Saturday, 4 October 2008

Farm Report: Catchers

Continuing my series of posts looking at the Jays' best prospects, position-by-position, I come to the offensive position at which the Jays enjoy the most depth. So well stocked are the Jays here that (a) they dealt their former top prospect at the position in August; and (b) this list will be more than five players long. But that doesn't mean that all these players are sure fire major leaguers. After the top two, there are question marks about the rest, but at least they are players with something that makes them notable, not always the case at other positions.

It would not be fair to make this list without mentioning the departed Robinzon Diaz. Diaz first caught the eye of prospect watchers at the age of 19 when he posted a .929 OPS in under 200 ABs. Since then his OPS has consistently fluctuated in the low-to-mid .700's and he's never posted over 4 HR in a season or more than 25 XBH. He doesn't walk or strike out much. His high regard as a prospect has always been "potential" and not results. If I'm not making this clear - let me: he was always over-rated as a prospect and we will NOT miss him. Cool name or no.

Now, on with the list.

1. JP Arencibia - 23, 6'1" 215, 2007 1st round

Few prospects, beyond Travis Snider, have captured the imagination of Jays fans like JPA. That's probably more a reflection of just how very bad this franchise has been at developing productive offensive catchers than it is the potential all-star abilities Arencibia may or may not have. If you go back and remind yourself that Ernie Whitt was an expansion draftee, and Pat Borders was a very bad hitter his whole career (except one very important week) then you realize the Greg Myers is the only even decent hitter at the position the Jays have ever produced. JP Arencibia stands to be potentially the best ever in this weak field.

The book on him out of Tennessee was that he was a great power hitter to all fields, but that his defense was very much a work in progress. As a pro he's been everything the Jays could have wanted as a hitter, and more - though he definitely has work to do on pitch recognition. Behind the plate, he's gotten much praise for the speed at which his defense has improved. He was always rated as having a strong arm, while his footwork was said to be poor. The Jays thought that was a teachable skill and so far they are impressed. Still, it's not impossible that JPA might eventually be tried at the hot corner if the Jays' 3B prospects falter and their other catchers impress. But there's no indication any such effort is remotely under consideration now. The Jays seem to think he'll be an at least competent major league defender, such that you can keep his prolific bat behind the plate where its value is maximized.

That said, Jays fans are perhaps a tad bit ahead of themselves on being impressed with his bat.

YES, Arencibia hit 27 home runs between Dunedin and AA this year. But his .798 OPS at AA was not a ready-for-prime-time result. Jays fans seem to think that JPA will start 2009 in AAA and be on the bubble to get promoted to the majors at any time. I disagree. I think, especially in light of the Jays now fielding a AAA team in the Pacific Coast League, that Arencibia will spend the first couple of months in AA and if he performs well there, then get the promotion to AAA. Be prepared to be impressed with his numbers in the hitter friendly PCL, but don't let that fool you into thinking JPA is the next Mike Piazza. He MAY be, but much less impressive major leaguers had nice power numbers in the minors. None other than Rod Barajas hit 23 HR in High-A ball at 22. So be optimistic, hope for an All-Star, of course. But also be prepared to accept him as a good mid-range offensive catcher, like for instance a faster Benji Molina.
And don't count on him being a regular major leaguer until 2010.

ETA: September 2009

2. Brian Jeroloman - 24, 6'0" 195, 2006 6th round.

In many ways, Jeroloman is the polar opposite of Arencibia. His defensive is superlative, such that many said he would have been among the best in the majors two years ago. His offense, however, was and is a work in progress. That said, the improvements in Jero's bat parallel those in JPA's defense. The one offensive skill Jeroloman has in spades is exactly the one Arencibia yet lacks - the ability to draw the free pass. In 2007, Jeroloman drew an astounding 85 walks in 100 games at Dunedin. For a hitter who only delivered 17 XBH in those 100 games that's just nuts. In 2008, Jeroloman increased his slugging percentage and lost very little of his OBP, but he's still never going to be an impressive hitter.

As a major league starter, you'd be thinking Brad Ausmus, or Brian Schneider, or Mike Matheny, only with a better OBP. But he's also - like the aforementioned - the kind of guy who can have a long major league career even if he never puts bat on ball in an impressive fashion because his glove is just that good. Depending on who the Jays sign to back up Barajas, and how that person works out in 2009, you could see Jeroloman as the back-up for the Jays as early as mid-season in 2009, but when Arencibia is ready, his bat is likely to carry him into the starting role and if Jeroloman remains with the Jays, it will be in the reserve role.

ETA: July/August 2009

3. Curtis Thigpen - 26, 5'11" 190, 2004 2nd round

For the last three consecutive years, Baseball America ranked Thigpen among the Jays top 10 prospects. He was never regarded as a potential all-star, but he seemed a safe bet to be a decent contributor to the Jays future. After his 2008 season, we can safely predict that Thigpen won't be on anyone's top prospect list. While his 2007 season wasn't up to his previous standards, most thought it was the sort of decline some players - especially catchers - tend to have in their first pass at AAA. But his 2008 was about as bad an offensive year as he could have possibly had and without significant injury. His OPS in Syracuse was a miserable .577 and he was consistently poor throughout the season. That said, Cito Gaston was reasonably impressed with his defense, and there's a reasonable possibility that Thigpen could open the season as Barajas' caddy. There is a not insubstantial possibility that the Jays' three-headed hitting coach crew will be able to figure out how to get Thigpen up to at least a marginal level with the bat.

ETA: 2009

4. Joel Collins - 23, 6'1" 195, 2007 10th round

Collins is a bit of a mystery. Every report I've seen on him says hes got skills on both sides of the ball, yet the Jays kept him at short season Auburn almost the entire season where he was clearly not being challenged offensively (he had a .913 OPS) and often he found himself as the DH in favor of other players. On the one hand, you want to believe the good reports, on the other, you can't ignore that he was pretty much the same age as Arencibia and still in short-season ball. Compounding the situation is the fact that the promotions throughout the system turn off of the needs of Arencibia. That means that traffic backs up behind him and that's not good for any prospect that needs to be challenged. Still, Collins HAS to be at Lansing to start the season and it'd be in his best interests to be in Dunedin before the end of the year.

IF he makes the majors, he'll be a marginal back-up unless he makes a very surprising development.

ETA: late 2012/early 2013

5. Jonathan Talley - 20, 6'4, 220, 2007 13th round

The left-handed hitting Talley hit for noticeable power in rookie ball, but his K rate was way too high. He's said to be a pretty good fielder but it's an easy observation that he's big for a catcher. My guess would be that if Talley progresses well enough with his bat, the day will come when he finds himself a first baseman. It'll be interesting to see how he hits at Lansing next year. In fact, it'll be interesting to see where he plays given the need for Collins to be behind the plate and the equally pressing need to see other prospects at 1B.

6. Jon Jaspe - 24, 5'11" 200, signed as undrafted FA in 2003

The Venezuelan switch hitter was also a bit old for his level, even for a catcher, but he was having a breakout offensive season with the bat before an August swoon. It's hard to say to what extent August "normalized" his production, and to what extent he can be judged to have become an offensive prospect based on the rest of his season (he had an .850 OPS as of July 31). This was an important season for Jaspe as he was handed a 50 game steroid ban in 2007 and he needed to prove his pop was legit. On the other hand, I've not found much information about the quality of the man's defense.

Jaspe will be In Dunedin to start the season, I suspect, but there will be some competition for playing time with the next man on our list, who's half a step ahead of Jaspe on the organizational ladder. One of the two would like to be the guy who gets to go to AA when Arencibia moves up to Las Vegas. It's hard to get a read on what kind of major leaguer Jaspe will be, but I think it's legitimate to call him a prospect.

ETA: 2012

7. Matt Liuzza - 25, 5'11" 220, 2006 19th round

Liuzza is ranked this low for the sole reason that he was too old for his level by any measure. On sheer ability, he may be the third best catcher in the system, but it's hard to get a read on a 24 year old who split his season in two levels of A Ball. Still, the right-handed hitting Liuzza posted a .789 OPS at Lansing before a late July promotion to Dunedin where he started slow for a week or so before closing out like gangbusters - posting an .815 OPS in August at the higher level, that mostly due to the fact that he drew 15 walks in 20 games. An on-base skill level he had not previously exhibited. So a healthy degree of skepticism about the man's hitting ability is warranted. Still, he was voted the best defensive catcher by the coaches in the MWL so he's not without talent.

All things considered, however, Liuzza gives the impression of being the next Eric Kratz. His ceiling may be in the Ken Huckaby/Jason Phillips category of player.

ETA: perhaps a series of brief call-ups starting in 2013

I'll also mention in passing that the Jays drafted a catcher in the 9th round of the 2008 draft named Antonio Jimenez who was said to be a mild steal for that low a pick. that said, I do not know enough about the Puerto Rican to give you much more than this - he was BA's 200th ranked player going into the draft, with the potential to move higher, but for an elbow injury just before the draft. He's one to watch next season.

Next time - Outfielders



Anonymous said...

Another great post Will; BTW, JP mentioned on one of his WWJP episodes that JPA would start the year in AAA. Even though he struggled down the stretch he did hit well (excluding the aforementioned low BB rates) in AA and I don't necessarily think JP feels he needs any more seasoning at the AA level. I think he deserves a chance to be in the majors around June at the earliest and as a September callup at the latest, barring injury. So even if he's being slightly rushed, I hope he starts in AAA.

The Southpaw said...

the only thing that worries me about that is that Vegas might tend to reinforce bad habits in terms of concentrating on power hitting above all else...I might be overthinking it.

Certainly he can't supplant RB fast enough to suit me, so long as he's legit when he gets here.

Brian McCann came straight from AA and I could certainly like having someone that good behind the plate (not that I'm saying he is - I don't know how we'd know that yet)