Thursday, January 28, 2010

2010 Top Prospects pt. 1: Catchers

Even after graduating Matt Wieters to the majors there are still more impact prospects at catcher than any other position in baseball, except possibly center-field. Three catchers made my top 10 overall prospects and 13 made the top 100. They vary from defensive wizards to sluggers who just get by with the glove. Here are some brief profiles of the best catching prospects in baseball. The numbers within the parenthesis signify their ranking against all prospects, not just catchers.

1. Buster Posey - Giants (3)

The minor leagues are currently teeming with high-impact catching prospects, but even in that crowded field, Posey manages to stand out. He was nearly taken first overall in the 2008 draft after a monster junior season at Florida State, and ended up going 5th to a very happy San Francisco club. Now on the cusp of the majors, Posey has proven to be even better than scouts anticipated.

Although his receiving skills behind the plate are a little rough around the edges, he should develop into a plus defender. His bat, however, is his calling card. He has a quick swing and a disciplined approach at the plate, resulting in a high on-base percentage and lots of doubles. He also has above average power for a catcher and I anticipate him to average roughly 20 home runs a season in the majors.

Posey is knocking on the door of the big leagues and will likely spend a large chunk of 2010 with the Giants. He thrived in AAA after a mid-season promotion, only a year after being drafted, and should return there to begin the year. Once San Francisco is satisfied with his ability to handle their hard-throwing staff, expect him to be in the big leagues to stay.

2. Jesus Montero - Yankees (4)
Montero may have the best pure hitting ability in the minor leagues. The hulking catcher was an expensive sign out of Venezuela, but delivered quickly, reaching AA last season before his 20th birthday and posting a .909 OPS in a tough Trenton hitting environment.

Montero is still considered a catcher, but is unlikely to spend the majority of his career there. Already very large and lacking the athleticism of similarly sized players, like Matt Wieters, defense has always been a struggle for Montero. With Mark Teixeira holding down first base in New York, Montero may end up as a DH very early in his career. It is rare to see a player break into the majors as a DH, but Billy Butler and Adam Lind are essentially DH's and that has worked out well for each of them. Montero has a chance to be a better hitter than either of them so the Yankees will have to find a way to get him into their lineup at some point.

Montero has been compared to Miguel Cabrera but at the moment he reminds me a bit of a Carlos Lee, even though Lee was just getting his first taste of full-season ball at 19, not mashing AA like Montero. Montero is expected to spend most of the season in the high minors and the Yankees appear intent on continuing to develop him as a catcher for the time being. If he picks up where last year left off, Montero could force his way up to the big club late in the year.

3. Carlos Santana - Indians (9)

Santana's stock was skyrocketing in 2008 and Cleveland took notice, steeling him from the Dodgers for Casey Blake in a mid-season trade. He responded by playing even better for his new team and followed that up with another excellent 2009 season in AA. Santana stands in between the other two elite catching prospects in terms of skills, lacking Posey's defensive upside and not quite matching Montero's ability at the plate, but he has no apparent weakness.

Santana's approach at the plate is advanced and he has more walks than strikeouts in each of the last two seasons while still clubbing 120 combined extra base hits. Defensively he has sound receiving skills and a solid arm. A switcher hitter, Santana is reminiscent of recently departed Indian, Victor Martinez, as a hitter while having a chance to be a better defender.

It was a surprise that Santana spent all of last season at AA and that Cleveland did not give him a taste of a more advanced level. After trading away both Martinez and Kelly Shoppach, only Lou Marson, who has nowhere near Santana's ceiling, stands between him and the everyday job. After taking it slowly in 2009, Santana will begin 2010 in AAA but may get called up early in the season.

4. Hank Conger - Angels (38)

Because they sign so many free-agents, the Angels do not have many first round picks, but 2006 was a rare exception and Los Angeles pounced on local product Hank Conger. Never able to stay on the field consistently due to injuries, Conger's 128 games last season was easily a career high.

Conger has a lot of thunder in his bat from both sides of the plate but it was not on display as much as expected in 2009. He managed to make up for that by showing more advanced discipline than anyone expected, particularly for a raw 21-year-old in AA. His defense is still below average, mostly because of sloppy footwork that leads to slow/wayward throws and passed balls.

After finally putting together a long season Conger is now easily the Angels top prospect and their likely long-term solution at catcher if he can fix his defense. Because of his inexperience, Conger will probably spend all of 2010 in the minor leagues. He has 20+ home run potential and will be an important player to keep an eye on to see if he can build on last season.

5. Jason Castro - Astros (45)

A surprise pick at 10th overall in the 2008 draft, Castro has vindicated Houston's decision by quickly turning into one of the best all around catching prospects in baseball. With sound defensive skills, a professional approach and enough juice in his bat to keep pitchers honest, Castro profiles as an above average big leaguer with a high probability of having a long career.

After ripping the cover off the ball in high-A to start 2009, Castro's power left him in AA after a mid-season promotion. However, these are normal growing pains as Castro is still learning what pitches to drive, and he was able to keep taking strong at bats, showing that improvement will come.

Castro should continue his steady climb up the minors in 2010, and I expect him to split the year between AA and AAA. He has an outside chance at being ready for starting duty by opening day in 2011. After having high hopes for J.R. Towles and Max Sapp, it appears Houston has finally found someone to hold down the position long term.

6. Tony Sanchez - Pirates (46)

Speaking of surprise first round picks, Pittsburgh surprised a lot of people when they locked into Sanchez at #4 overall last year, but I am a believer. He is similar to Castro, a polished college product, but he is more advanced defensively at this stage. Sanchez does not have the offensive upside of many of the players on this list, but he is a solid hitter with a good eye.

One advantage of taking a surprise player early in the first round is that Pittsburgh was able to sign Sanchez quickly and get him some professional experience. Although more advanced than most at low-A it was still a positive sign to see him hit the ground running and dominate the league to close out the year.

I expect Sanchez to follow Castro's development path and split 2010 between high-A and AA. With his advanced glove sound approach at the plate I expect his ascent up the ladder to be fairly smooth. While there were more high-ceiling players available for Pittsburgh in the draft, they appear to have found a very solid future big-leaguer.

7. Wil Myers - Royals (52)

How does a player drafted 91st overall just last year rate as the 52nd best prospect in baseball? Well his $2,000,000 signing bonus might be a clue, and so is the fact that the Royals almost took him with their 12th overall pick. Myers boasted one of the best pure bats of last season's high school crop and although he has played little catcher, he has the athleticism to handle the position.

It is rare to see an over slot signing get significant playing time in the year of their draft, but Myers picked up 68 at-bats in the rookie level Pioneer League and hit an eye-popping .428/.488/.735. While statistics from such a low level need to be taken with a few buckets of salt, that line gives a glimpse at what made the Royals think he was so special.

Myers is probably ready to handle full season ball at the plate but because he has so little experience in the field, Kansas City may hold him back in extended spring training. Either way, it is Myers' hitting ability that should eventually get him to the majors.

8. Derek Norris - Nationals (55)

Norris was fairly anonymous entering 2009, but that didn't last long as he led the South Atlantic League in on-base percentage and slugging percentage, doing most of the damage on the road, while performing adequately on defense. He did strike out a little too much but he has more than enough pop to tone down his swing a bit without doing damage to his production.

Norris showed that he was a three-true-outcomes type of hitter out of the Mike Napoli mold. Norris has plenty of time to work on his defense and he will need to improve if he wants to avoid the similar fate of irregular playing time Napoli has to endure.

Norris' extreme home run disparity was surprising because Hagerstown is not a particularly pitcher-friendly environment. He should move up one level to Potomoc, a fairly tough hitting environment, but should have a fairly easy time adjusting. The Nationals think they have a long-term catcher in Jesus Flores and if he establishes himself before Norris can reach the majors, he has enough bat to play elsewhere on the diamond.

9. Tyler Flowers - White Sox (70)

Flowers is a very similar player to Norris, but can't quite match his raw power and at three years his senior, is running out of time to fix his defensive lapses. A very patient hitter with a long swing and solid pop, Flowers was acquired from Atlanta in the Javier Vazquez trade and has established himself as A.J. Pierzynski's most likely successor.

Flowers has two important red flags and he did little to dispel either of them in 2009. He has missed time throughout his career with nagging injuries and strikes out quite a bit. Playing under the rigors of a big-league schedule and with much better pitchers, some think Flowers may get exposed once he reaches the majors.

Flowers has not spent much time at AAA and that is probably where he is destined to be for most of 2010. If he put together a big year expect him to be Chicago's everyday catcher in 2011.

10. Max Stassi - Athletics (73)

One of the top prep position players in the 2009 draft, Stassi demanded big money and started slipping down the board. Everybody knew someone would take a shot on him, but when Oakland finally took the plunge in the fourth round it seemed strangely out of character. Still, it is not surprising Billy Beanse was unwilling to pass up someone as talented as Stassi, and he ended up signing for 1.5 million, a good deal less than he was demanding.

Stassi's promise lies mostly in his bat which is quick and powerful. He is polished at the plate for a prep player and already shows power potential. Defensively he, like almost all high school draft picks, has a long way to go. He is very similar to fellow draftee Wil Myers in this regard but rates a little below him because he lack's Myers' size and athleticism.

I expect Oakland to let Stassi take a shot at low-A out of the gate in 2010 where everyone will get a much better idea on just how wise Oakland's investment was. Although you can dream about him being a premier hitter, his body type is best suited behind the plate so Oakland will be patient with his defense.

11. Austin Romine - Yankees (86)

The Yankees have the deepest stable of catching prospects in baseball and most feel that Romine will be the one that eventually takes the reigns from Jorge Posada. He has outstanding all-around tools for a catcher, except possibly power, and is a surprisingly good athlete, evidenced by his 11 steals last season.

Romine has a lot of rough edges at the plate and behind it. Although he is adept at making contact, Romine's approach is far too aggressive, leading to a lot of weakly hit balls in play that he would be better off just letting go by. He also still commits far too many passed balls and off-line throws. However, he spent all of 2009 in high-A as a 20-year-old and has already had 849 at-bats in full season ball, hitting .288.

Romine should get his first real challenge at AA to start 2010. More advanced pitchers may take advantage of his aggressive approach and smarter base-runners may pounce on his mistakes, but Romine has the ability to overcome his problems.

12. Wilson Ramos - Twins (87)

Ramos is developing into a Bengie Molina clone, both a compliment and a problem. He is very advanced defensively, particularly in his ability to shut down a running game with his cannon arm. He also has solid pop and an over-aggressive approach at the plate while being very slow on the bases.

Ramos missed a lot of time last season with two fairly serious injuries but neither is expected to be a long-term concern. However one of the two, a hamstring problem, is a bit worrying as he is already one of the slower players in the minor leagues and any further damage to his speed could be truly problematic.

With Joe Mauer in Minnesota there is no rush to push Ramos and, in fact, he might be best used as trade bait. If the Twins ever decide to move Mauer to another position, Ramos should provide them with a reliable option to take over. After missing so much time last year, it would make sense to have him begin 2010 back at AA.

13. Josh Donaldson - Athletics (97)

Donaldson was a supplemental first round pick in 2007 by the Cubs, but when he struggled badly out of the gate in 2008 they made him expendable and Oakland was happy to pick him up in the Rich Harden trade. He quickly caught fire for his new team and re-established himself as a prospect.

2009 was an odd season for Donaldson. His offensive numbers were solid but most of his power came via doubles rather than home runs. He also struggled defensively despite having the proper skills to be a very good catcher. The end result was that his ceiling has come down quite a bit, but he still looks to have a high probability of being a contributor in the majors.

Donaldson will have to get his defensive woes behind him before he gets a shot in Oakland who already has a very solid catcher in Kurt Suzuki. His disciplined approach will certainly help but with his power no longer expected to sniff plus, he will have to improve his all around game.

14. Adam Moore - Mariners

Seattle sent former 3rd overall pick Jeff Clement to Pittsburgh in the Jack Wilson trade partially because they felt Moore was a very similar player and possibly even better. He will turn 26 in May so the clock is ticking; Moore has a solid bat and good eye at the plate while providing adequate defense.

15. Jonathan Lucroy - Brewers

The Brewers' catching prospect picture was clouded entering 2009, but Brett Lawrie has moved elsewhere on the diamond and Angel Salome had a rough year in AAA. As a result, Lucroy now looks like their best long-term internal option. He has sound defensive ability and a great eye, making up for his fringe average power.

16. Alex Avila - Tigers

The left-handed hitting Avila went from anonymous 5th round pick to Detroit's starting catcher in essentially a year. He is above average defensively and has so far crushed right-handed pitching. With how much he has improved over the last year and a half it is hard to discount him improving even more, but it is difficult to rate him much higher because before last season he had been perennially mediocre. 2010 should show us more who he really is.

17. Josh Thole - Mets

A former 13th round pick, nothing has come easy for Thole who has had to prove himself at every level. He has almost no power and is still rough defensively, but his great eye and innate ability to make contact has put him on the map. The Mets do not have any particularly impressive catchers on the major league roster and it would not be surprising to see Thole get significant playing time this year.

18. Gary Sanchez - Yankees

High profile international signings always get a little extra publicity when it is the Yankees giving out the money. Sanchez is already being compared to Jesus Montero but they are fairly different players. Sanchez' bat is nowhere near as polished as Montero's was at the same age, but he is a better athlete and stands a better chance to be a good defensive catcher.

19. J.R. Murphy - Yankees

It was a surprise when the Yankees took Murphy ahead of higher profile prep catchers Wil Myers and Max Stassi, but they believed his bat was the best of the group. Some question whether he can stay at catcher long-term but he should spend most, if not all of 2010 at low-A getting experience both at and behind the plate.

20. Max Ramirez - Rangers

Ramirez was thought of as one of the most polished hitters in the minors entering 2009 with the added benefit of being able to handle catching. However 2009 was a disaster as he struggled to stay on the field and was completely ineffective while there. He is getting up there in years and needs to establish himself in the bigs before his window closes.

21. Angel Salome - Brewers

At 5'7 Salome doesn't look like a professional athlete but he has exceptional hand-eye coordination. A fairly rough defender, it was always his bat that would carry him to the majors, but he took a step back offensively in 2009. Both his power and contact dropped off and his long-time critics thought he had finally been exposed. Still only 23, he has time to re-establish himself and get entrenched as Milwaukee's catcher before Lucroy overtakes him. Because of his size it seems unlikely he would be able to handle any other position in the field.

22. Luis Exposito - Red Sox

A large, fairly unathletic catcher with power. Exposito has the strength to punish pitches but is too aggressive at the plate strikes out too often to ever be a real asset offensively. Defensively he also leaves a good deal to be desired, showing decent actions but little polish. With Victor Martinez now in Boston the need to develop a catcher in house is far less and the fact that Exposito is their best option is less of a concern.

23. Lou Marson - Indians

Marson has minimal tools but gets the most out of them. Despite having below average arm strength he has always been adept at keeping opposing running games in check with his quick release. He has a very disciplined approach at the plate and consistently makes hard contact, but lacks the power to be anything more than a fringy hitter. Because he appears to be already maxed out and have a limited offensive ceiling, Marson appears destined to be Carlos Santana's backup.

24. J.P. Arencibia - Blue Jays

Arencibia hit 21 home runs and 32 doubles while playing decent defense at AAA as a 23-year-old. So why isn't he rated higher? He has 1,204 at-bats and only 58 walks. Simply put Arencibia swings at everything doesn't have a short enough swing to make contact consistently so it seems unlikely he will ever improve enough to hit in the majors. Still that power potential is hard to ignore and I felt he deserved to make the list somewhere.

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