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October 2, 2003

Prospecting

Humberto Quintero

by David Cameron

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On July 12, 2002, the Padres and White Sox struck a deal. The White Sox acquired one-time top prospect D'Angelo Jimenez for the non-pitching version of Alex Fernandez and Humberto Quintero, a 22-year-old catcher who was hitting .194 in the Carolina League. While it went unnoticed in most of baseball, I considered July 12th to be a dark day last summer, as the White Sox had just removed, from my own back yard, the most exciting defensive player I had ever seen.

Quintero was simultaneously a joy to watch and a pain to endure. He exemplified both what is right and wrong with scouting in every inning, bringing entertainment to his fans and losses to his team. There was no mistaking the entertainment factor of watching him behind the plate. There was also no avoidance of the misery of watching him overmatched at the plate, wondering how someone so good at one part of a game could be so awful at another.

Quintero is one of three or four people alive that I would pay to watch play defense. When scouts talk about great catch-and-throw guys, they compare them to Ivan Rodriguez. Quintero is currently on a level that Rodriguez has not seen in a decade. His arm strength is at the top of the scale, and his quick release and footwork have earned him the nickname "Little Pudge." He routinely throws runners out from his knees. Few innings go by without an attempted pickoff at first base as the batter lazily retreats to the bag. In a game that I will not soon forget, Quintero gunned down four men attempting to steal and picked another pair off of first base, erasing six baserunners on his own.

His pop times, or the time it takes from when he receives the ball until it has reached second base, are routinely in the range of 1.7 seconds, a remarkable number that leaves scouts shaking their heads. He has been a near unanimous selection as the best defensive catcher in every season since he has come to the states. His defensive tools are obvious, and he can single-handedly shut down a running game.

However, removing baserunners is not as important as preventing them, and this is one area where the excitement of his abilities can overshadow the value he brings to a team. The handling of a pitching staff is not one of his strengths, and Quintero has alienated several of his teammates in the past. Whether this is something he can grow into is a matter of opinion, but it is clear that he still has work to do in that area.

Overall, though, few will question that the overall package Quintero brings defensively is among the best in the game. For a team that places an emphasis on a catcher's ability to prevent stolen bases, they should look no further than Quintero. In that category, he is clearly in a class by himself.

However, in order to display his abilities as a catcher, the Padres knew he was going to have to improve his hitting. Regardless of your arm strength, you cannot hit like a pitcher and find yourself in the lineup on a regular basis, unless your name is Rey Ordonez or Neifi Perez, in which case you are the inexplicable exception. When the White Sox shipped Quintero off last summer, it appeared evident that his bat was not strong enough to carry on a major league roster.


Year    Level   Age   AB    BA    OBP   SLG   2B    3B    HR    BB    K
1999    Rookie  19    155   .277  .341  .335   5     2     0     9    19
2000    Low-A   20    248   .238  .287  .302  12     2     0    15    31
2001    Low-A   21    197   .269  .321  .330   7     1     1     8    20
2001    High-A  21    154   .240  .268  .279   6     0     0     5    19
2002    High-A  22    160   .194  .247  .213   1     1     0     8    23

And, just for the full effect of how bad he was, the rates of those stats:


Year    Level     Age    BB/AB   K/AB    BB/K    XBH/H   ISO
1999    Rookie     19    0.06    0.12    0.47    0.16    0.06
2000    Low-A      20    0.06    0.12    0.48    0.24    0.06
2001    Low-A      21    0.04    0.10    0.40    0.17    0.06
2001    High-A     21    0.03    0.12    0.26    0.16    0.04
2002    High-A     22    0.05    0.14    0.35    0.06    0.02    

The only positive thing you can take from those numbers is his ability to make contact. He displayed good hand-eye coordination and was able to put the bat on the ball, but his power markers are unbelievably poor. To add insult to the injury of his inability to drive the ball, he also refused to draw walks, swinging at anything within reach. Combine a poor approach at the plate with a lack of power, put it into a 22-year-old body who hasn't spent a day in Double-A, and it is usually safe to assume that improvement is not in the near future. Quintero, however, decided to become an outlier this season.


Level  Age  AB  BA  OBP  SLG  2B 3B HR BB  K BB/AB  K/AB  BB/K XBH/H  ISO
AA     23  386 .298 .341 .389 26  0  3 19 41  0.05  0.14  0.46  0.25 0.09

He set a career high in every category. He had nearly as many doubles this year as he did in the previous four years combined. He did not improve his patience at the plate, but began to drive the ball for the first time. There was an obvious improvement in his performance at the plate, and nearly all of it is credited to the work Padres minor league hitting instructor (now major league hitting coach) Dave Magadan put in with him.

Magadan put Quintero on an off-season program where he hit off a tee every day in an effort to shorten his stroke and make him use the entire field. Quintero had fallen into the habit of attempting to pull the breaking ball, resulting in a large number of weak ground balls. By keeping his hands in and going the other way, Quintero was able to adjust to the pitch and the results were obvious. Magadan also preached a more patient approach at the plate, but that has not sunk in yet. Quintero is a first-pitch swinger, and it will be difficult to dissuade him from that.

However, the work he did put in paid off. Quintero did not resemble the overmatched hitter he was in the past, though his offensive contributions were still marginal. His .272 EqA/.209 MjEqA aren't what we normally look for in a career year.

Quintero is not an ordinary prospect, however. He's a unique player, despite the relative ease of finding a solid catch-and-throw backstop on the waiver wire. His ability to shut down a running game is beyond the normal range of what we see, and the pure excitement he generates will land him a job in the major leagues. Whether the improvement he showed in 2003 is legitimate will determine just how long he stays.

Quintero is not likely to become a star and the jury's still out on whether he can become an everyday major league catcher. However, the hitter he is now bares little resemblance to the one the Padres acquired last summer. His improvement inspires a bit of hope and has made it possible that his defensive tools will one day be on display for Padres fans to enjoy.

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