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June 29, 2006

Future Shock

Position Breakdown: Catchers

by Kevin Goldstein

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In yesterday's Under The Knife column, Will Carroll mentioned how he was one of the few who actually owe their very career to Peter Gammons. It's a short list, but I'm also on the roster. It's a long and entertaining story that I won't get into right now, but without him, I don't think I'd be working in baseball for a living. Get Well Soon Gammo, indeed.

If there's one thing I've learned on this beat, it's that everybody loves rankings. I love them too, and I don't want to wait until the end of the season to start breaking them out. Every Thursday, I'll be ranking the top prospects by position. Today we begin with catchers.

Catchers are one of the most valuable commodities in baseball, and certainly the rarest. Compiling a top 10 list in all of the minor leagues requires a whole lot of faith and projection, as I can't come up with ten that I could guarantee as major league first-level starters. Only the top two have star potential, and a weak 2006 draft class doesn't help much. That doesn't mean I didn't try.

1. Jeff Clement, Mariners
Age: 22.9 Hitting: .262/.351/.440 in 21 G (15 Double-A, 9 Triple-A) Arm: 3-for-13 runners caught (23%)

If anything, Clement ranks No. 1 by default, as he hasn't had the opportunity to disappoint, so the potential still remains. He was doing pretty well for San Antonio in the Texas League before undergoing some minor knee surgery that cost him about six weeks. I've gone over his inexplicable assignment to Triple-A Tacoma before, but there he is. Clement is the only catcher in the minor leagues with 30+ home run potential, and the progress he made defensively last year at Southern California has scouts believing he can stay at catcher. He won't become a defensive whiz, but he'll stay there--and with that bat, just being serviceable behind the plate should make him an elite backstop.

2. Neil Walker, Pirates
Age: 20.8 Hitting: .273/.317/.379 in 35 G (Hi-A) Arm: 12-for-38 (32%)

Like Clement, Walker gets a mulligan for his relatively slow start, as he missed the first month of the season recovering from wrist surgery. The good news is that he's raised his average 30 points in the last week and made good strides in his plate discipline. Even more encouraging is the progress scouts point to behind the plate. Always a good athlete, Walker has become more adept at blocking balls in the dirt and refining his catch-and-throw skills. The rumors that he'll eventually move to third base remain, but for now, he's still a catcher, and the best one in the lower levels.

3. Chris Iannetta, Rockies
Age: 23.2 Hitting: 317/.441/.610 in 46 G (44 Double-A, 2 Triple-A) Arm: 6-for-28 (21%)

Iannetta has average power, a nice short stroke, and very good plate discipline. He's also a plus defender with an average arm, and his teammates, managers and coaches get downright giddy when talking about his leadership skills and ability to call a game. With any other team, Ianetta would project as a hitter with excellent on-base skills and 12-16 home run power. Playing at Coors Field will make him look like a superstar, but even in reality, he'll be pretty good.

4. Kurt Suzuki, Athletics
Age: 22.7 Hitting: .307/.414/.459 in 67 G (Double-A) Arm: 21-for-41 (51%)

Speaking of steps forward. Suzuki has always been a good hitter, but has improved his skills nearly across the board, projecting now as a .280-.300 hitter who draws walks, rarely strikes out, smacks a whole lot of doubles, and once in a while pulls one over the fence. He's brutalized lefthanders to the tune of 27-for-63 (.429), which pumps up his overall stats a bit, but this is an excellent catching prospect, valuable more for his lack of weaknesses than for having any one over-the-top skill. He's worked hard on his defense, and has been shutting down the running game this year thanks to average arm strength but a quick release. Jason Kendall's miserable contract runs through 2007, which is just about when Suzuki will be ready.

5. Miguel Montero, Diamondbacks
Age: 23.0 Hitting: .272/.374/.452 in 68 G (Double-A) Arm: 24-for-71 (38%)

Montero absolutely tore apart the California League last year at a .349/.403/.625 clip. Once promoted to Double-A, he hit just .250/.311/.352 thanks to a strained ribcage and an approach designed for hitting-friendly ballparks, which are hard to come by in the Southern League. He's picked things up this year in a return engagement and, more importantly, scouts have seen some good progress both at the plate and behind it. "It's not the livest bat you'll ever see, but he's made changes," said one AL scout recently. "He's a little fat guy, but he uses the whole field now and he's clearly taken a step forward in every defensive aspect of the game." Montero still struggles against lefties, which could make him an ideal platoon partner for Chris Snyder.

6. George Kottaras, Padres
Age: 23.1 Hitting: .278/.396/.471 in 68 G (Double-A) Arm: 21-for-68 (31%)

A .189 batting average in June has brought Kottaras' numbers down, doing nothing to help his reputation as a player who is not physical enough to handle the daily grind of catching. Still, if you like power and patience, Kottaras continues to improve in both areas.

YEAR LEVEL    HR/100 BB/100
2005 Hi-A/AA   2.46  15.80
2006 AA        3.48  20.00

Another American League scout doesn't think Kottaras will stay behind the plate, but does think he has a successfull career ahead of him. "It's more than just a durability thing for me--it's an attitude thing as well," said the scout. "He seems soft to me back there, like he doesn't want to block balls and take the beating." The scout had no reservations about Kottaras' bat, however. "He's going to hit. He sprays line drives all over the field, and draws his walks. I don't know what position he's going to play in the end--he might be one of those guys who can catch, play third base, even the outfield--but he's going to be in the big leagues for a long time."

7. Jarrod Saltalamacchia, Braves
Age: 21.2 Hitting: .199/.312/.301 in 68 G (Double-A) Arm: 30-for-75 (40%)

I'm not sure what else to do with him. How far can he fall? Saltalamacchia entered the season as the top catching prospect in baseball, and it wasn't even close, as he was coming off a .315/.394/.519 season at High Class A Myrtle Beach, where bats go to die. This year he's been a complete mess, with his average finally falling below the .200 mark as his current slump sits at a miserable 2-for-36. According to those who have seen him this year, Saltalamacchia has fallen apart at the plate. His fluid swing has become mechanical, which both slowed his bat down and sapped him of his power. If there's any good news here, it's in his defensive improvements, but he'll never win a Gold Glove; to place a bet on him is to wager on the bat returning to form. His previous success has proven to everybody that the skills are there somewhere, but trying to predict which prospects can rediscover what has left them is a difficult task. This performance is not just a slip, and not just below expectations--this is a complete freefall and we're still waiting for him to pull the string on the parachute.

8. Jesus Flores, Mets
Age: 21.7 Hitting: .273/.340/.519 in 64 G (Hi-A) Arm: 24-for-62 (39%)

The Mets have always liked Flores' potential, but his full-season debut last season--in which he hit just .216/.250/.339--was marred by a broken thumb that prevented him from holding a bat properly for much of the season. This year he's perfectly healthy, and his bat--which is his best tool--has not only come alive, it's gotten better every month.

MONTH   AVG HR/100 BB/100  SO/100
April  .197  2.8     5.6    31.00
May    .280  6.5     7.5    29.03
June   .343  6.0     7.5    23.88

This does not take away from Flores' defensive skills, which are at least solid across the board according to one scout, who graded his arm as plus. If Saltalamacchia is the biggest fall so far this year among backstops, Flores might be the biggest jump.

9. Angel Salome, Brewers
Age: 20.1 Hitting: .308/.359/.465 in 72 G (Lo-A) Arm: 20-for-61 (33%)

I'm going out on a limb here, I know--but it seems to me that a lot of people are underselling Salome based solely on his size. He's just 5-foot-7 but at the same time he's a thick 190 pounds and a good athlete, and I don't think people would care as much if he was 5-foot-9; according to my math, that's just a three percent difference. Offensively, he's the goods--he has excellent bat speed, 31 of his 88 hits have gone for extra bases, he doesn't strike out a lot and draws a decent share of walks. His defense is suspect, but it's not suspect in a way that makes one think he has to move. He has good makeup, wants to improve behind the plate and has the athleticism to do it, so right now he's below average defensively but trending up. Plus, he just turned 20 and he's in the Sally League top five in total bases and RBI. What's not to like?

10. Hank Conger, Angels
Age: 18.4 Hitting: .360/.407/.640 in 6 G (R) Arm: NA

Conger was the best catching prospect in this year's draft according to most everyone ... except the Astros, who nabbed high school backstop Max Sapp two picks before the Angels grabbed Conger. Conger has yet to catch in his brief pro career, serving only as a DH as he's eased into the pro lifestyle, but he projects as an average defender. The real story is the bat, as the switch-hitting Conger shows plus power from both sides of the plate. While a 1.047 OPS in just six games doesn't really tell us anything, it sure beats starting off 1-for-25 or something.

Honorable Mention:

Jake Fox, Cubs: A third-round pick in 2003, Fox entered the season with a career-high home run mark of 14, but already has 17 this year while reaching Double-A.
Landon Powell, Athletics: The 2004 first-rounder has power, patience and defensive chops, but he's 24 and only in the California League with concerns about conditioning still hanging over him.
Mark Reed, Cubs: Jeremy Reed's little brother is among Midwest League leaders in batting, but doesn't draw walks, and 53 of his 64 hits are singles.
Curtis Thigpen, Blue Jays: The opposite of Reed, Thigpen doesn't hit for much of an average, but draws walks in bunches and nearly half of his hits are for extra bases.
J.R. Towles, Astros: 20th-round pick in 2004 has .923 OPS at Lexington, but is a little old for the league at 22.

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

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