Sanchez Slowly Catching Pack
When evaluating the resume of the minor league's hottest hitter, there appears to be two misprints: the year drafted, and that 1 before the decimal point in his current OPS. It is these surprising truths that make Marlins prospect Gaby Sanchez the intriguing story of baseball's first month.
It would appear that many prospects, in many organizations, follow the Sanchez path. Had he been drafted in 2004, the Marlins would simply have been credited with giving Gaby rest after a long, draining college season. They, borrowing philosophies from other organizations like the Cubs, would even delay the beginning of his first professional season until the short-season leagues had started. It would be following Sanchez' second Spring Training that his full season debut would take place.
But, again, Sanchez' resume contains no typos. His path has not been well-traveled. He's just making up for lost time.
Sanchez, drafted in the fourth round of 2005 from the University of Miami-Florida, brought with him two years of good experience. In both 2003 and 2004, he had played in 62 games for the Hurricanes, hitting seven home runs and boasting a .300+ batting average. After a successful summer in the Cape Cod League, Sanchez entered 2005 as an All-American candidate. His draft prospects were high, as were projections for a Miami offense boasting a heart of Sanchez, Ryan Braun and Jon Jay. Then, all of a sudden, it was gone. Sanchez then broke team rules and was subsequently suspended from game play during his junior season.
A third baseman during his college career, Sanchez' suspension luckily did not extend to practices. Given time to experiment, Sanchez did, strapping on catcher's gear and kneeling behind the plate. It was this versatility, in addition to his respected and powerful bat, that made Sanchez worthy of the Marlins' $250,000 investment.
However, even a year's worth of hard work has not sped the Marlins plans for him. Florida maintains his transition to catcher will be slow, as Sanchez manned just 29 innings behind the plate through 17 games. The results, for the most part, have been positive. In a league in which baserunners have succeeded at a 70% clip in 386 chances through Sunday, Sanchez has thrown out each of the four attempted base stealers he has faced. His throwing arm will support his move to the mask, his athleticism will not.
In fact, Gaby's athleticism will not help him at any position, besides Designated Hitter. In 2006, Sanchez has played in 12 games at first base, and already the Miami product has committed four errors. While range is not a trait emphasized in young catchers, critics maintain Sanchez' lack of agility will stunt his transition in the long run. They don't, however, question his bat.
Likely sent to the South Atlantic League for his defensive inexperience, Gaby has hit like a 22-year-old should in low-A. After collecting two hits and a home run in his season debut, Sanchez pushed forward, registering a hit in the next nine games in which he would register an at-bat. The lone exception was his fourth game, following a 5-for-5 effort on April 8, when Sanchez would walk in all four plate appearances. At the end of his torrid ten-game streak, Sanchez was hitting .465 with seven home runs and six walks. He was the minors' own Chris Shelton.
As statistics tend to do, Sanchez' numbers regressed in the last week, though his pace has hardly come to a halt. In the seven games since Sanchez hit his seventh home run, Gaby has eight hits in 25 at-bats, with just one walk and one extra-base hit. Perfection has escaped Sanchez, juggling the minors best set of statistics with multiple positions.
If nothing else, Sanchez -- along with 2005 Texas suspendee Sam LeCure (25/5 K/BB ratio in FSL) -- speaks highly to a particular draft strategy. Oftentimes, these players teach us, the nation's great programs do as much behind-the-scenes preparation as they show us on the diamond. Without the pedigree and resources that Miami and Texas provide, these two talents could still be toiling in the world of aluminum bats. One-time big program talents (Nick Adenhart fits, too) should now be considered to be worth mid-round selections and early round money, even despite a delayed pay-off.
Catching prospects, for the most part, can be twisted and contorted into three molds. First, at the top, are the blue-chip players, well-rounded and suited for a future everyday role. The minors ain't exactly chock full of 'em. Instead, there are either catchers primarily adept with the glove or the bat. The former are referred to as "future back-ups" while the defenseless are thrust down the defensive spectrum or onto the bench.
Until further notice, Sanchez is the latter, the hitter with the 1.233 OPS, four errors and a passed ball. But, unlike other failed-catcher stories (see: Ryan Garko, Craig Wilson, etc), this situation provides hope. Sanchez, just a year into his transition and perfect against opposing baserunners, has the ceiling to put the Marlins gamble in the money.
Looking at the other top catching prospects in the minors...
Like was said earlier, the everyday catcher is an extremely rare commodity. The current minor league landscape speaks volumes to this fact, as I believe there are currently just four prospects that will go onto catching 120 games a season at the Major League level: Jeff Clement (Mariners), Russ Martin (Dodgers), Jarrod Saltalamacchia (Braves), and Neil Walker (Pirates). Three of these players -- all but Martin -- could see their defensive inadequacies moved to another position. One, Walker, is out for a month following wrist surgery. It isn't a position of depth.
Of the group, it is Salty's bat that gives him the nod for tops at the position. After a great 2005, Jarrod's 3-for-3, 2B, HR outing yesterday has raised his numbers to respectable levels. But with Brian McCann at the League level, it will take a lot for Salty to knock down the door. The same is true for Jeff Clement, last year's third overall pick, watching as his .382 Texas League OBP is shrugged off thanks to Kenji Johjima.
Not only does Martin's defensive prowess promise to keep him behind the dish, but his organization does as well. Intrigues with Dioner Navarro be damned, Martin is creating his own timetable in Las Vegas. Currently, Martin has continued his patient and consistent ways (9/7 BB-K rate vs. 51 AB's), while merely showing traces of replacement level, big league power.
For the second straight season, April is proving to be a powerful month for Diamondback prospect Miguel Montero. Last year we saw Montero's breakout start out of the gates, and before long, he had been promoted out of the California League. Don't expect Arizona to be quite as trigger-happy in 2006, even given similar fantastic numbers. What is so amazing about Montero's start has been his balance of power (10 XBH's), contact (just 8 K's) and patience (13 walks).
Houston will, in all certainty, also soon be approaching the "to promote or not to promote' question, soon. Community college steal Justin Towles' start should remind some of Hunter Pence's 2005 beginning. However, Towles great start seems to emphasize the "sample size" warning more than that of Montero's or Pence's. Because while collecting 18 hits in 38 at-bats, Towles has just five extra-base hits, 2 walks, and has struck out eight times.
Other big starts include 2005 draftees Caleb Moore (.364/.397/.473, MIN) and Bryan Anderson (.412/.512/.500, STL), both showing high hit rates in the Midwest League. And don't forget the Brewers' Angel Salome, a 20-year-old with patience, budding power, and just three strikeouts in 65 at-bats. Finally, two former college draftees, Chris Iannetta and Kurt Suzuki, have also started on positives notes in 2006. Of the two, expect Iannetta's skillset, and future ballpark, to shine the brightest.
Conversely, no positional group is complete without the proper set of slump victims. Double-A "talents" like Miguel Perez (CIN) and Curtis Thigpen (TOR) are currently hitting .184 and .211, respectively. Brandon Snyder, a first-round pick last June (whom followed with a fantastic debut), has been a disappointment in the Orioles farm system with a .268 on-base percentage. Other '05 draftees, collegiate selections Chris Robinson and Nick Hundley, have been awful, as neither has a .250+ slugging percentage.
And finally, we'll close things out today with a ranking of the big ten catching prospects in the minors right now:
1. Jarrod Saltalamacchia - Braves
2. Russ Martin - Dodgers
3. Jeff Clement - Mariners
4. Neil Walker - Pirates
5. Miguel Montero - Diamondbacks
6. George Kottaras - Padres
7. Brandon Snyder - Orioles
8. Gaby Sanchez - Marlins
9. Justin Towles - Astros
10. Chris Iannetta - Rockies
11. Angel Salome - Brewers