One of the toughest positions to fill: catcher

June, 6, 2009
On Aug. 15, we will know the market value of Stephen Strasburg and Dustin Ackley. In negotiations with the Nationals, Strasburg will be compared to Daisuke Matsuzaka and Jose Contreras, and someday, somehow, Scott Boras and Mike Rizzo will come to an understanding on Strasburg. And while some wonder if the Mariners' ownership will give Jack Zduriencik the freedom to give Ackley -- and Boras -- more than $6 million, it likely will get done.

Boras has the hammer. He has the best pitcher and the best player in the draft. He has the Nationals and Mariners in serious PR spin modes, and if Howard Lincoln decides the Mariners don't need to spend $6 million-plus on a position player, Ackley will fall to the Pirates, who are expected to draft him.

This is an odd draft, because of the paucity of high-profile hitters. Some in the Padres camp would like to get toolsy Georgia high school outfielder Donavan Tate, but the price of buying him out of his North Carolina football scholarship may lead them to Vanderbilt lefty Mike Minor, or former Missouri right-hander Aaron Crow, who turned down the Nationals last year. Georgia high school right-hander Zack Wheeler, California high school lefty Tyler Matzek, North Carolina right-hander Alex White, St. Louis high school right-hander Jacob Turner (this year's Rick Porcello) and Kennesaw State right-hander Chad Jenkins are all fairly certain to be in the top 10. After that, there will be a few above-slot picks by clubs like the Yankees and Red Sox as the battles rage between the commissioner's office and those teams who are trying to stock their systems and protect themselves from the prison that is free-agent dependency.

Now, we know that the baseball draft is not instant gratification. Infielder Gordon Beckham of the White Sox and relievers Ryan Perry of the Tigers and Daniel Schlereth of the Diamondbacks are the only players from last year's draft currently in the majors. Since the Indians optioned Matt LaPorta to Columbus, the only current major league position player from the 2007 draft is Matt Wieters.

Strasburg may be close to being ready to pitch in the major leagues, but if it takes until the Aug. 15 deadline to get his deal completed, the time off may make it impossible for him to do anything but get a birdbath splash out of the Washington bullpen in September.

It's one thing to acquire a potential top-of-the-rotation starter, it's another to properly protect and develop him; Porcello has been a remarkable story fitting in as the Tigers' No. 3 starter in what would be his sophomore year in college (he wouldn't be eligible to be drafted until June 2010 had he gone to Chapel Hill), but as much as Jim Leyland and Rick Knapp have worked to protect him, Porcello is on a 170-inning pace that with the postseason could stretch toward 200 and bring back memories of Steve Avery.

Once again, one of the hardest positions to fill is catcher. Boston College's Tony Sanchez, California high school receiver Max Stassi and North Carolina high school backstop Wil Myers have all had their names thrown out as first-round/sandwich picks; Sanchez has been in consideration anywhere from the fourth pick to the 28th.

"It is the toughest position to develop," says one farm director. "It's the only position where you have to concentrate on what amounts to two jobs -- hitting and the complicated task of catching and handling a pitching staff. Very few kids have ever called pitches when they get signed, so they have to learn to do that and acquire a feel for the game. They have to work with pitchers. They have to do catching drills, like blocking balls. They have to prepare game plans and study video. And their legs take a beating far worse playing every day in pro ball than they ever did as amateurs, which can impact their hitting."

Wieters is an anomaly, and a reminder that the old Pittsburgh regime believed in slot over talent. Everyone thought Wieters had a chance to be a frontline major league catcher, but to get to the majors with only 169 games of minor league experience is exceptional. How exceptional?

He is the only one of the 30 current starting major league catchers who got to the majors with less than 200 games of professional experience. Here is a list of those who played the shortest amount of time in the minors:

Player Games
Matt Wieters (BAL) 169
Chris Iannetta (COL) 236
Ivan Rodriguez (HOU) 271
Chris Snyder (ARI) 281
Yadier Molina (StL) 297
Brian McCann (ATL) 304
Kurt Suzuki (OAK) 314
Nick Hundley (SDG) 316
Joe Mauer (MIN) 346

The Orioles are smart to give Wieters four months of learning how to work with major league pitchers and prepare for major league hitters. He'll have that experience when Jake Arrieta, Chris Tillman and Brian Matusz begin filtering in to join David Hernandez, Jeremy Guthrie, Rich Hill and the pitchers with whom Wieters can learn the rest of this season.

Wieters was also one of the rare sure things in the 2007 draft. In a 10-year period from 1994 to 2003, a dozen catchers went in the first round. Of those dozen, only three -- Jason Varitek, Ramon Castro and Mauer -- started more than 250 games in their major league careers.

For almost a year, the Red Sox looked under every rock from Presque Isle to Tucumcari for a young catcher, realizing that Varitek could leave for free agency and they didn't think they had catching in their system. Varitek has made a strong comeback. And right now, Mark Wagner has a .963 OPS (19 walks, 17 strikeouts, 17 extra-base hits) at Portland and has thrown out more than 50 percent of opposing baserunners, while at Salem and Greenville they have deemed Luis Exposito and Tim Federowicz (.885 OPS) prospects. "There's no comparable position in sports when it comes to patience," says Boston farm director Mike Hazen.

Another question worth studying is how much pitch recognition and plate discipline can be taught in the minor leagues. "I think plate discipline and recognition can be honed and developed," says one general manager. "But I think it is an innate skill." Indeed, Kevin Youkilis always had it. He is so driven and works so hard, he took his most important tool and worked hard to develop his physical tools.

A great case study is that of 19-year-old Marlins outfielder Mike Stanton, one of the most physically gifted prospects in the game. He is a 6-foot-6, 235-pound speedster who was a second-round pick in 2007, turned his back on a tight end scholarship to USC and hit 39 homers in Single-A last season at the age of 18.

Stanton had a .968 OPS and a .390 on-base percentage with 12 homers in the pitcher-friendly Florida State League before being sent to Double-A this week, now at the ripe age of 19. But what is most remarkable about Stanton -- and he would be a natural to be thrown into the Home Run Derby at the All-Star Game -- is that every month beginning in April 2008, his strikeout rates have declined and his walk rates have increased. His strikeout rate was 33.7 percent in April 2008; last month, it was 17.3 percent. His walk rate was 7.1 percent in April 2008; last month, it was 13.6 percent.

Stanton is a student of the game and works very hard at his craft. "Still," says one scout, "he has instincts for the sport that no one can teach. That, and the fact that he can hit balls 500 feet."

But if a young player doesn't have to address pitch recognition and plate discipline in the minors, can he learn on the major league level? The Angels are going through that process with Howie Kendrick, a potential batting champion whose inability to deal with the strike zone has resulted in a .229 average. It's hard to believe that Delmon Young has two extra-base hits and a .272 on-base percentage. Or that Jeff Francoeur has a .271 on-base percentage, .632 OPS and through Thursday had swung at the first pitch in 109 of 213 plate appearances.

Michael Bourn is a different kind of player than Young or Francoeur, who are supposed to be producers. Bourn is an ideal leadoff hitter because of his speed, but last year he had a .288 on-base percentage -- which rendered him essentially useless in that role -- and was inconsistent in making contact. Through hard work and discipline, he went into this weekend with a .369 on-base percentage and has become an important part of the Astros' offense in the leadoff position.

As of this weekend, Jason Bay and Nelson Cruz are 1-2 among American League outfielders in homers and extra-base hits, and seemingly certain to make the All-Star team. Talk about scenic routes:

Nelson Cruz

Jason Bay

A reminder that there is more to development than the first round:

Where the 2008 All-Stars came from
First round 22
Second round 8
Third round 3
Rounds 3-10 7
Rounds 11-25* 7
Latin American free agents 14
Japanese free agents 2
Independent leagues 1
*Brian Wilson 24th round, Nate McLouth 25th round

Yes, Orioles reliever George Sherrill went from the indies to Baltimore to the All-Star Game.


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