Impact Prospects for 2011: The Catchers | Rob Leibowitz
Welcome to the 2011 edition of "The Prospector." The Prospector focuses, of course, on minor leaguers who will have an impact on the current and future MLB seasons from a fantasy perspective. Over the rest of the pre-season I will focus specifically on players who will make an impact on the 2011 season, on a position by position basis.
For strategy purposes, to give you a better understanding of my choices and focus here, for redraft leagues, this is a no-brainer. You need to know who may actually get plate appearances and innings this year. You don't care about tomorrow. Now I'm not saying, pass up potential stars like Bryce Harper who will offer plenty of trade leverage on their own, I'm saying from a more general perspective, you want to focus on the now. For keeper leaguers, focusing on 2011 impact players is also a wise move. If you are going to be in contention, just like redraft leagues, you are seeking plate appearances and innings. That gives you the option of either sticking with that prospect and trying to have your cake and eat it, or taking that asset and dealing it to a non-contender for more established and good players, who are perhaps not so keepable in terms of price or coming to the end of a long-term contract. Deals of this nature, in my experience, usually work with an equation of one good prospect for two non-keepable veterans.
Getting to the prospects, we're going to work our way around the diamond, starting this week with catchers.
Arencibia: all thump, no hit
Baltimore has a catcher by the name of Matt Wieters, but although he has struggled, he is unlikely to be unseated anytime soon. Nevertheless, Caleb Joseph is a name to be noted as a potential in-season call-up should a playing time opportunity arise. He struggled to hit last year and is now 24 years old, but has a good track record as a contact hitter with mid-teens/season home run power. Despite hitting .235, he still managed a .301 OBP and hit 11 home runs and his defense is adequate enough to get him a nod as a potential back-up.
At the beginning of 2010 it looked just like a matter of time before Tyler Flowers would grab the starting catching job from A.J. Pierzynski. Instead, he hit just .220 in Triple-A, but did manage a respectable .334 OBP while hitting 16 home runs. His right-handedness and accompanying high strikeout rates are what hold him back offensively and may ultimately make him a right-handed platoon player. It also does not help that he is defensively best suited to being a DH or to playing first base. Flowers is likely to return to Triple-A to start the season with Pierzynski and Ramon Castro returning, but this is still a player with good on-base skills and legitimate 25+ home run power, and that cannot be ignored from someone who qualifies at catcher.
The Royals will enter 2011 once again with the duo of Jason Kendall and Brayan Pena. Kendall may begin 2011 on the disabled list, so there is a fair chance there will be an opening on the 25-man roster. Late last season, acquired Lucas May from the Dodgers. Though 26, May offers more power than either of the other KC options and has fair plate discipline to boot. However, though he has a strong arm, he is not the equal of the other in-house options defensively. Should the Royals tire of their lack of offense from their catcher position (Kendall .318 OBP and Pena .306 OBP in 2010), they could indeed turn to May, so keep an eye on that situation, especially if he makes the club while Kendall is laid up and impresses with the bat.
Hank Conger is one of the few options here who may have a shot at winning an opening day job and has a greater chance than most of claiming the everyday job by mid-season. While he projects as an average defender at best, Conger is a switch-hitter who combines mid-teens and growing power with very advanced plate discipline skills. Right now he is a line-drive hitter who walks over 10% of the time while making contact roughly 85% of the time. Like most catchers, he is not much of a runner, so that may sap away what could otherwise be a potential .300 batting average skill set to the .280s. The Angels current options ahead of him are both right-handed hitters and include the no-hit, good-glove Jeff Mathis, and the good-hit, no-glove Mike Napoli. Ideally, Conger's skills will fall right in between these two, making him the #1 option on the club in the long term.
Up until Russell Martin signed, Jesus Montero was jumping towards the top of the 2011 overall prospect impact lists, but now his ETA is uncertain. The Yankees, however, can afford to be patient. After all, as a 20-year-old he hit 21 home runs while making good contact (just over a 20% strikeout rate) for a power hitter while showing improving plate discipline. The Yankees have no openings at first or DH and are perfectly content to see if Montero can indeed improve his catching defense. Montero has shown even better contact-hitting skills in the past and is still a potential .300, 30+ home run hitter in the Majors, so there is plenty of reason here for excitement. Martin and Jorge Posada have their individual injury histories and are far from a given to stay healthy all of 2011. Furthermore, both are free agents after 2011, so the Yankees' intentions are indeed clear that they would like to give Montero the catching and/or DH job in the future. The one thing Montero owners need to keep in mind is that the Yankees are buyers. If they are in contention, they could easily choose to trade for a veteran to DH or catch, rather than entrust the job to the rookie.
Montero is not the only catcher close to the Majors in the Yankees' system. Austin Romine could also advance to Triple-A and projects to actually stick behind the plate. I am slightly skeptical of his bat in the long run, however, as he is more of a low to mid-teens home run hitter who has been watching his strikeout rates rise over the past three seasons without a complimentary increase in power. This is not a good sign for a right-handed hitter. His defensive skills, however, could give him an edge and could perhaps get him a call-up prior to Montero.
Josh Donaldson received a cup of coffee or two with the A's last year, but did not stick. The 25-year is a former 2007 first round pick of the Cubs and was acquired by the A's in the Rich Harden deal in 2008. His professional career has had its ups and downs, but throughout he has shown potential as an offensive catcher with above average patience and power with mid-teens, if not high-teens to low-20s home run power. His focus on hitting the long-ball, however, has robbed him of his earlier good contact rates, rising as high as 27% in 2010. He has some potential defensively and could be an average receiver in the long run, but to be more than a platoon player, he'll need to cut the strikeout rates back down and become a bit more balanced offensively. He could beat out Landon Powell for the back-up role and should Kurt Suzuki repeat his .303 OBP of 2010, Donaldson could get a long look.
The Rays recently acquired Robinson Chirinos from the Cubs in the Matt Garza deal. He is a converted infielder and came late to catching and is now 26 years old. However, he has made himself an adequate defender and his offensive profile is extremely compatible with that of John Jaso as a potential platoon partner. Jaso, despite a breakthrough 2010, hit under .200 against lefties and struck out twice as often against them as he did righties. Chirinos, over his last two minor league seasons, has walked as often, if not more often than he has struck out while making contact around 87% of the time while hitting 11 home runs in 2009 and 18 in 2010. Were Kelly Shoppach not still under contract, a Jaso/Chirinos platoon would be a reality already for 2011. Considering how Jaso emerged after languishing in the Rays' farm system for awhile all of a sudden, one cannot write off the possibility that Chirinos could do the same.
J.P. Arencibia is the one rookie catcher with a job as his to lose entering spring training. That said, I stand by what I said in the "The Fantasy Baseball Guide for 2011" and that is "J.P. Arencibia is Rod Barajas minus the defense." That really sums it up. Yes, he has 25-plus, if not 30-plus home run per season power. But we are talking about a sub-par defender who hits right-handed, is not a selective hitter, and who strikes out a quarter or more of the time. The likely result is .230 or worse batting average with good home run figures. If you own him, prepare for some fairly extreme streak-hitting behavior.
Max Ramirez is currently on the Cubs. Last week he was on the Rangers, then the Red Sox. I had hoped the Red Sox would have been able to get him to clear waivers and be sent outright to the minors where he would then be a potential mid-season call-up for an organization that is weak at the catching position. If the Cubs are able to get him through waivers, there are too many obstacles in his way for him to obtain playing time. His defense is fairly awful and he is yet another right-handed hitter catcher who strikes out often, but he is a more selective hitter than Arencibia and has similar power potential.
A year ago, Devin Mesoraco was well on the way to be considered a failed first round pick. Instead, his bat came completely alive as he played at three minor league levels, hitting 26 home runs with a combined .302/.377/.587 line. Only upon reaching Triple-A over a small sample did he strike out more than 20% of the time. He rates a bit better defensively than Jesus Montero and could potentially stay behind the plate, but the jury has not yet reached a verdict on that score. Ramon Hernandez is merely a stop-gap and is an aging player who has dealt with injury problems each of the past two seasons. Do not be surprised to see Mesoraco up before he turns 23 in June.
The Rockies have a pair of 2011 possibilities in Wilin Rosario and Mike McKenry. For now the Rockies will give Chris Iannetta one more chance to hold down the job, but both of these players could challenge his playing time. Rosario is considered the superior long-term prospect, but McKenry is closer to the Majors. Rosario will make it to the Majors on the strength of his defense alone, but did also hit 19 home runs as a 21-year-old in Double-A. While he made contact just under 80% of the time, his selectivity does need some improvement. Right now I see him as a .260 to .280s type with 20+ home run potential. McKenry does not have quite Rosario's power, but does have mid-teens or better home run per season potential in his bat. From 2007 to 2009 he showed great discipline, striking out less than 20% of the time while walking 12% or more of the time. 2010 was a bit of a regression as he struck out 22% of the time while walking only 8.3% and hitting just .265/.328/.424 despite playing in hitter-friendly Colorado Springs. McKenry will turn 26 prior to the start of the season, so while once he might have been considered a potential starter, he may now be on more of a back-up or part-time player path. Given how much flux the catcher situation has been in Colorado over the years, I would not write him off yet by any means.
Possible MLB Phase Draft/Auction Selections:
J.P. Arencibia, Hank Conger
Possible Minor League Draft Phase Selections:
Devin Mesoraco, Jesus Montero, Wilin Rosario
Possible In-Season FAAB Pick-Ups
Robinson Chirinos (TB), Josh Donaldson (OAK), Tyler Flowers (CWS), Caleb Joseph (Balt), Lucas May (KC), Mike McKenry (COL), Max Ramirez (CHC), Austin Romine (NYY)
Missing the Cut
Two players who could easily soar to the top of the list in the future are Derek Norris (WAS) and Tony Sanchez (PIT). Both players, however, will first both be moving up to Double-A this season after both missing considerable time in 2010 due to injury. It is very likely, as talented as both these players are, that they will spend the entirety of 2011 at Double-A and may not get their first tastes of the majors until mid to late 2012 and not be full-time players until 2013. So while you should consider both of them in the later rounds of your minor league drafts, depending on what else is available, keep in mind that it's a fair bet, that if you're an active owner, that they may never see your team's active roster, as they will end up trade bait.
As always, if there are any second basemen who were not included in this piece who you like me to discuss, feel free to comment below or to post to the Mastersball.com forums.