WTNYOctober 11, 2004
When Four Becomes More
By Bryan Smith

Before the season began, there were four highly regarded catching prospects touted with having extremely high ceilings. All four had already reached AA, and had their respective teams thinking about how to fit them into future plans. All four fit into my preseason top fifty, and probably just about every top 50 in America. One I wrote about a couple weeks ago, as a year later Joe Mauers future is a much hotter topic than the other three.

Think about it. Terry Ryan traded All-Star A.J. Pierzynski to the Giants to clear room for his superstud, Mauer. There was already talk out of Anaheim that Bengie Molina wouldnt see an extension, as Mathis fit into the 2005 plans. The once highly though of Kevin Cash was being prepared for life as a backup in Toronto, following Guillermo Quirozs great season. And finally, Dioner Navarro made so much noise, that Yankee fans were wondering if Posada was to move to first or DH.

Then something happened. Joe Mauer hurt his knee, twice, and spent the greater part of the season on the DL. Mathis hit a whopping .165/.245/.250 after June 19, as told to me by Jim Callis. Quiroz fractured his wrist, and spent the better part of two months riding the pine, with the other time spent hitting .227. Finally, Dioner Navarro, once called Pudgito, saw his power sap down to four home runs in 391 at-bats.

So, things arent really as they once were. Joe Mauer is going to slowly see less-and-less games behind the plate, as guesstimated to me by A-Bs own Will Carroll. Anaheim will probably move Mathis out of the Texas League, where Kevin Goldstein tells me is a strain for catchers. But, you can bet that one of the Molinas will be in the O.C. next year. Kevin Cash will get a year to prove himself, as Quiroz needs some more time in Orangemen land. As for Dioner, hes probably tops on the Yankees list of Players We Should Trade.

None of these players have disintegrated beyond the point of reconcile. In fact, there are still high hopes for all four, probably in the same order (Mauer, Mathis, Quiroz, Navarro) as they were in Spring Training. But whats different than February, is that there are some names now in front of these guys, not behind.

Well deal with the new class later, but first lets deal with those catchers that were behind this winter. More than any other position, catchers tend to get drastically overrated in prospectdom, so there always seems to be a decent amount of depth. Due to that, before the season, Baseball America fans surely knew these names: Justin Huber, Kelly Shoppach, Gerald Laird, Jeremy Brown, and Koyie Hill. And if you dont know all five, you definitely know the one who has a chapter in a baseball best-seller named after him.

Lets check in on those five now, a year later. Huber was sent to the Kansas City Royals in the Mets kamikaze deadline deals, where the buzz is he cant stick at catcher. That might work out OK, because while in AA this year, Huber hit a solid .271/.414/.487. While Kelly Shoppach did win the International League All-Star spot as a catcher, the Red Sox are gonna need to keep Jason Varitek, unless Kelly can boost that .233 average. Laird looked good early for Texas, got hurt, and struggled mightily in the second half. But, he should factor into the Rangers plans for next year.

Hill was sent packing to Arizona when the Dodgers went dealing in July, and his status has not wavered from solid. He probably wont be a force as a starter anytime soon, but expect Hill to spend quite a few years on a Major League roster somewhere. And then there is Brown, one of the most famous non-prospects anywhere. What, non-prospect is a bit harsh? Well, thats what I saw when you show me a 24-year-old catcher in AA with a .256 average and .101 ISO.

In conclusion, if you were a catcher with a name before 2004, Im sorry. This group struggled terribly, and was probably only happy because of the Major League performances of non-rookies Victor Martinez and Johnny Estrada. Now, it being the next winter, there are some new names on the list. Not a lot of names, grant you, but a few. And after a draft with a lot of catchers, there is promise for even more a year from now.

Today, Ill give you three: Daric Barton, Brian McCann, Chris Snyder. Barton was the 28th choice of the 2003 drafts first round, the Cardinals choice from a California high school. It was said that Barton might not be the best behind the plate, but he had a stick. McCann was selected a year prior, chosen by the Braves 64th overall out of a, surprise, Georgia high school. And finally, we have the senior of the group, Snyder, who blossomed in this, his second tour of the Texas League.

Barton began the season, his first full season, on the DL, only to rebound to become the Midwest Leagues second overall prospect. Still in just his age 18 season, Barton hit an astounding .313/.445/.511 in 313 at-bats. Furthermore, Barton only struck out 44 times and walked 63, fantastic for a teenager. Sure, his defense was about as good as the scouts had told us, which is to say not very. But there is promise there, and Barton will stick for another season.

If you want the definition of a solid prospect, Brian McCann is your boy. He doesnt do anything sensational, but there are few things he does badly. .277 batting average in one of the minors worst parks. Heck, Ill raise that, how about a .210 ISO? His defense is sound, and he only struck out 54 times in 110 games. And hell reach the Southern League next year, at only 21 years of age. You probably want to bet on the Braves having a bit of catching controversy in 2006-2007, when Estradas skill set should begin to decline.

And finally, we have Chris Snyder. If you read Jeremy Deloney, and I dont know why you wouldnt, you have heard of Snyder. To get a grasp of how good Snyder is, lets use one of my favorite games:

Player A: .323/.384/.500
Player B: .314/.414/.518

The latter is Snyder, who went on to hit .301/.389/.520 in the Texas League this season. Player A is someone we have already talked about, Jeff Mathis, and the 2003 statistics that made him the hot prospect. And of course, we all now know of Mathis troubles, that .700 OPS this season. Snyder has now leapfrogged Mathis, who I once said had more power potential than Joe Mauer (oops). In fact, expect the Diamondback to get a chance in Arizona as early as next year, as we gradually see a slew of D-Bax prospects hit the Majors.

Those are, for lack of a better expression, the new kids on the block. There are also two more guys I want to mention, two that would fit in that second tier. The first is Lou Palmisano, a 21-year-old Brewer chosen 42 picks after Barton. Palmisano won the Pioneer League MVP after hitting .391 last year, but saw his ISO drop from .201 last year, to just .140 this season. Lets just say that while Palmisano might be decent, he aint enough for the Brewers to ignore Jeff Clement next June.

The second member of the second group is Jarrod Saltalamacchia, chosen only nine slots behind Barton. Another Brave high school pick from the South (Florida), Brad Dowdy of No Pepper ranked him as the Braves 18th prospect. Expect Baseball America to put him top ten. But since he would know was better, here is Dowdys piece on Jarrod:


Jarrod did everything you could ask for from a 19 year-old in his first year of full-season ball. He battled through a wrist injury in the middle of the season, and then had to shut it down near the end of the year with a hamstring tweak, but still managed to hit .272/.348/.437 in 323 at-bats, with 10 homers and 19 doubles. His OPS of .785 was 6% greater than the league average - especially impressive given his age and experience level. All indicators point to Jarrod continuing to progress as he moves up the ladder next season.

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is what the current catching crop looks like now. With Mauer gone, there isnt a lot available, with Barton looking like the current #1. But if this article taught you anything, I hope it was to take catching prospects with a grain of salt, most get overrated. Next year, Im sure youll know of Neil Walker, Landon Powell and Kurt Suzuki. Because with catchers, there is always one more to hype up.

Comments

outstanding piece.....the key for catchers is exercising the patience. A lot of people were crying for the Indians to call up Martinez in 2003 because he was tearing up the minors but it wasn't the same story at the major league level. Looking at the success of Martinez and Estrada this year shows that it takes a little time. Not everyone is Jason Kendall and comes up hitting right away :) Keep up the good work

Are you high? You've never really seen Joe Mauer, have you? I mean, extensively. Also, hurt his knee twice? Uh, no. The kid decided not to tell anybody about the pain (from too much too early) until it was too late. Is that in your "inside info?" To compare him to any other catcher in a negative sense is simply laughable and shows you have not watched him enough. Best catcher I've ever seen. And we're talking Bench here. He's a man among boys, baseball-wise. Will may be right about the injury's effect on his position. But it may be quite a while before we see it.

Todd-
I'm sorry, but I think you missed my point. I am not saying anyone is close to Mauer, because I agree, they aren't. But more was expected out of Mauer this year, as he fell victim to an injury. Yes, when he played he outdid expectations. But playing in that number of games was a letdown in itself. And for that reason, his stock did drop a bit.