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June 16, 2011

Prospects Will Break Your Heart

Positional Primacy: Catchers

by Jason Parks

Leader of the Pack (Present):Devin Mesoraco (Reds)
The Case For: Mesoraco is showing a middle-of-the-order bat from a premium defensive position, which basically makes him one of the most valuable prospects in the minors. At the plate, the soon-to-be 23-year-old has plus power, with a leveraged swing and plus-plus raw strength. Seriously, Mesoraco is an incredibly strong man. He can sell out a bit when looking for the power stroke, but his contact ability hasn’t suffered this season; in fact, he is barreling the ball like a plus-plus hitter. The hit tool itself is sound, meaning I think he can hit for average, but I don’t foresee a .300 hitter at the major-league level. Mesoraco is aggressive at the plate, and he likes to take cuts, but he isn’t immune to working the count in his favor or taking the free pass, which adds another dimension to his offensive game.

Behind the plate, Mesoraco is slowly improving, but he’s never going to be a special defender. His arm is in the 60/65 range, and his release and accuracy make him a good weapon in controlling the running game. With enough athleticism to become a solid-average defender, and the ability to stick in the middle of a batting order, Mesoraco is the current Leader of the Pack among his catching brethren, and given the value attached to his position on the field, you can make a case that Mesoraco is one of the top-tier talents in the minors. He’s ready for the next challenge.

The case against: It’s hard to argue with Mesoraco’s offensive skill set, but his work behind the plate isn’t considered above average, and it doesn’t project to reach that level. I think Mesoraco will develop into a first-division starter at the major-league level, but he won’t be an elite superstar who changes the face of the game and creates an environment where “Mesoraco” becomes the most popular baby name in Cincinnati. He’s just a man.

Leader of the Pack (Future): Christian Bethancourt  (Braves)
The case for: If you are looking for the next “it” player at the position, Bethancourt is a good place to start, although his placement this high on the list might be a little premature.  First, the 19-year-old Panamanian has the potential to be a wizard behind the plate. Defense often lacks the sexy bone structure of an offensive skill set, but plus-plus talent is plus-plus talent, and Bethancourt could develop into a special backstop. The arm is beyond strong, grading as an easy 80 on the 20-80 scale; the quality of the arm is more than just the raw strength it possesses, as his setup is smooth, his release is quick, and his throws are accurate, resulting in pop times in the 1.8 range, with some reports in the 1.73 range. I’m not sure a machine could even pop that fast. His overall game behind the plate is still immature, but the tools and athleticism are there to project a very bright future at the position.

At the plate, Bethancourt’s future is more opaque, with projections ranging from below average to above average (40/60). In fact, I talked to five different sources about his offensive projection and I received five different answers; some see him a good (not great) hitter, with serious power potential, while others see him as a below-average hitter with a questionable approach and only batting practice power.

At present, Bethancourt is showing off impressive bat speed, and you can see the power potential, but he is liberal with the swing, and his approach puts him at the mercy of quality off-speed stuff. In the future, Bethancourt could become an above-average hitter with the tools to become an elite defender, but he could also develop (fail to develop) into a below-average hitter. Regardless, his defensive tools will carry him to the majors, and if the bat continues to take steps forward, he could become the top catching prospect in the minors. His ceiling is that high.

The case against: There are lots of questions about the bat, starting with the approach and carrying over to his in-game power potential. Bethancourt is remarkably young and more than holding his own in a full-season league, but it’s still too early in the process to find any consensus with the projection. The tools on defense are very special, but quality catching goes beyond the physical components, and developing those intangible skills requires a willingness to absorb the instruction and the patience to stumble to along the way.  All reports indicate that Bethancourt wants to become a well-rounded catcher, but it might take several years to put the package together.

Midriff

High-Ceiling Division
Wilin Rosario (Rockies)
TCF:  When 100 percent healthy, it doesn’t take a great deal of arm-twisting to convince me that Rosario belongs at the top of this list. Honestly, it’s a testament to his raw talent that he is currently able to function at the plate, given the fact that he is still in the recovery phase from last season’s knee injury. At his best, Rosario brings an above-average bat (50/55 hit; at least 60 power), and above-average chops behind the plate (plus arm; good fundamentals). If his body cooperates, he could be a very good catcher at the major-league level.

Gary Sanchez (Yankees)
TCF: A Latin American bonus baby from 2009 ($3 million), this ultra-toolsy Dominican has the highest offensive ceiling on this list, with an above-average hit tool (projected) and enough power potential to make scouts toss around 70s without much hesitation. The defensive tools are there to develop, but it’s not going to be an overnight process. Makeup issues have started to surface, but Sanchez is only 18 years old and just faced professional failure for the first time in his brief career. Let’s see how he responds before putting him in the bad makeup box.

Travis d’Arnaud (Jays)
TCF: The most well-rounded backstop in the minors, d’Arnaud has a plus arm and good athleticism for the position, giving him solid-average to slightly above-average defensive abilities. At the plate, the 22-year-old has a compact swing and a mature approach, allowing for batting average potential, and enough leverage and strength in the swing for average power, at the very least. While he lacks the superstar potential of a Sanchez or #TheLegend, d’Arnaud is a much safer bet to become an above-average major-league catcher.

Derek Norris (Nationals)
TCF: Big power potential, big on-base ability, and enough defense to stick at the position make Norris a valuable commodity in the prospect world. I’m not sold on his superstar potential, but the aforementioned combo of power and patience give him an offensive ceiling few on this list can boast. His hit tool is a little suspect, so it will be interesting to see how the power and patience [read: ability to draw walks] are affected at the highest level. But the 22-year-old still has room to improve and projects to become a first-division starter at the major-league level.

Lacks the Ultimate Ceiling of the ‘High-Ceiling Division’ but Still Packs a Serious Prospect Punch Division.
Yasmani Grandal (Reds)
TCF: He has a mature approach to the game on both sides of the ball, with solid-average futures with the stick and the glove. A quality game-caller, Grandal lacks the sexy ceiling of a future superstar, but his floor is a solid everyday catcher at the major-league level.

Tony Sanchez (Pirates)  
TCF: Let’s just be honest: Sanchez is never going to be an impact bat in the majors. His approach will play, and he has the ability to square pitches up, but his defensive chops behind the plate are his vehicle to the majors. With a plus arm, plus-plus fundamentals, and intangible qualities that scouts and front-office personnel offer up without being asked, Sanchez looks to have all the necessary components to become a well above-average defensive catcher at the major-league level. Anything you can extract from the bat will be gravy.

Sebastian Valle (Phillies)
TCF: Currently brutalizing the Florida State League, the 20-year-old native of Los Mochis, Mexico (an area rich with pitching talent), is cementing his place on the prospect landscape. Reports on Valle are varied, with some projecting an above-average offensive force, while others aren’t as optimistic about his future at the plate. Valle has contact ability and plenty of pop in his swing, but his overall approach is aggressive, and he seems to view walks like I view a jury summons. The work behind the plate projects to be average, but he’s not at that level yet, and the body isn’t going to gain athleticism as he continues to physically mature. He could develop into an above-average all-around backstop, but he has a long way to go.

Austin Romine (Yankees)  
TCF: Romine lacks special tools but is solid across the board, showing some ability at the plate, with a good hit tool and some pop, and behind it, with an above-average arm. Romine looks stronger this season, which will help him maintain production in the face of the physical demands of the position. He’s going to be a major leaguer, but his ceiling will probably fall just short of being a first-division regular.

In the Shadows:Jorge Alfaro (Rangers) 
TCF: Alfaro just turned 18 years old, and is set to make his stateside debut in the college-heavy Northwest League. Alfaro has two legit 70-grade futures in his tool collection, with a very strong arm and well above-average power potential. The hit tool might only project to average, and even that might be a stretch, but it should develop enough to allow the power to flow through, and that in combination with his defensive projections could make him an All-Star. He has a long developmental road ahead, but not many prospects on this list can match his ultimate ceiling. #TheLegend.

In the Dark:AJ Jimenez (Jays)  
TCF: Not a special hitter (despite what his FSL numbers might suggest), Jimenez does have some promise at the plate, with a good feel for contact and some gap-to-gap power. Behind the plate, the 21-year-old Puerto Rican has an incredibly strong arm and is capable of plus pop times, but the receiving skills are still immature. With the necessary defensive tools to rise to the majors, the development of the offensive game will determine his ultimate ceiling. If the bat develops, he could become a player worth paying close attention to. If the bat stumbles, well, strong arms behind the plate are always worth the price of admission.

I Just Don’t Get It: Kyle Skipworth (Marlins)
TCF: An overdraft to start his career, Skipworth never had a chance to live up to the tool-based potential because the tool-based potential was routinely overstated and oversold. (Mauer comps were often thrown about withreckless abandon). While it’s true that catchers with power potential and plus arms present an enticing package, the realities of his Skipworth’s tool [read: deficiencies of his hit tool] and the warning signs of his all-or-nothing approach took a backseat to the possibilities bred from the promising power. Hey, I’m guilty of this on a regular basis. I’m not trying to point fingers. I get the allure.

Skipworth will show flashes of improvement, and he’s only 21 years old and attempting to develop at an advanced professional level (Double-A), but the same developmental concerns that were present when he began his professional career are still very present today; his swing is too long and his approach is too power-hungry. The narrative is shaped by his inability to live up to his lofty draft status, which shouldn’t diminish the fact that Skipworth does (did?) own plus-plus power potential, and his arm is a well above-average tool. Numerous players on this list feature a similar skill set to Skipworth, yet their eventual failure probably won’t be painted with the same brush of disappointment because they didn’t have as far to fall. Expectations can be a cruel bitch. Also, Jorge Alfaro is the next Johnny Bench. Don’t let me down.  

Jason Parks is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Jason's other articles. You can contact Jason by clicking here

Related Content:  Immature,  Jorge Alfaro,  Power,  Hit Tool,  The Process

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