— Ryan Gorcey (@RyanGorcey) March 24, 2019
OAKLAND — Erik Kratz, 2018 postseason darling, knew he wasn’t going to spend this season with the Milwaukee Brewers. He knew it when he reported for spring training. He knew it for a month and a half.
“I’ve been playing my last game — I said it last year — 12 years, now it’s 13,” said Kratz, 38. ” … I’ve always kind of felt it was going to be my last day.”
At 7 p.m. on Saturday night, as Kratz ate dinner after packed up his Arizona apartment for a move back to his Virginia home, he was told that he’d been traded to the San Francisco Giants — his 13th franchise in 17 professional seasons (“Everybody forgets San Diego and my three days with the Red Sox,” he said).
It’s precisely because of how well-traveled Kratz is, that the cult hero of the 2018 postseason, was the perfect candidate to come in, mere days before Opening Day, and be immediately named as Buster Posey’s backup following the first game of the Bay Bridge Series on Sunday.
“He’s going to help out Buster,” manager Bruce Bochy said. “He’ll be the backup catcher, helping out in that area. He’s got experience in the National League, does a great job behind the plate. I haven’t had a chance to spend time with him, but from what I’ve heard, he’s a cerebral catcher, knows what he’s doing, so I look forward to working with him.”
With Posey easing into catching everyday following a hip surgery that cut his 2018 season short, Kratz figures to be a one-for-one replacement for former backup Nick Hundley, now with the Oakland Athletics. The Giants released veteran Rene Rivera from his minor league contract on Saturday, and on Sunday morning, sent Stephen Vogt to Sacramento to strengthen his shoulder for catching duty. That left Aramis Garcia as the only backup, until Kratz arrived.
After getting to the airport at 6:30 a.m. on Sunday, the journeyman catcher finally arrived in the middle of the opening game of the Bay Bridge Series shortly after 2 p.m. on a 1 p.m. start, got dressed and started warming up pitchers. Naturally, Kratz had to get a crash course in the pitching staff.
“I mean, what’re you going to do?” Kratz said. “It’s part of the gig. It’s not the first time. “’(In 2016) I got traded to the Astros, met them in the exhibition games. One time, I got traded to the Pirates, got to the park at 6:30 and by 8:15 I was in the game. That’s real crash course.”
With his Brewers duffle bag still full of his blue and gold gear from spring training — including a fresh pair of black catcher’s mitts still in their plastic wrapping — Kratz looked around the visiting clubhouse at the Oakland Coliseum on Sunday and figured he’s got two degrees of separation from most players in the room.
If he hasn’t played with his new teammates before — he spent two weeks with Evan Longoria on an All-Star tour of Japan in 2014, and two days with Pablo Sandoval and the Red Sox in 2015 — then he’s played with someone who’s played with them. He’s not Kevin Bacon.
“Better, because it’s only two degrees,” Kratz said. “I’m like … Canadian bacon.”
At 6-foot-5, 250 pounds, Kratz is difficult to miss, which was part of his mystique during Milwaukee’s run to last year’s National League Championship Series with the Los Angeles Dodgers. Kratz, a lifetime .211 hitter, with a cadre of friends in the stands wearing all his jerseys from all his previous Major League stops, hit .292 in the postseason, with two runs, three RBIs and a .721 OPS in 26 plate appearances. He had played in just 67 games and hit .236 during the regular season.
He was technically under contract for this coming season at $1.2 million, but it was clear from the get-go that spring training was his audition for 29 other teams. He didn’t know whether he’d get traded (or where, for that matter), or given his outright release.
“Baseball doesn’t owe anybody anything. You win an MVP, you might have a pass. They might keep you around for a year,” Kratz said. “For the majority of guys in the big leagues, you have to play with some urgency. Those big games, they were just on national television. I’ve had big games before, just not on national television. That doesn’t change my mindset as far as how I look at my career or what I have to be able to do.”
Kratz has never played more than 68 games at the big league level in a single season — once, in 2013 with Philadelphia, and that was interrupted when he had to have knee surgery to repair his medial meniscus. He’s been traded six times, waived once, released once, sold once and designated for assignment three times. He’s not the player to be named later, but he’s close.
“I’m not the shopper,” Kratz said. “I’m the shopped.”
After being drafted by the Toronto Blue Jays in the 29th in 2002 out of Eastern Mennonite University (he’s a member of the Souderton, Pa., Mennonite Church), it took him eight years in Toronto’s minor league system before he made his big league debut for the Pittsburgh Pirates — a nine-game stint in the Majors, at the age of 30. Up until 2009, he was still working offseason construction jobs in Harrisonburg, Va. to make ends meet and support his wife Sarah and at the time, their two sons (the couple now have a daughter, Avery, as well).
“Probably about 2007, I kind of realized that the game doesn’t really owe you anything … it was kind of a gradual process,” Kratz said. “I might lay down in bed tonight and be like, ‘Oh, man, that’s a little something,’ but it’s something that I’ve always kind of felt it was going to be my last day, for a while, so you play with a little different urgency, you play with a little different, you want to take advantage of the opportunity, and so when you get another opportunity, it’s something that’s awesome.”
The Giants are leaning towards carrying 13 pitchers, but also could carry three catchers, including both Kratz and Garcia.
“You would need flexibility on one,” Bochy said. “It could be a right-handed bat. With Buster, if you wanted to give him a few more breaks even during a game, you don’t just have one catcher. We have a couple guys who have caught before in Joe and Sandoval, so a lot of variables are involved in this decision.”
Garcia, 26, who lockered next to posey once he was called up last season and can also play first base, is tough to send down, although he has options.
“Garcia’s done a nice job, he has,” Bochy said. “To be honest, you think about his development, because he’s come so far, but it’s a pretty big bat, and he does a good job wherever you put him, at catcher or first base.”
That said, a team typically doesn’t trade for a 38-year old catcher with days left before Opening Day without a plan for him. Kratz will catch the majority of the staff over the next couple days of the Bay Bridge Series, and will be put into games once the Giants get back to Oracle Park on Monday.
“I got to catch two of them, coming in. You look at the staff, these guys attack the strike zone and they get outs. It’s a pretty nice looking bullpen with a pretty deep starting rotation. I don’t know whose numbers are what, who’s five and that stuff, but it’s one of those things where you’re running out five, above-average starting pitchers, that’s a great thing to have on opening day.”
He had already caught of those pitchers, Tony Watson, during their shared time in Pittsburgh in 2016.
Kratz have a good teacher for his crash course as he learns the staff: Posey. At this point, it would be strange if Kratz hadn’t crossed paths with Posey, and he of course has, but not on any of his many minor league sojourns: The two met while part of the same working group at a conference of Pro Athletes Outreach, a Christian athlete organization, in Georgia.
“Buster’s ability to know these guys, to know what their strengths are, is what I’m going to lean on, and it’s a helpful crutch to have, for sure,” Kratz said.