Assembling our Top 50 Prospects list is a group effort, one led by the erstwhile Rany Jazayerli. Rany uses all the information at our disposal to put together candidate lists, then sifts through the contributions of the BP staff to arrive at the final order.

In the past, we’ve run those contributions as BP Roundtables after the list is announced in late February. This year, we’ll be running a series of roundtables in advance of the list, leading up to the release of Baseball Prospectus 2005 in late February. The final list will be revealed here on February 22, and the book includes capsule evaluations of all 50 players, as well as 1500 others.

Today, the catchers…

Rany Jazayerli: Catcher is not a very deep position. Daric Barton is clearly the best prospect at the position, even though he probably won’t catch at the major-league level. Sure, he’s still four steps from the majors, but .313/.445/.511 is a truly remarkable performance from a player who was 18 for most of the season.

Will Carroll: Barton is clearly on the first tier, but like you said, he was in low-A, is likely to have numbers skewed by the Texas League this year, and isn’t likely to stay at the position. I’m unsure if we’ve had a prospect with this skill set or even one relegated to DH so early. He’s certainly Joe Mauer‘s equal with the bat if he can show at Double-A, but lacks the defensive value. Losing the injury risk the position carries might be a wash.

Nate Silver: Barton’s projected WARPs for the next five years: 3.1, 2.9, 3.0, 3.6, 3.2. His noteworthy comparables include Mauer, Casey Kotchman and Adrian Gonzalez. His WARP (and EqA) numbers are a little bit funky, as there aren’t too many players who hit like this at age 18. That, of course, is exactly why Barton is as good a prospect as he is. He probably won’t catch in the majors, but I’m not sure how much that matters.

RJ: PECOTA likes Barton’s bat to the point where, even if we consider him strictly a first baseman, he would probably rank behind only Kotchman and maybe Prince Fielder. There are enough concerns about his defense and distance from the majors that perhaps sliding him down slightly makes sense.

David Haller: When we talk about de-meriting catching prospects who are not likely to stick at their position, is it accounting for who is currently the starting catcher at the position for the major league club? Do we assume a level playing field for all catching prospects in terms of who’s blocked and who’s not at the major league level? Or does a prospect’s status as a catching prospect change if, say, Barton was blocked by only Adam Melhuse instead of Jason Kendall?

Chris Kahrl: Considering where Barton is within the A’s system, even if he moves up to Double-A and remains behind the plate, his prospect status shouldn’t be unduly handicapped by Jason Kendall‘s presence. First, his prospectdom’s of the long-term variety. Second, the A’s organization is rich in solid, not top-prospect level, catching: setting aside Jeremy Brown, there’s also John Baker and Kurt Suzuki and Landon Powell and John Suomi, all of whom have their uses. Barton’s future in this system is as a bat; Kendall shouldn’t impact him at all.

RJ: Guillermo Quiroz is second on this list by default, and by virtue of his performance last year, because he was pretty bad this year. He has a fairly good excuse–a broken bone in his left hand–and if there’s one thing I’ve learned from years of doing this, it’s that we shouldn’t overvalue a player’s most recent season, whether it was better or worse than his previous track record, too highly.

WC: Quiroz recovered very slowly from that broken bone. I’d be curious to see the before and after splits. Bones heal, but slow-healing fractures always worry me.

NS: PECOTA on Quiroz:

WARP: 2.7, 2.3, 3.2, 3.4, 2.8
Comps: Dave Duncan, Gary Carter, Dave Nilsson.

I think the comps are telling: very good chance of being at least a reasonable MLB catcher, with some chance of being a star-caliber player.

CK: I can understand Duncan and Carter as comps for Quiroz, but Nilsson batted lefty and the shape of his offensive performance was radically different from what that Carter-to-Duncan range represents. Does this mean there’s a big drop-off between those two and the third comp?

NS: Well, I’m cherry-picking the comps slightly for this exercise. Quiroz’s actual comp list includes:

1) Dave Duncan
2) Andy Etchebarren
3) Ken Harrelson
4) Bob Watson
5) Del Crandall
6) Gary Carter
7) Mike Anderson
8) Jesse Barfield
9) Glenn Borgmann
10) Dave Nilsson

Interesting names in the 11-20 range include Lance Parrish and Steve Swisher.

CK: I sort of expected that Parrish would pop up somewhere, albeit surprised he didn’t crop up higher than Nilsson. I do think it’s fun to see Barfield in the mix.

RJ: The consensus seems to be that he does deserve to be on the list, at least. Given how bad his 2004 was, I expected more dissension in the ranks. Given that his numbers last year are at least partially explained by an injury, I think leaving him in the lower part of the list is reasonable.

Dioner Navarro and Jeff Mathis are still on the list, again because of the need to avoid weighting one year too heavily. Mathis really only had a bad half-season, since he was hitting fine the first two months. He was awful after Kotchman and Dallas McPherson were promoted.

NS: Navarro’s five-year WARPs: 2.1, 1.8, 1.9, 2.4, 2.5. His comps include Jeff Mathis, Victor Martinez and Ryan Doumit. PECOTA is pretty much writing off his 2003 as a fluke, but still recognizes that a 20-year-old catcher with any kind of offensive skills has some upside.

As for Mathis, his WARPs are 1.5, 1.4, 1.2, 1.9 and 2.1, with notable comps Buck Martinez, Dale Berra and Charlie Moore. On the one hand, PECOTA doesn’t generally put a lot of emphasis on batting average, so Mathis’ season wasn’t as harmful as it might have been in another system. On the other hand, he did hit .227 at Double-A.

RJ: Ryan Garko and Josh Willingham are terrific hitters but their ability to catch is in question.In fact, Quiroz and Brian McCann may actually be the only players under consideration who don’t have a serious question about either their bat or their glove.

WC: Garko’s an interesting case since he’s clearly blocked at his position, making his glove concerns moot if they’re going to have to move him anyway. Promotions certainly didn’t slow him down. It makes me wish Buffalo came through town more than once a season.

NS: Garko’s five-year WARPs: 2.4, 2.6, 2.7, 2.5, 2.2. His comps include Rich Gedman, Greg Colbrunn and Mike Ivie. He could probably be an above average big leaguer right now, but has relatively little star potential. It’s too bad he’s stuck behind Victor Martinez.

CK: Being compared to three guys whose careers were snakebit (for differing reasons) doesn’t exactly bode well for him, my enthusiasm aside.

NS: Willingham: 3.6, 3.3, 3.2, 3.1, 3.0. Comps: Andre Thornton, Mickey Tettleton, Gene Tenace. Put him on the list, please. He’s not likely to get a lot better, but PECOTA loves him, and thinks he could be an All-Star quality catcher by this year.

Jonah Keri: If they give Willingham an everyday job (1B? corner OF?) he’ll win Rookie of the Year.

CK: Isn’t there still some question about whether or not Willingham will ever be an adequate catcher? His offensive performance and projected up-side seems to merit rating him higher as a bat alone. Looks like our kind of prospect.

JK: How big an adjustment are we planning to make on catching prospects who almost surely won’t catch in the big leagues? We’re arguing for Barton and maybe Willingham as our top two at the position; Barton we’re hearing strong hints he won’t catch, and Willingham at best would see Craig Wilson-type playing time at catcher, and is a potential minus defensively pretty much anywhere he plays. They can both mash, but there needs to be some demerit points for both guys, ideally with some thought behind how much they both fall.

NS: I don’t know. My math-oriented brain thinks of it like

Value = V(C)*Pr(C) + V(oth)*(1 - Pr(C))

Where V(C) = Value at catcher
V(oth) = Value at other position
Pr(C) = Probability of catching in the big leagues

Essentially this is just saying that, if we know for certain that a guy isn’t going to catch in the big leagues, then we shouldn’t give him any credit at all for being a catcher.

I’d guess offhand that there’s something like a 10% chance that Barton is actually a catcher for any substantial length of time in MLB, so I think we ought to treat him almost like a first-base prospect. He’s still deserving of a high ranking as a first-base prospect; obviously it would be higher still if he had Joe Mauer’s defensive skills.

Willingham I’d think actually has a somewhat better chance of being a regular catcher in the big leagues, just because he’s made it this far at the position.

Joe Sheehan: I have huge problems with the hype around Willingham. He’s 26, with 25 career at-bats above Double-A, and all of his hitting has come as an overaged prospect at high A and Double-A.

The lack of playing time, much less performance, above Double-A for a 26-year-old is a huge barrier to anyone’s inclusion on a list like this.

I doubt that he can both 1) catch enough to shut people up and 2) hit while doing so. That makes him a corner guy, which takes us back to…age, performance, and now, position.

RJ: Some other names for consideration include George Kottaras and Brian McCann.

NS: Brian McCann:

WARP: 1.3, 1.7, 1.8, 2.2, 2.5
Comps: Buck Martinez, Justin Huber, Jeff Mathis

PECOTA shows its skepticism toward catching prospects here; with McCann, there’s the added worry that he hasn’t walked especially much.

JK: McCann doesn’t walk a ton, but .210 ISO for a 20-year-old at one of the toughest hitter’s parks in all of pro baseball? He should be comfortably on the list, and if we’re giving extra points for the Braves’ track record with prospects (one of the best in the game), then he should be even higher. I like him somewhere in the 31-40 range.

Clay Davenport: I agree with Jonah that McCann is being underrated; I don’t see how any of the players other than Barton can reasonably be placed ahead of him.

NS: He’s certainly got excellent power. PECOTA think that his power would currently place him around the 60th percentile for major leaguers, which is pretty darned impressive for a 20-year-old. It thinks he’ll be a major leaguer, and possibly a pretty good one. Still, he will need to develop a better batting eye, and he’s a slow catcher. Those aren’t impossible hurdles to overcome, but they’re hurdles nevertheless.

As for George Kottaras:

WARP: 1.3, 1.5, 1.3, 1.9, 2.2
Comps: Ron Fairly, Hank Blalock, J.D. Closser

PECOTA is a little bit worried about “empty walks,” though Kottaras is a real prospect.

JK: I’d hardly call Kottaras’ walks empty walks. First off, he walked more than he struck out (51/41), which suggests good batting average potential in addition to overall on-base skill. The fact that he can recognize pitches so well also bodes well for his power, which already isn’t bad (26 XBH in 271 AB, decent .151 ISO). Kottaras is also Canadian, so there’s the argument that having not played as much earlier in life the way a warm-weather player would, he could be a late bloomer. And he’s more likely to stick at catcher than the Bartons and Willinghams. I’d have him in the 41-50 range.

NS: I didn’t mean to imply that he’s Jackie Rexrode or something; he’s certainly a real prospect, although the walks are the most advanced part of his game right now. My main concern, and the reason that I think PECOTA is hedging on him a bit, is because he had only around 325 PA in the Midwest League this year after posting some fairly unimpressive Pioneer League numbers in 2003. He also got a very poor defensive rating under Clay’s system. He looks like honorable-mention material to me.

RJ: The statistical similarity between George Kottaras, 2004, and Mike Sweeney, 1994, is eerie. Two months apart in age, both played in the Midwest League, and the similarity score between their two seasons has to rank in the upper 900s.

It means nothing other than to point out that my synapses sometimes fire in the most unpredictable ways.

CD: I think Justin Huber belongs in the discussion, unless his knee is so permanently damaged that he can no longer catch. For that matter, using the 130 PA criterion only, Joe Mauer is still eligible.

Another year like ’04 will put Jarrod Saltalamacchia on the list, but I don’t think he’s there yet.

Humberto Quintero‘s defense should get a mention.

Jason Karegeannes: I would say another to consider would be Lou Palmisano (Brewers): .293/.371/.413 at Beloit (Midwest). He was short-season MVP in ’03 and had a good year at Beloit, one of the forgotten guys in that farm system.

RJ: It appears everyone thinks that McCann clearly ranks ahead of the other guys on the list. I’m comfortable with that, and when the final list comes out I wouldn’t be surprised if Barton, Quiroz and McCann are the only catchers on it. Willingham has a tremendous bat, but as Joe points out, if he doesn’t make it as a catcher, then he’s Craig Wilson, always fighting an uphill battle for playing time at any position. In another organization he might rank higher, but with the Marlins I’m tempted to make him an HM. It probably comes down to how many worthy candidates there are at other positions.

I think Navarro still deserves an HM, at least. The others may get shafted simply because of how the numbers play out.

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