his new teammates. And not surprisingly, one of them was outfielder/first baseman Nick Swisher, who seemed attached to Thomas' hip at times last season. "It's the same exact thing, so I'll say the same exact thing I said last year," Swisher said. "When you get a chance to pick the brain of a Hall of Famer, you're an idiot if you don't take advantage of it. ... Plus, he's a really good guy. I mean, you never know about someone until you actually get to talk to him, but I can already tell he's a great dude." Piazza said he's flattered when young players want to pick his brain. He's heard what a good influence Thomas was in the A's clubhouse, and he'd like to follow suit. "I think it's great when guys want to talk baseball, go out to lunch, whatever," Piazza said. "I love this game so much, that's kind of my small way of giving something back." Piazza raved about the clubhouse chemistry of the A's and said he enjoyed the "picnic" atmosphere at Papago Park, where a fan handed him a present for his baby daughter, Nicoletta, who was born on Feb. 3. "It's tough walking around with a pink-bowed present in front of all the guys when they think you're this tough guy from the past," Piazza said with a big smile. "But that was nice. ... Everyone here is over-the-top nice. "I'm just really, really happy to be here."
Mychael Urban is a national writer for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.