Not Your Everyday Sight
Despite what the numbers say, the term "everyday catcher" is not an oxymoron. It is, however, a precious commodity in the Major Leagues, where only nine catchers currently qualify for the batting title, just two of which (Varitek, Mauer) have an OPS above .800. In fact, in the ten years before 2005, only twelve catchers had two seasons with an .800 OPS. No other position has been as weak in the last decade as what many have called the most demanding position on the field.
The minor leagues is another home for a lack of top-notch catchers, as few positions offer less at the top. Brian McCann's upcoming exit from Prospectdom leaves the minors without a true #1 catcher, and will likely not have one in my top thirty prospects. Today I want to look at the game's top ten catching prospects, and try to uncover the next players that will join the elite status of becoming an everyday catcher.
1. Jarrod Saltalamacchia (ATL) - In a sense, Saltalamacchia's season reminds me of Curtis Granderson's from 2004. While both were solid seasons overall, their rate statistics were drastically driven up by a near-unreplicable hot streak. For Jarrod it was the month of July, in which he hit .411 with a good slugging percentage to boot. Still, take the month of July out of his numbers, and his season numbers are still solid. His defense behind the plate draws conflicted reports, so that leaves us to guess average, which puts him behind Russ Martin in that regard on the totem pole. However, where Martin's power is nearly non-existent, Saltalamacchia has more to add, especially when more of his doubles turn into home runs, and he leaves a stadium that has not treated him well on the year. Brian McCann had a similar .210 ISO in his season in Myrtle Beach, where he was widely referred to as the most powerful catching prospect in the game. If his defense remains manageable, Saltalamacchia's switch-hitting bat might play better than both McCann's and Johnny Estrada's at the Major League level. Remind you of anything?
2. Russ Martin (LA) - The default choice by many, Martin is the leader of the "solid if unspectacular" prospect brigade, where he teams with Brian Anderson. However, the latter is a far better prospect, as Martin's offensive tools lie completely in his plate discipline. Only Jeremy Hermida has a better eye among good prospects, and Russ combines his discipline skills with a solid strikeout rate. However, besides those skills, Martin is a mediocre-at-best offensive hitter. His low number of whiffs indicate good contact skills, but Martin's .358 BABIP is unsustainable, and if prorated to about .320, Martin's average drops in the .280 range. While a .280/.400/.380 catcher is solid, he does not project to be an offensive force by any means. On defense, however, is where Martin nearly laps the field. The Dodgers were extremely impressed with Martin's combination of catch-and-throw and game calling skills during Spring Training, and will surely give him a longer look next season if Dioner Navarro's struggles continue.
3. George Kottaras (SD) - There is no clear cut choice for third, so I will go against Sam Geaney's better judgment here and go with Kottaras. Geaney, the scout-like writer at Calleaguers.com was none too keen on Kottaras, apparently a dead pull hitter from the left side. Still, I think Kottaras is better than Geaney gives him credit for, largely due to very good discipline skills. This has allowed Kottaras to take a midseason promotion in stride, and while he's not exactly raking in AA, the 22-year-old is holding his own. While his selectivity is fantastic, Kottaras has seen a substantial rise in his strikeout numbers since moving to the Southern League. But given Kottaras' past this shouldn't be a concern, but just an early stumble during the Double-A transition. Going forward Kottaras must rectify his dead-pull tendencies while continuing to mix above-average contact and power skills with good discipline. Like many of the prospects on this list, Kottaras will not be winning Gold Gloves at the Major League level, but he will do no worse than Ramon Hernandez, the man who he could eventually replace.
4. Jeff Mathis (ANA) - It seems as though there could be 100 different articles written on whether Mathis is a legit prospect or not. His inconsistency is an annoyance at best, as few prospects have as many torrid/horrid streaks skew their numbers as Mathis. In the end, for the past two seasons anyway, it seems Mathis usually falls in the gray area between solid prospect and not-so-good. Last year was not great by any means, but Jeff was given credit for breaking down in the Texas League, a difficult environment for any catcher to show endurance. This season his numbers have been substantially better, but are a result of both a fantastic beginning and a hitter's park. Mathis' walk and strikeout numbers are not worrisome, but not strengths, nor is his defense. Of the six tools that I recognize, Mathis hovers around average in five, and of course below average in foot speed. Consistency in the power department would be enough to put Mathis in the second spot on this list, but a lack of opportunity at such an age might be enough to argue he should be seventh.
5. Neil Walker (PIT) - Definitely a sleeper pick for this high up, I think Walker is a similar player to Saltalamacchia. Both early-round picks out of high school, their large frames give promise to future power numbers. Furthermore, both players also are not great defensively, though Walker's skills are better than Salty's, and almost surely will allow him to stay behind the dish. However, there is one great difference between Jarrod and Neil, probably a substantial enough difference to justify why Walker is not highly thought of: plate discipline. On the season the former top twelve pick has just 19 walks in 479 at-bats, a rate that will no doubt stunt any potential for growth. What will blossom well, however, is the power that the Bucs used to justify their hometown selection a year ago. Expect a few of Walker's 33 doubles to turn into home runs as he moves up the ladder and further develops his strength. I do believe that if Neil can double his walk rate -- a tough task no doubt, and one that would still not be great -- his star can shine nearly as bright as Salty's, with power that could turn out better.
6. Miguel Montero (ARZ) - Went from hardly a blip on anybody's radar to hot-prospect-of-the-week back to forgotten slugger in the course of two months. Or more simply put, Montero was the 2005 version of Jon Zeringue, right up to the struggles at AA. But while Montero has bounced back some from an abysmal start in the Southern League, his numbers are far worse than Kottaras' in a similar sample size. And while his 1.028 OPS and Geaney Overall ranking beats the Padre, Montero can't really make much of an argument for being over Kottaras. However, the Diamondbacks are hoping that out of quanity comes quality, and one of Snyder, Hill and Montero can play a solid catcher at the Major League level. To me Montero has the look of a back-up, with very good defensive skills mixed with solid pop and decent-enough contact skills. His patience and offensive consistency should never be good enough to garner 400 at-bats, but as a six-figure bench player, Montero has significant value.
7. Chris Iannetta (COL) - Another player that Geaney ranks ahead of Kottaras (but below Montero), Iannetta was (like Montero) one of the catchers on this list that attended the Futures Game. He did not do anything in Detroit to distinguish himself from the crowd, instead managing to do that with his Cal League numbers. His power is something second only to the Diamondback, but unlike Montero, Iannetta walks and strikes out at big paces. He profiles to walk 60 and strike out 100 times annually in the Majors, given the right number of at-bats. Like Kottaras, Iannetta is struggling in AA, but has enough polish in his game to make up for a poor batting average. Chris showed good power at North Carolina before showing a ton his junior season, and could provide big things in Colorado. However, poor contact skills and defense that is solid but not back-up worthy could yield to his downfall.
8. Kurt Suzuki (OAK) - The last of the Cal League catchers on this list, Suzuki is the widely-recognized last of the four, and the only one yet to move onto Double-A. I should note there is a pretty substantial break between Iannetta and Suzuki, but not between Suzuki and even some members of the Honorable Mention. However, at this point, we are far beyond players that should become solid everyday catchers. Suzuki is sort of a poor man's Russ Martin, mixing fantastic discipline skills with a little bit of everything else. However, where Martin brings another significant plus to the table with his defense, Suzuki is just marginal behind the plate. Offensively he's solid, with good contact skills and average-at-best power. For some reason or another I see a bit of Wiki Gonzalez -- minus the laziness issues -- in Suzuki, which considering Wiki's lackluster career, is not exactly a compliment in Kurt's direction.
9. Jason Jaramillo (PHI) - The first of a few college players starting in low-A ball this year, I decided to go with Jaramillo first. Probably the best thought of player coming out of school, Jaramillo has played solid despite playing in a hitter's ballpark this season. His contact skills, power, selectivity and defense all fall under average, C+/B- prospect, and should allow Jaramillo to gradually rise through the Phillie system. For every one Johnny Estrada in this group of players there are 25 that don't make it, and even more than never get consistent playing time. Jaramillo will go unnoticed for years because he just doesn't do anything wrong, both a positive and a negative for a prospect.
10. Curtis Thigpen (TOR) - Gaining a bit more recognition than Jaramillo, because the Blue Jays decided to test Thigpen with a midseason promotion to AA, altogether skipping the Florida State League. While Jaramillo was a better prospect coming out of college, Thigpen came from the best program, where he was a part of the annual College World Series contenders, the University of Texas. Thigpen was thought to be a bat-first catcher leaving school, but that is not a good sign for a player that showed poor power in the Midwest League. His defensive skills are adequate, and if you call Suzuki a poor man's Martin, you might call Thigpen a poor man's Suzuki. Curtis might have a career as a back-up because of that batting eye and those contact skills, but any team that gives him 400+ at-bats in a season needs to go shopping.
Clint Sammons (ATL) and John Jaso (TB): Very different players, but they fit in the Jaramillo/Thigpen low-A college player group. Jaso is the best hitter of the four, with polished skills all around, but probably lacks the athleticism to stick behind the plate. Sammons is another solid player that has a chance to be the best of the foursome, if any of those 25 doubles start going over the fence.
Guillermo Quiroz (TOR), Kelly Shoppach (BOS), Mike Napoli (ANA): Another good group to stick together, because these guys are the home run-or-nothing crowd. Their offensive skills are probably ranked Napoli-Shoppach-Quiroz, but their defense goes in the opposite order. All three are best suited for Jim Leyritz-type careers, where Shoppach probably has the best chance to do so. Still, I think Quiroz is the best prospect, and a good AFL could catapult him past Kurt Suzuki.
I hate to rank recently drafted players on prospect lists, because short-season sample sizes never tend to tell us very much. However, I will say that Jeff Clement and Brandon Snyder are both prospects worthy of mention. Beyond that, the 2005 draft crop didn't offer too much in way of catchers, with Teagarden, Butera, and Nick Hundley a few players that will be in the 8-15 slots a year from now.
However, Clement and Snyder are much better than that. Clement, drafted third overall in June, is beginning to rack up a decent number of at-bats in full-season ball since signing about a month ago. An offensive-first catcher with better power than even Saltalamacchia, Clement has three home runs in 64 at-bats in the Midwest League. He's very polished as a hitter, and has already walked 11 times, though like many with his resume, tends to strike out quite a bit. Going forward Clement must prove naysayers wrong behind the plate, where many believe he isn't adequate defensively. Personally, I think Jeff profiles similar to another Mariner catching draft pick, Jason Varitek, who is lauded for his handling skills, if not catch-and-throw abilities, at the ML level.
Snyder is a bit harder to rank, simply because we do not know if his future position is behind the plate. For years I would have excluded Josh Willingham from a list like this, knowing that Willingham does not have the athleticism to play catcher in the Majors. Snyder, however, is different from this. Snyder was drafted after playing catcher and shortstop for his high school team, and has split between a few positions in short-season ball. His athleticism is not a problem, but it seems as though he has just never taken to the catching position. He is, however, a good prospect, and one that has walked in about 1/6 of his plate appearances coming out of high school. His .935 OPS is great for a teenager in the Appy League, but Snyder will have to decrease his strikeout numbers in full-season ball next season.
At this point I think Clement probably would rank third on my list, with the caveat that he should be in the top two a year from now. Snyder probably fits in right in front of Neil Walker, because of plate discipline, but I could see an argument for his placement anywhere from 5-8.
As you can see, the catching depth in the minors is hardly top-heavy like other positions. There are only two (three if you include Clement) catchers that I consider top 50-worthy prospects, and probably just five or six that would garner top 100 consideration. While everyday catchers do exist, don't expect the number of them to rise anytime soon.