On Monday, I was able to catch my first minor-league game of the season, an afternoon low-A Midwest League tilt between the Burlington Bees and Kane County Cougars at Geneva, Illinois. The primary appeal game was a matchup between two of the best teenage catchers in the game, Wil Myers of the Royals and Max Stassi of Oakland. That said, in a league with the designated hitter, you have 20 players in the starting lineup, so there's always a lot to take away from any game. In addition, it was a day game in April, which means a crowd that was probably three-fourths school groups, which I still blame on my other takeaway from the game, a vicious head cold.
As for the marquee backstops, it was certainly a contrast in styles. Myers went 1-for-4 with a pair of strikeouts, but scouts love his swing, and with good reason. It's both quick and powerful, and his single to left in the fifth inning was one of the hardest-hit balls of the day. He doesn't wear batting gloves, but one wonders if that will change on a cold night in Iowa when he fouls off an inside fastball and his hands sting for the next 17 days. So far, he's struggling with Burlington, and much of that revolves around plate discipline, as he gets aggressive early in the count. This was on display Monday, when he was prone to chasing pitches, a problem that scouts report having been an issue throughout the early part of the season.
Stassi also struck out twice on Monday, though he managed to fight off an inside fastball in his first plate appearance for a single in front of the center fielder. He's just not as impressive offensively as Myers, but that's a tall order, and some of that just might be his physical profile. He's four inches shorter than Myers and is built, well, like a catcher. His swing is quick, but without Myers' power. Like his fellow 2009 draftee, he's swinging at far too many pitches early in the year. Addressing plate discipline issues are key for both players, but both have decent histories in this matter, so it's not necessarily a long-term concern.
Defensively, it's a different story. Myers' best quality behind the plate is his arm, which is clearly above average, but gets tripped up a bit by a slow release. He takes a very deep crouch when he catches, and it takes a long time to pull his body up on his throws. His receiving skills need work as well. He doesn't move his feet much, if at all, as much as he simply leans from side to side, while he's often stabbing at balls instead pulling them in. Myers possesses the requisite athleticism and tools to be a good defensive catcher, but he's far from there, and one wonders if the Royals will end up stuck in a position where the bat is just too far ahead of the glove.
Stassi, on the other hand, is one of the more advanced teenage backstops I've seen. Prior to the game, Bees broadcaster Nick Devlin compared his play behind the plate to something out of an instructional video, and it turned out to be dead on, as by the fifth inning, I was half expecting Stassi to be joined by an army of kids in blue t-shirts and Fred McGriff telling me how to order. As low as Myers' crouch is, that's as high as Stassi's, and he moves well, blocks balls in the dirt effortlessly, and has great instincts. It's the kind of defensive prowess rarely seen in the Midwest League; forget it being in a teenager.
In the end, both looked good, not great, but one has to give Myers the edge for now based on his body and his bat. That said, the gap between Stassi and Myers defensively is far larger than the reverse spread offensively.
- For a team that's rebuilding, shouldn't the Royals have more talent here? While the Burlington rotation features some arms to watch, the lineup is Wil Myers and eight other guys. Only center fielder Hilton Richardson generates the smallest amount of interest, and we're talking about a player drafted three years ago who is in Low-A. He is at least a big athlete who can run the ball down in center, although his plate appearances showed why he's just reached the full-season leagues. Overall, if Myers wasn't hitting, there was little reason to watch the Bees offensively.
- Left-hander Justin Marks, Oakland's third-round pick last June from Louisville, started for Kane County. He reminded me somewhat of Anthony Capra, another polished college lefty who pitched for Kane County last year. His fastball is average at best, sitting in the low 80s with a couple 90 and 91s thrown in, but he has a good breaking ball, knows how to use it, and pitches with a lot of aggressiveness. He had some control problems on Monday, but received generally good reviews from the scouts in attendance. He could fit into a bullpen role down the road.
- Early-season games usually have a surprise player or two, and on Monday afternoon it was righty Connor Hoehn, a 12th-round pick last year who got an over-slot $75,000 bonus from Oakland. He retired 10 of the 12 batters he faced, including five via strikeout. He's funky, he's deceptive, and in some ways, almost seems like someone coming out of the Japanese leagues, with a stutter to his delivery that causes the ball to come out of his hand far later than expected. He sat at 90-92 with a usable power breaking ball, but it was the inability of hitters to get their timing down that really led to Hoehn's success.