Saturday, April 3, 2010

Up and Coming Catchers, Pt. 4

This is the last of what will be a four part examination of the AL Centrals glut of catching talent. You can see parts one, two, and three at these links.

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).

Carlos Santana

Besides having a song named smooth with my favorite artist, Santana has a pretty smooth game behind the plate it would appear. Santana was acquired (along with Jonathan Meloan) in 2008 from the Dodgers for Casey Blake and while Indians fans have yet to see much return in that deal, things are about to change quickly. Converted to catcher after being drafted as a third baseman, Santana certainly seems to be adapting nicely.

While no one is expecting him to be the second coming of Johnny Bench, Santana still brings a very solid game behind the plate. Scouts praise his lateral mobility which pitchers should love. For their part, pitchers have praised his game calling abilities and receiving skills, and overall he's left his coaches impressed at every level of the minors. His arm isn't going to be top flight - he threw out just 30% in AA - but it should be better than that of Victor Martinez.

As a 24 year old who will be opening the season in AAA, he might not have the typical advancement you'd see amongst a top prospect, but that's primarily because it's taken an extra year or two for his defensive game to get caught up. Offensively, Santana is a force. I could choose to nit-pick his strikeout rates, but at 19.4% last year, they're nothing like those of prospects I profiled earlier such as Tyler Flowers or Alex Avila. And the rest of his game is so much more advanced. His walk rates have been consistently strong - his 16.% last year was hardly abnormal. His career minor league batting average of .287 is solid and consistent across the levels and his power is exploding. Last year he belted 23 home runs in just 428 at-bats. As he matures, he almost certainly has 30 home run power (or more) at the Major League level. I could very easily see Santana developing into a .280/.380/.500 force behind the plate for years to come.

If there are concerns about Santana, it would be his size. At just 170lbs he's not by any means big, and one has to wonder if he's big enough to hold up to the kind of constant punishment catchers receive all year long. So far though, those concerns have been for naught as he's stayed healthy almost without exception from day one.

To open 2010 the Indians will have Santana at AAA to get a little more seasoning, but realistically, he could probably come up right now and make an impact at the Major League level. One almost has to assume that given their current options - Lou Marson will be the starter to open the seasons - that having Santana in AAA to open the year is about little more than preventing him from reach super-two status. Not that there is anything particularly wrong with that. The Indians need to be cost conscious and in a season where they aren't likely to be competing for a playoff spot, I see little harm in the decision. However I fully expect Carlos to be with the team in June and logging the lions share of the teams minutes behind the plate come July.

While it's unlikely that any of the catchers in the group I've spent the past few days discussing is of the caliber of the Twins Joe Mauer, as a whole, they have the potential to make the AL Central the strongest division for catchers in all of baseball.

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