Position: C Height: 6-0 Weight: 180 Born: 3/31/83 Bats: Right Throws: Right
Joe Mauer is universally regarded as the best catching prospect in baseball. But Angels farmhand Jeff Mathis isn't far behind. I've mentioned him a few times this summer in Down on the Farm mailbags, but it's time to do a full write-up on him. Mathis was drafted with a supplemental first-round pick in 2001, out of high school in Marianna, Florida. Considered athletic but somewhat raw when drafted, he's emerged faster than expected, and more than held his own following an August promotion to Double-A.
Mathis' athletic tools stand out. He played mostly shortstop and pitcher in high school, catching during his senior year because he was the only guy on his team who could handle pitcher Alan Horne, who was chosen by the Indians in the first round in '01. Defensively, Mathis shows good mobility and leadership skills. He has a strong arm, but he sometimes has problems with his release. He hasn't thrown out runners at a great clip this year, though it wasn't a problem in '02. He does everything else well, and is working hard to improve his catching fundamentals (blocking, game-calling, etc). His work ethic is rated as exceptional.
On offense, Mathis has good pop in his bat, and does a fine job driving the ball to the opposite field. He could use additional plate discipline, but his strikeout rate is reasonable, and he is difficult to overpower. He actually showed better discipline in Double-A than in Class A, a good sign. Mathis will never steal many bases, but he runs well for a catcher, and isn't a base clogger.
Mathis has averaged 40 doubles and 11 homers in his first two full years, and has proven he can hit for average. His home run power should increase gradually. He handled Double-A pitching without difficulty at age 20, the marker of an excellent prospect. He led the Midwest League in catching fielding percentage in 2002, while throwing out 37 percent of runners.
Weird injuries have cost him playing time. Mathis' 2001 debut season was cut short with a broken hand, and his '02 campaign was closed early by a broken cheekbone. He's recovered fully from both injuries, but nagging wounds are something every catcher must deal with. Such events often stall the development of young catchers, but so far Mathis has shown no signs of Young Catcher Offensive Stagnation Syndrome.
What to expect
Mathis is probably a year away from the major leagues. He needs time to put the additional finishing touches on both his offense and defense, and will benefit from extra Double-A and Triple-A exposure. But he has the complete package of skills that teams look for in a young catcher, and the Angels will give him every opportunity to succeed. Mathis' name may crop up in trade rumors, but don't expect Anaheim to part with him in anything short of a blockbuster deal.
John Sickels is the author of the 2003 Baseball Prospect Book, which can be ordered from his Web site, JohnSickels.com. His biography of Bob Feller will be published this fall by Brassey's. He lives in Lawrence, Kansas, with his wife, son, and two cats. You can send John questions or comments at JASickels@aol.com.