Catching prospects are sort of like pitching prospects. There are a few guys who distinguish themselves, but mostly you’re left with an unwashed mass of players with some residual value by virtue of the fact that there are just 60-70 catchers on major league rosters at any given time.

Actually, I should probably pause to explain what I’m doing. Players are ranked according to their peak-adjusted PECOTA Upside score, and bundled into categories inspired by Kevin’s team-by-team prospect lists. Everything else should be explained at great length in yesterday’s column, so we’ll keep the ‘meta’ discussion to a minimum here.

Excellent Prospects

1. Chris Iannetta, Rockies (24)                156.5
2. Jarrod Saltalamacchia, Braves (22)          112.0

PECOTA didn’t like Chris Iannetta much at all last year, seeing him as an “empty walks” player who wouldn’t hit for enough power against tougher competition, causing his OBP to deteriorate as pitchers quit working around him. But he zoomed all the way from Double-A to the majors last season, hitting plenty at every level, and he’s now one of the better prospects in the game. Iannetta’s major faults are that he’s slow and a bit undersized, but these are less worrisome for a catcher than they would be for a player at another position. I’m not quite sure why he doesn’t get more attention; he’s two years older than Troy Tulowitzki, but has significantly out-hit him at every level he’s played at so far, and catchers with good bats are even harder to find than shortstops with good bats. Sometimes players who split their season evenly between two or three levels can get lost in the shuffle. My gut is that PECOTA is a wee bit high on him, but he’s a great guy to have in a fantasy league or a Rookie of the Year pool.

Jarrod Saltalamacchia is an underrated prospect. His raw numbers in Mississippi were flat-out ugly (.230/.353/.380), but Mississippi is one of the toughest hitting environments in the minor leagues; the entire Mississippi Braves team hit just .251/.314/.335 at home. Overall, the drop-off in Saltalamacchia’s EqA was just 13 points, from .276 in 2005 to .263 in 2006. Most of that was driven by his first-half slip in batting average, but he should be able to recover fully given his reasonable plate approach. Salty still has plenty of time for growth, and PECOTA sees him rounding out as a .274/.370/.478 player by the time he’s 26.

Very Good Prospects

3. Miguel Montero, Diamondbacks (23)          73.6
4. Carlos Ruiz, Phillies (28)                 69.7
5. Curtis Thigpen, Blue Jays (24)             67.2
6. Francisco Cervelli, Yankees (21)           63.9
7. J.R. Towles, Astros (23)                   53.0

Notice the huge drop-off in the scores; we’ve gone from two elite prospects to guys with a lot of asterisks pretty quickly. Miguel Montero is a known commodity who has done nothing but hit for the past two years, save for a brief stint at Tennessee in 2005. This is a very common profile for a decent catching prospect–average in just about everything but speed (none) and size (short for a contemporary ballplayer). PECOTA doesn’t see a ton of growth for Montero or necessarily a long career; like the scouts, it generally prefers players who have at least one Grade-A skill to work from. But being average-to-above throughout his arbitration years is going to be valuable.

Carlos Ruiz is the Brooks Conrad of the catching position: an organizational player whose bat has bloomed late. The DTs discount his .307/.389/.505 line in Scranton heavily since he was repeating the level, but he still reads as a guy with a league-average bat and a good glove who just needs the opportunity. The Phillies have a habit of burying their minor leaguers, and while Ruiz has no star potential, he’s probably better than Rod Barajas, whom the Phillies signed this winter. Barajas aside, Ruiz probably has a better chance at a major league career than someone like Conrad, since it’s sort of socially acceptable for catchers to debut late.

PECOTA sees Curtis Thigpen just as the scouts do, as someone who has a good chance to be a league-average player but probably does not have All-Star upside. The main rap against Thigpen is his lack of home run power, but he hit 28 doubles and 5 triples in just a hair over 400 PA last season, which is enough to indicate that his power isn’t a complete lost cause.

Next up is Francisco Cervelli. You’re going to see a couple of players from the Staten Island Yankees on this list; the DTs regard it as an extremely strong pitchers’ park and ratchet everyone’s translations up accordingly. I’m a little bit skeptical after getting burned on Eduardo Nunez, who rated as PECOTA’s #12 overall prospect last year, but hit so poorly that we didn’t even bother to run a PECOTA card for him in the initial batch of forecasts (I’ve since inserted him to satisfy my own curiosity). There’s perhaps extra reason to be cautious about Cervelli since we have only 157 PA for him in our sample. Still, he’s considered a good defensive catcher and got an NRI to spring training (not an uncommon practice since lots of pitchers in camp means lots of catchers too). What’s the cliché here? Someone to keep an eye on.

J.R. Towles posted some very good raw numbers at Lexington last year, but he was repeating the level and was old for his league, which PECOTA reads as someone who won’t grow very much (actually, it doesn’t think he’ll develop at all). On the other hand, Towles could probably out-hit Brad Ausmus with what he’s got going already.

Good Prospects

8. Angel Salome, Brewers (21)               46.8
9. John Jaso, Devil Rays (23)               46.4
10. George Kottaras, Red Sox (24)           46.0
11. J.R. House, Orioles (27)                44.8
12. Neil Walker, Pirates (21)               43.6
13. Kurt Suzuki, A's (23)                   41.7
14. Jesus Flores, Nationals (22)            41.4
15. Jacob Fox, Cubs (24)                    37.3
16. Nick Hundley, Padres (22)               32.5
17. Jeff Mathis, Angels (24)                31.1
18. Jeff Clement, Mariners (23)             30.3
19. Chris Stewart, White Sox (25)           29.1
20. Shawn Riggans, Devil Rays (26)          27.4
21. Phil Avlas, Diamondbacks (24)           25.3

Angel Salome isn’t well-known, but he may be the most intriguing name, in large part because it would be a lot of fun to see how someone listed at 5’7″, 190 would look standing next to Prince Fielder. He has a weird package of skills: in spite of his body type he’s more of a slap hitter who runs reasonably well for his position. PECOTA sees his defense falling off quite a bit, which may reflect the fact that a fair number of his comparables, like Justin Huber, underwent a position switch; PECOTA dings a guy’s defensive rating when this happens. The problem is that Salome has nowhere to go; his lack of mobility would prevent him from handling any infield position but first base, and he won’t have the bat to make it there. But if Cervelli is someone to watch for, Salome is someone to root for.

Otherwise, quite a few of these guys have been around the block without making a ton of progress. PECOTA has never been much of a George Kottaras fan–remember what I said about “empty walks”–and his ratings are hurt further by his poor defensive translations, which jibe with the scouting reports. Kurt Suzuki is in largely the same vein, but with less power and better defense. Jeff Clement flat out didn’t hit at Tacoma (.257/.321/.347), and PECOTA doesn’t see any reason to think that he’ll start doing so. Clement’s been pushed though the system very aggressively, but this is someone who was 22 and was regarded as having a polished bat coming out of college, so I don’t know how much of a mulligan we can give him.

Average and Marginal Prospects

(Players Ranked in Kevin Goldstein’s Positional Top Ten or other noteworthy names with Upside scores below 25)

Nobody worth mentioning. Hank Conger got a low score, but he also had only 76 plate appearances, which is below the threshold we need to run a reliable forecast.

The Big Picture: Rankings Combined With Non-Rookies 25 Years Old Or Younger

1. Joe Mauer, Twins (24)                    500.0
2. Brian McCann, Braves (23)                375.7
3. Russell Martin, Dodgers (24)             212.0
4. Mike Napoli, Angels (25)                 157.0
5. Chris Iannetta, Rockies (24)             156.5
6. Dionner Navarro, Devil Rays (23)         131.9
7. Jarrod Saltalamacchia, Braves (22)       112.0
8. Yadier Molina, Cardinals (24)             76.3
9. Miguel Montero, Diamondbacks (23)         73.6
10. Carlos Ruiz, Phillies (28)               69.7

So is the glass half-full or half-empty? The budding Hall of Fame careers of Joe Mauer and Brian McCann obscure a great deal of weakness at the catching position. Then again, perhaps we should consider ourselves lucky to have Mauer and McCann to begin with, and if Russell Martin can build on his fine rookie year and join them, we could soon be talking about the 3M’s at the catching position, three star-caliber players with parallel career tracks. PECOTA thinks that’s pretty likely with Martin, by the way, and that he should add some power as he ages, perhaps along the lines of Thurmon Munson.

Dioner Navarro got his shout-out in Unfiltered, but Mike Napoli deserves one too, as it’s exceedingly rare to see a player with his skillset get a fair shake in the majors. Interestingly, in contrast to Napoli’s all-or-nothing plate approach, he has a very low Beta score (low variance in his forecast). Batting average tends to be the flakiest component of offensive performance; it may be that since Napoli puts the ball in play so rarely, his performance is going to be more consistent from year to year than most of his counterparts.

We’ll get back to business next week with first base, the place where prospects go to die.

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