Like I did last year, I’m starting the positional rankings with catcher, and one thing quickly becomes clear: there is very little catching in the minor leagues. In fact, it just plain stinks. As in the past, I bounced these lists off many scouts and front office folks, and the usual reaction was something like, “Who’s missing there?” or, “Wow, is it really that bad?” The answer is yes, it really is that bad–there are no obvious stars here, and not even all the players in the Top 10 are easy to project as everyday big league starters.

One difference from last year is that anyone in the minors was open to consideration in 2006, but this year, fresh draftees are no longer considered eligible. We’ll bring them up after the rankings, but let’s get a half-season or so under their belts before we jump to any conclusions.

1. Jeff Clement, Mariners
Age: 23.9
Hitting: .273/.364/.517 at Triple-A (86 G)

Clement repeats his position as the top catcher in the minors, and probably deserves it more this year than he did last, as his bat has finally come alive. Keep in mind that this is a guy in the Mariners system, so he’s been unduly rushed, with fewer than 40 games caught below Triple-A, so in some ways he’s kind of playing catchup. The bat is real, the power is real, and he has a decent approach, but the defense is still below average. He’s a rough receiver, and his arm is plagued by a slow release and below-average accuracy. The good news here is that he’s already come leaps and bounds defensively since signing, and he’s thrilled the organization by working non-stop to get better. The general consensus is still that he’ll never win a Gold Glove, and he may never even be average, but he should be good enough to stay behind the dish. He’ll be ready next year, but what does that mean with Kenji Johjima still on the team? It’s an out of the box solution, but splitting catcher and designated hitter duties between the two would keep both in the lineup, and both fresh down the stretch.

2. Bryan Anderson, Cardinals
Age: 20.6
Hitting: .316/.370/.421 at Double-A (66 G)

Anderson had a very good year in 2006, batting .302/.377/.417 in his Midwest League full-season debut, but nobody saw him as the kind of talent that would be ready for a two-level jump to the Texas League. As it turned out, not only was he ready, but he’s now ranked second in the circuit’s batting race. Defensively, Anderson is neither plus nor deficient in any area, but it’s his bat that’ll keep getting him promoted. That said, Anderson’s primary value as a hitter comes from his batting average. He’s an aggressive, contact-oriented hitter who attacks balls early, with a slicing swing that isn’t designed much for power or power potential. Anderson is a very good prospect doing very well while being young for the level, but it’s easier to see him developing into that rare catcher who fits in the number two spot of a lineup than his developing into a true impact hitter.

3. J.R. Towles, Astros
Age: 23.5
Hitting: .200/.339/.278 at High-A (26 G); .315/.425/.541 at Double-A (44 G)

Towles had a big year last year, but it happened at Low-A, and there was concern about his age and the level he was doing it at. One year later, Towles is tearing it up in the Texas League, and those concerns have been dispelled. Always a solid defender, Towles continues to add power to his game, while already hitting for average and showing a patient approach. Finally, the ‘Stros have a reason to put Brad Ausmus out to pasture, as Towles could be ready by Opening Day 2008.

4. Taylor Teagarden, Rangers
Age: 23.6
Hitting: .313/.456/.583 at High-A (71 G)

Right here, we already have a pretty good-sized drop-off. After Teagarden missed nearly all of last year recovering from Tommy John surgery, the Rangers are being incredibly cautious with him. He doesn’t throw between innings or in infield practice, and is catching in only about one-third of his games, otherwise getting in his at-bats as a designated hitter. When he does catch, he’s still an excellent defender, with excellent blocking skills and a plus arm he’s used to gun down more than 40 percent of attempted basestealers. Offensively, he’s a bit stiff and mechanical–he’s a walk machine with some power potential, but his bat is a bit slow, and he’s often behind on good fastballs. Most see him as no more than a second-division starter, but if he can stay healthy, his defensive skills alone should give him a lengthy career.

5. Hank Conger, Angels
Age: 19.5
Hitting: .282/.336/.469 at Low-A (61 G)

Conger’s full-season debut has been a bit of a mixed bag. Offensively, he’s been impressive, hitting for average and power, but he’s definitely an offense-first catcher. One team going into last year’s draft told me that if they took Conger, they would have immediately moved him off that position, but in Conger’s defense (pun intended), he’s been bad, but not that bad. Conger’s considerable bulk limits him behind the plate, but he has solid receiving skills and an arm that is just ‘ok’ at best. There’s still plenty of promise here, and we’ll see how he looks once he returns from a back injury.

6. John Jaso, Devil Rays
Age: 23.8
Hitting: .314/.406/.490 at Double-A (70 G)

After an injury-plagued 2006, Jaso has re-established his prospect status with an outstanding year at Double-A, hitting for average, showing gap power, and accumulating more walks (36) than strikeouts (33). He’s at least an average defender, but his hitting skills, which include a .300+ average against both lefties and righties, are what have him looking like the Devil Rays’ starting catcher by 2009. Not a star, but solid.

7. Max Ramirez, Indians
Age: 22.8
Hitting: .300/.418/.512 at High-A (70 G)

Ramirez has always hit for average, and has always drawn walks wherever he went, and now he’s starting to tap into his power potential with 12 home runs in 250 at-bats, just one off his career high. The question mark remains his defense–his arm is below-average but not awful, but his receiving skills are significantly below average, to the point where many question his ability to stay at the position long term. However, as one scout who went over the list with me said, “Hey, Victor Martinez is still catching…”

8. Nick Hundley, Padres
Age: 23.9
Hitting: .257/.354/.510 at Double-A (68 G)

Hundley is very much an is-what-he-is type of player, but what he is represents the skill set of a second-division starter or good backup. He’ll never hit for much of an average, but when he does hit the ball, he hits it hard, with 31 of his 63 hits going for extra bases. He also shows good strike zone recognition, is a pretty good catcher and cuts down the running game, nailing 39% of attempted thieves this year. He’s on pace for a late-2008 look, and for being a permanent fixture by 2009.

9. Tony Recker, Athletics
Age: 23.9
Hitting: .319/.402/.609 at High-A (56 G); .167/.235/.231 at Double-A (23 G)

Recker is a late-bloomer and a bit of a sleeper, but his numbers at Stockton during the first half of the season really opened some people’s eyes, and the scouting reports were also solid. Built like a linebacker, Recker has above-average power but is highly pull-conscious; he will rack up some big strikeout rates down the road. He’s basically not as good as he was in the Cal League, but much better than he showed in his first month of Texas League action. He’s raw as a receiver, but has the athleticism to get better, and his arm is at least average.

10. Jesus Montero, Yankees
Age: 17.7
Hitting: .375/.444/.875 at Rookie (3 G)

Montero was one of the bigger names in last year’s international signing period, putting on power displays in workouts that became the stuff of legend. On a pure power scale, Montero eclipses even Angel Villalona from last year’s Latin American class, but he’s not near the overall hitting talent of the Giants wunderkind. That’s because of an all-or-nothing approach that will hamper his ability to hit for average down the road. The other issue is that it’s hard to find anyone who thinks Montero will stay behind the plate for long. Already 225 pounds–and as one team official put it, “not in a good way”–Montero has first base/designated hitter written all over his future, where the bat will have to carry him.

2007 Draftees of Note

This June’s draft was notable for its catching depth, and 13 of the first 106 picks were backstops. Drafted fifth overall by Baltimore, one could argue that Matt Wieters would be at the top of this list if he were eligible. Cincinnati’s first-round pick (15th overall) Devin Mesoraco was the best high school catcher in the draft, and would likely be in the top six. Toronto surprised some by popping University of Tennessee’s J.P. Arencibia at No. 21, but remember that going into the year, he was seen as an upper-half first round selection. Five catchers went in the supplemental first round, and college options Mitch Canham (Padres), Josh Donaldson (Cubs), and Ed Easley (Diamondbacks) are all off to strong starts in the Northwest League. On the prep side, many teams had Travis D’Arnaud pegged as their backup option in the first round, so the Phillies may have gotten a bit of a steal with him at No. 37.

Honorable Mention

Brett Hayes, Marlins: A defensive stalwart with limited hitting skills; some already talk about him as a future manager–how’s that for makeup?
Francisco Hernandez, White Sox: After two failed attempts at a full-season league, Hernandez has finally put things together at Kannapolis, and he’s still just 21.
Lou Palmisano, Brewers: All but off the map after an outstanding debut in 2003, Cap’n Lou is back with a .293/.404/.474 line at Double-A Huntsville, and scouting reports are pegging him as a solid backup.
Landon Powell, Athletics: Would have been a top five selection two weeks ago, but he’s now out for the year following another ACL surgery.
Shawn Riggans, Devil Rays: The solid minor league performer is injury-plagued and already 27, so his window his closing.
Jamie Skelton, Tigers: Short and skinny, Skelton hardly looks the part, but he’s hitting .325 at Low-A West Michigan while doing a good job of controlling the running game.

Keep An Eye On

Brian Jeroloman, Blue Jays: Jeroloman was drafted in the sixth round last year as a great-glove/no-hit catcher, and he’s been living up to that mark at High-A Dunedin, hitting just .263 with a .354 slugging percentage. Here’s the weird part–in 198 at-bats, he’s drawn 65 walks, good for a .440 on-base percentage. How could he not end up as a good backup with that one skill and great work behind the plate?

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