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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.