I can see three potential future stars and a handful of MLB regulars in this deep class of catching prospects. The wild card of this crop is the talented High School catching class of the 2009 draft and we'll know more about them after their first taste of full season ball this year. However, it wouldn't be much fun to release this list in September when their seasons are complete. More accurate maybe, but not as much fun. My rankings are based heavily on a player's ceiling and the probability of him reaching that ceiling. To be honest, there is quite a bit of subjectivity in my rankings. I try to be objective in evaluating all players on a specific set of criteria but I'm guilty of subjectively selecting the criteria that I feel is most important in evaluating players.
BATS -THROWS - HEIGHT - WEIGHT - D.O.B.
1. Carlos Santana - B-R - 5'11 190 - CLE - 4.8.86. Santana will turn 24 during the first week of the 2010 season where he'll begin in AAA Columbus and likely finish in Cleveland. Acquired from the Dodgers in exchange for Casey Blake in 2008, Santana is now Cleveland's #1 prospect for the 2nd year in a row. His outstanding BB rate (17.4%) and his BB/K ratio (1.08) are just two of the reasons why I feel he's the top overall catching prospect in baseball. Last year's Eastern League MVP is an advanced hitter who punishes pitches in the zone and has the ability to recognize and lay off poor offerings. He has a plus arm and should develop into an above average defensive catcher. Relatively new to catching after a 2006 move from third base, Santana still has to refine his receiving and his game calling abilities. A switch hitter who hits better from the right side (.329) he is still respectable (.270) from the left. Santana broke his hamate bone in his right hand in winter ball. He’s expected to be ready by opening day but his power could take a significant hit in the first half of the season.
2. Jesus Montero - R-R - 6'4 225 - NYY - 11.28.89. A seven figure bonus baby signed out of Venezuela in 2006, Montero handled both high A and AA as a 19 year old in 2009 while getting raves from scouts about his hit tools. Montero has pretty advanced hitting ability, and pretty weak defensive ability. He increased his BB rate lowered his K rate and saw his power numbers increase across the board in 2009. His best position is DH and I don't see him developing into an even below average MLB receiver in his career. Like Royals slugger Billy Butler a few years ago, his bat will find him a position in the major league lineup and he'll crush enough to stick around when he arrives. Montero has also drawn Miguel Cabrera comparisons.
3. Buster Posey - R-R - 6'1 205 - SF - 3.27.87. If my name were Gerald Demp Posey III, I'd use a nickname too. Gerald destroyed pitching and especially LHP (.440 ave.) in High A San Jose in 2009. Posey, who skipped AA to allow ultralight hitting catcher Jackson Williams to keep playing every day, held his own in AAA then became an observer down the stretch after being called up to San Francisco to light a fire under Bengie Molina. Gerald has franchise player potential, but the Mets failure to sign Molina means Posey won't make the team out of spring training. That's likely a good thing as he showed a lack of polish behind the plate in the AFL. Power was supposed to be a question mark as a pro but he managed a .531 SLG last year with 18 HR, 80 RBI and 31 2B. He also displayed a .213 Isolated Power (ISO = SLG-AVE) average during his stint in High A. To put that into prospective, Johnny Bench had a career .208 ISO. To put that prospective into prospective, Johnny Bench didn't play his career in the hitter friendly California League.
4. Will Myers - R-R - 6'3 190 - KC - 12.10.90. Regarded as a 1st round talent in the 2009 draft out of a North Carolina H.S., Myers slipped to Kansas City in the 3rd round because of signability concerns. The Royals lured him away from his South Carolina commitment for $2MM. Myers gets high marks for his power and gave us a taste with 5 HR in his first 84 professional ABs. His arm is also a plus tool which will benefit him behind the dish but it will also allow him position flexibility if catching doesn't work out. He played all over the field in HS so his receiving skills need some serious refinement at this point. Catchers develop slowly, especially when drafted out of HS so predicting a MLB debut date would be futile. He should get the same opening assignment that Mike Moustakas and Eric Hosmer received when they were drafted out of HS and go to Low A Burlington in the Midwest League. Let's hope he starts faster than they did in the cold weather.
5. Derek Norris - R-R - 6'0 210 - WAS - 2.14.89. The reader is going to find that I love guys who can draw walks and Norris can do just that. He led the South Atlantic League in walks last season with 90 and has maintained a high BB rate (16.9 in 07, 21.7 in 08 and 17.1 in 09) throughout his professional career. He saw a jump in power last year as he went from 10 HR in 08 to 23 in 09. Similar to Santana, Posey and Myers he has a plus arm and he's a poor receiver. He's still a few years away from being ready but his bat is a good bet to make him an MLB regular.
6. Tyler Flowers - R-R - 6'4 220 - CWS - 1.24.86. The key piece that the White Sox received from Atlanta in the Javier Vazquez trade of 2008, Flowers posted an outstanding .302/.445/.548 in AA Birmingham last year while surprisingly being voted the top defensive catcher in the Southern League by the league's managers. His performance earned him a promotion to AAA Charlotte and then to the South Side. Flowers arm, size and athleticism limit him defensively but he takes pride in catching and gets rave reviews for his game calling ability and developing a rapport with pitchers. His bat is advanced enough right now that he could help the Pale Hose and spell A.J. Pierzynski v. tough lefties and we know GM Kenny Williams will do what he feels is best for the team in 2010. The best decision for Flowers however, would be to start him at AAA where he can continue to refine his defense.
7. Tony Sanchez - R-R - 6'0 220 - PIT - 5.20.88. Rated as a fringe 1st rounder or supplemental round pick out of Boston College heading into the 2009 draft, the Pirates drafted Sanchez 4th overall and signed him for $2.5MM. It was a strategic move that paid double as the Bucs used the money they saved to sign several later round prospects away from their college commitments, and also Sanchez exceeded expectations. There is nothing about Sanchez that says he'll be an MLB star, making his ceiling fairly low, however he's a good bet to reach that ceiling. He's pretty advanced behind the dish possessing a good arm and solid receiving skills. Sanchez showed good patience and power in Low A WV last year (.976 OPS). If he can continue to get on base, he'll provide reinforcements to Andrew McCutchen and Pedro Alvarez on the 2011/2012 Pirates teams if they haven't already been traded.
8. Jason Castro - L-R - 6'3 210 - HOU - 6.18.87. Another catcher that was considered a stretch when he was selected, this time with the 10th overall selection in the 2008 draft. He's another catcher on this list that has proved critics wrong in his short pro career. I've only been able to see Castro play a few times and it's only been on TV, however his approach looked pretty advanced when he helped Stanford advance to the CWS in 2008 and again during the 2009 Futures Game when he homered off of Toronto prospect Luis Perez. A left-handed hitter, he handles lefties and righties equally and his patient approach is a good indicator that he'll hit at the next level although he's not expected to hit for much power. Castro is a pretty advanced receiver and could be the everyday catcher in Houston by the 2nd half of 2010.
9. Christian Bethancourt - R-R - 6-2 175 - ATL - 9.2.91. When he was 16, Bethancourt signed for $600M out of Panama as the top catching prospect in the international signing class of 2008. A future Gold Glove candidate, Bethancourt has superior arm strength, athleticism and leadership skills. He's naturally raw as a receiver but that's to be expected at his age given that he has grown 2 inches and gained 15 lbs since signing. While still more free-swinging than I'd like, he does show more patience than most teenage international signees. He had a BB rate of 9.1% which was also the MLB average for all position players in 2009. He'll have to keep his K's in check but his numbers in that department are not yet alarming. His power numbers made a jump from '08 to '09 and he even stole 8 bases last year. He'll get his first taste of full season ball for Rome in the Low A South Atlantic League.
10. Hank Conger - B-R - 6'0 205 - LAA - 1.29.88. A first round pick in 2006, Conger has been troubled with injuries ever since, catching only 91 games in his first three seasons. He stayed healthy in 2009, catching 87 games and punishing AA pitching. A switch hitter, he hits well from both sides of the plate. Hank showed impressive improvement in his plate discipline this year as his BB rate jumped from 4.5% to 10.7% and his BB/K ratio jumped from 0.25 to 0.81. It's slightly troubling however that his power numbers declined as his patience improved. He slugged .517 in the hitter friendly California League in 2008 but only managed a .424 number last season in the AA Texas League and his ISO dropped from .214 to .129. Despite his un-athletic frame and injury history, Conger receives well and has a strong arm however his footwork is sloppy and that leads to poor throws. I've been a Conger doubter in the past and I surely didn't expect his rebound last season, so I honestly don't know what to expect. Ranking him 10th in a talented group of catchers means I'm starting to come around.
11. Max Stassi - R-R - 5'10 205 - OAK - 3.15.91. Rated as the best pure HS hitter of the 2009 draft by Baseball America, Stassi’s price tag and commitment to UCLA caused him to slip in the draft but Oakland selected and signed him for a 4th round record of $1.5MM. He projects to hit for power and average while using the whole field. He impressed scouts with pitch recognition in his brief appearance in short season Vancouver last season. He was limited with a shoulder issue in HS so he spent much of his senior season as a DH. The A's feel that he'll be able to stay behind the plate as a pro and that he’ll be an above average defensive catcher. He’ll make his full season debut at low A Kane County of the Midwest League where the cold weather could slow his start.
12. Travis D'Arnaud - R-R - 6'2 195 - TOR - 2.10.89. Ontario bound as part of the Roy Hallady trade, D'Arnaud moves in front of J.P. Arencibia as the Blue Jays catcher of the future. Travis' brother Chase is an infielder in the Pirates system. Travis had a pedestrian .418 SLG last season but he managed 13 HR and led the Sally league with 38 2Bs. D'Arnaud needs quite a bit of refinement behind the plate but the tools are there. His arm rates as above average.
13. Jonathan Lucoy - R-R - 6'1 205 - MIL - 6.13.86. Lucoy is one of my favorite underrated prospects. He draws walks (15.7%) and makes pretty consistent contact while possessing a strong arm and throwing out a lot of runners (41% at AA Huntsville in 2009). Lucoy maintained an impressive 1.18 BB/K ratio last season but he also saw a significant drop in power this past season going from 20 HR in 2008 to just 9 last season and his SLG dropped from .490 to .418. He'll move to AAA Nashville this season and should debut in Milwaukee at some point after the break.
14. Wilin Rosario - R-R - 5'11 195 - COL - 2.23.89. Just as I love guys who have the ability to draw walks, I tend to be down on guys that can't. Rosario drew just 10 walks in 213 plate appearances last season. He has a quick bat and is a good fastball hitter but he won't offer much power. Rosario ranks as my top defensive catcher on this list possessing solid footwork and a plus arm. That arm is also accurate as evidenced by the 46% of base runners he threw out in 2008 and the 47% in 2009.
15. Austin Romine - R-R - 6'2 210 - NYY - 11.22.88. A 2nd round selection from California HS in 2007, Romine, not Montero, is the Yankees catcher of the future. He has a cannon for an arm and likes to use it. He's not yet a good receiver as he reportedly has trouble handling velocity. He showed solid power with a .441 SLG, 13 HR and 28 2B in High A Tampa last season but he'll have to improve his poor walk rate (6.2%) if he wants that power to continue.
Sleeper - Josh Phegley - R-R - CHW - 5'10 215. Phegley was 2nd in the nation in batting (behind Buster Posey) as a sophomore at Indiana, and had a productive junior season as well. Selected by the White Sox 38th overall in June, Phegley showed power in low A belting 9HR in 196 AB but he did struggle defensively committing 7 errors and 11 passed balls in just 47 games. He does possess a strong arm but poor footwork can sometimes cause his throws to sail.
Overrated - Wilson Ramos - R-R - 6'0 220 - MIN - 8.10.87. More HR (7) than BB (6) in 2009. How can that happen? Ramos edges out J.P. Arencibia as my most overrated catching prospect. He's a good hitter with plus power but his lack of plate discipline will be exploited in Rochester. With some guy named Joe Mauer locking down the catcher position in Minnesota, Ramos will likely spend all season in AAA.