Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Up and Coming Catchers, Pt. 1

This is the first of what will be a four part examination of the AL Centrals glut of catching talent.

The position of catcher is one of the most difficult to fill in baseball. The job is extremely physically demanding and because of that, offense from the position is generally pretty rare - there is no position other than pitcher where players average a lower OPS. The players who are able to hit from that position are immediately thrust into the upper echelon. With that said, catcher will always be a defense first position. The catcher is responsible for putting together the game plan, calling the game, framing the pitches, controlling the running game, and serving as the pitchers therapist between innings.

The AL Central is lucky to be able to boast four of baseballs best young receiving prospects with Alex Avila in Detroit (Scouting Book #127), Carlos Santana in Cleveland (B.A. #10/B.P. #8/ESPN #3/ S.B. #14), Tyler Flowers in Chicago (B.A. #60/ B.P. #72/ S.B. #93), and Wilson Ramos in Minnesota (B.A. #58/ B.P. #65/ ESPN #42/ S.B #95).

Alex Avila

We'll begin with the lowest rated of the quartet, Alex Avila, and work our way up the lists. Avila got his first cup of coffee with the Tigers last year after sky-rocketing up the Tigers farm system (he was drafted in '08!). Avila had not yet played a single game at AAA, and had only 387 at-bats at AA before getting the call last year when the Tigers were in the midst of the playoff chase.

Defensively, Avila receives average to above-average grades. He threw out an impressive 44% of would be base stealers at AA last year but just 27% in the Majors and his game calling and receiving could still use some refinement. That said, Tigers Manager Jim Leyland loves Avila's tools and he'll definitely be the first option for a call-up should Gerald Laird - who was robbed of a Gold Glove last year by AL Central mate Joe Mauer - get injured or be ineffective.

Offensively Avila has shown terrific power potential, posting a .188 ISO in AA last year before raking 9 extra base hits (5 homers!) in just 72 at-bats with the Tigers last year for an ISO of .311. According to the scouts he still needs work against lefties, as he hit just .216 against them last year at AA. Also, as one might expect with someone pushed so aggressively, Avila has struggled mightily with strikeouts, doing so in 23.4% of his AA at-bats last year, and 29.5% of his at-bats in the Majors.

Avila's strong debut is being followed up with a similarly impressive spring training. This March Avila has hit .350 while raking 8 doubles in just 40 at-bats while showing an improved eye at the plate posting 7 walks against just seven strikeouts. That of course comes with the standard caveat that those are just spring training numbers and should be treated as such.

Avila is going to need some time in the minors to refine his game and learn how to hit breaking pitches as well as lefties, but if the Tigers are willing to be patient with him and let him make the adjustments that need to be made, he could have a very high ceiling given his power potential and solid defensive abilities. With another good season at AAA (where he can cut down on his strikeout rates), he'll vault to the upper reaches of the top prospects lists and be practically drop-kicking Laird into a job with another team next year.

If they rush him too much however, and he's never allowed to make the necessary adjustments, he's the sort of player who might never reach his full potential. While the Tigers will likely be in the thick of the AL Central race again this year, they'd be wise to play it as close to the vest as they can with this promising back-stop.

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