Prospect Previews: Catchers 1-5

This is just silly.   The top three are all worthy of a number one rating and there are three or four more who would normally belong in the top five but didn’t make the cut.

5)   Leonel de Los Santos — 18 YO (RH)  (2006 International FA)

Macumba21_2 A small kid with a huge arm signed out of Yasasa, Venezuela, De Los Santos turned 18 more than a month after the 2007 season ended.   He spent the  bulk of the summer with the DSL club where he hit .263 / .333 / .395 in 114 at-bats, drawing eight walks while fanning 19 times.   He also fared well in a four-game cameo with the AZL club.   

While his performance at the plate in his first pro season gave the Rangers something to be encouraged about, it’s all about what he does behind the plate with De Los Santos.   

He already has one of the best arms in the system and if the rest of his game can grow around it, the hose gives him a chance to become an elite defensive backstop in a few years.

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4)  Manuel Elias Pina — 20 YO (RH)  (2005 International FA)

So far, he can’t hit enough to project as a big league regular, but everyone seems to agree that Pina’s play behind the plate is as good as it gets for a kid his age.   

Ae15 The Venezuelan gets extremely high marks in all aspects of the defensive game — strong arm, good pop time,  blocks balls and the plate well, shows leadership, and has good game-calling skills, etc. — but it’s hard to find much to like about his  .228 / .278 / .285  2007 season except this:   he struck out just 28 times in 281 at-bats overall and in June, he hit .348 / .394 / .455.   

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3)  Maxamiliano R. Ramirez —  23 YO (RH)  (2007 Trade Acquisition)

An unbelievable hitting machine, Ramirez — acquired from Cleveland in the Kenny Lofton trade — has been labeled a sub-par defensive catcher, but many observers agreeNomltwyl_1 that he’s on the verge of becoming more than adequate behind the dish, and with the stick he brings to the table, adequate will be more than enough defense to make Ramirez an everyday player in the big leagues.

Ramirez projects as a .300 / .400 / .500 hitter.   You know how I can project those numbers?    Because he’s always a .300 / .400 / .500 hitter.   

Always.

Signed by the Braves out of Venezuela in 2002, Ramirez  tore up the Dominican Summer League at age 18 in 2003.   He cruised comfortably through the Rookie-level Gulf Coast League in 2004 and was the co-MVP in the advanced Rookie-level Appalachian League in 2005 when he hit .347 / .424 / .527 while making the switch to catcher from third base.

In 2006, Ramirez split the summer playing for two clubs in the low-A Sally League after the Braves traded him to Cleveland to acquire closer Bob Wickman.  He hit a combined .292 / .417 / .454  (at the same age in the same league back in 2001, Jason Botts hit .309 / .416 / .449 with extremely similar peripheral numbers).

Scouting reports from Ramirez’s first two years behind the plate rated his defense as abysmal if not utterly hopeless, but this year, as he has raked over pitchers in the high-A Carolina League (more on that below), there are definite signs of progress according to one American League scout who told Baseball America’s Chris Kline that:

“Ramirez is a guy you have to follow for a series or two to get a real feel for how much better he’s gotten back there, though he’s not a frontline catcher. He stands up when he throws, so there’s a delay in his transfer and his feet aren’t what I would call an asset.

“His arm strength and accuracy are both average, but his game-calling, his receiving have improved. He sets up pretty good and you can tell he’s working to study hitters. This league has been extremely beneficial for him; seeing the same guys in an eight-team league. It’s been huge for him."

Meanwhile, while his skills behind the plate seem to be improving this summer, his bat is more impressive than ever.  Ramirez, who goes about 5’11",  185 lbs., is third in the Carolina League with a .926 OPS while demonstrating an advanced hitting approach.   

According to the American League scout that BA’s Chris Kline talked with about Ramirez:

“[Ramirez] smokes balls to right-center (as a righthanded hitter). I mean, he just wears out that gap. But there’s also big power to that side of the field, which is impressive. He hits to all fields, he’s not afraid to shorten up his stroke when he has to . . . he’s just the complete package as a hitter. He turns on inside fastballs like nobody’s business and handles offspeed pitches well. Great pitch recognition."

Here’s the evidence that backs up that scout’s assertion that Ramirez has "great pitch recognition."    He has posted an outstanding BB/K (walks-to-strikeouts) ratio of 0.84 this year which, coincidentally, matches the BB / K ratio posted by Cleveland’s Victor Martinez this year (tops among all MLB catchers).    His BB / PA  (walks-per-plate appearance) ratio is a dazzling 1.68.  Only six major leaguers can top that figure this season:   Barry Bonds, Jim Thome, Pat Burrell, Todd Helton, Nick Swisher and Ryan Howard.   

Ramirez is tough to fool and makes pitchers throw the ball over the plate.   Hitters  with high BB/K and BB/PA ratios tend to have enormous pitches-per-plate appearance figures as well, so Ramirez fits neatly into the emerging organizational philosophy to work pitchers and drive up pitch counts.

As Jon Daniels told the media last July after trading for Ramirez, one of the organization’s developmental strengths is developing catching skills:  Scott Servais, Damon Berryhill and Matt Walbeck are all former catchers with excellent teaching skills.    Texas, it would seem, is as good a place as any for Ramirez to develop the necessary skills to become a servicable backstop.

Scouts have compared Ramirez to the Indians’ Victor Martinez and having studied the numbers, I have to say that the comp is certainly reasonable.    Like Martinez, Ramirez  is unlikely to become a gold glover behind the dish, but he’s gotten better in his short tenure as a catcher and just a little more improvement over the next couple of years could certainly result in the Rangers wielding one of the better hitting catchers in the American League.

Catch a glimpse of Max here:  http://video.aol.com/video-detail/max-ramirez-of-the-bakersfield-blaze–single-a-texas-/48557873

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2)  Taylor Teagarden —  24 YO (RH)  (2006 3rd Round)

A leader on the 2005 University of Texas National Championship ballclub, Teagarden fell to 319232_550x550_mb_art_r0the third round due to signability issues (also known as "the Scott Boras factor") and the Rangers were all-too-happy to throw the necessary coin at the Carrollton, Texas native to bring him into the fold.   In spite of the fact that he missed the 2006 season due to Tommy John surgery, you can be sure that the Rangers regard this as an extremely shrewd investment.

Teagarden came into pro baseball with a scouting report that gave him the highest marks for his leadership and defense and question marks surrounding his bat.   He’s since nearly silenced those who doubt his bat, but I’ll point out some things in a minute that continue to concern me.

Teagarden could not have been better in Bakersfield this summer where he hit .315 / .448 / .606 in 292 at-bats, and while he didn’t catch every day (the Rangers wanted to ease him back into duty as he continued to recover from elbow surgery), he proved to be as outstanding as ever when he did catch, throwig out 38 percent of base runners in Bakersfield and earning praise from Bakersfield manager Carlos Subero who said that Teagarden the most intelligent player he’s ever managed.   

Assuming his arm proves to be 100% (he had a setback or two last summer), Teagarden will clearly enjoy a career as a premium defensive big league catcher.  The question remains whether he’ll hit enough to make him an all-star.  He might, but i think he’s going to be a low-average hitter with average to above average power in the big leagues.   

Tegarden strikes out a lot.  That, in and of itself, doesn’t bother me much.  It didn’t bother me much while watching his Bakersfield numbers this summer because he was also drawing walks (0.73 BB/K ratio in 292 at-bats), suggesting that he was going deep in counts on a regular basis.    But when he got to Frisco, where once again the core numbers were excellent (.294 / .357 / .529 in 102 at-bats), Teagarden’s BB/K ratio dove sharply (0.26) and there were times when his long, hitchy swing was painfully obvious.

Look for Teagarden to open the 2008 season catching every day in Frisco and then move up to Oklahoma in mid-summer.   If Gerald Laird is traded at some point between now and August, Teagarden will finish the season in Arlington.

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1)  Cristian Santana —  18 YO (RH)  (2005 International FA)

This is from a recent Baseball Prospectus chat with Kevin Goldstein:

Grizz (Seattle): 5 Stars for [Mariners power-hitting catching prospect] Jeff Clement? Is this a position scarcity rating? Even if he sticks at catcher, his defense projects as adequate at best.

Kevin Goldstein: Position scarcity certainly plays a role. Start counting off every catching prospect… who has a shot at developing into an average defender with 30+ home runs a year . . . that’s why he’s so valuable.

This is why, for me, Santana is a five-star prospect.   

Lucassantana1 He’s a phenomenal athlete:  Some of the clubs pursuing him back when he was a 15 year old free-agent-to-be considered Santana a center field prospect.  He runs extremely well, has very quick feet and a plus arm. 

AZL scouts and managers agree:  according to Baseball America’s scout / manager-based rankings, Santana was the clear-cut choice as the league’s top catching prospect "with raw arm strength and receiving skills that project as above-average."

Yes, he’s raw defensively, but having had the chance to see him play, I believe that he’ll make himself the complete player he has the chance to become.  And (stop me if you heard this one before) he plays with his hair on fire.   You see a lot of passion and intensity in his game.  He clearly loves being a baseball player and he’s a leader on the field.   

But mostly, he can really, really hit.

In Santana’s first 96 at-bats as a professional (AZL), he hit .302 / .407 / .531 and then the Rangers bumped him up to the NWL to face off against mostly 2007 collegiate draftees, where he continued to rake (.320 / .346 / .520). 

While it was certainly a small sample (25 at-bats), the similarity between what he did in the AZL and the NWL gives rise to the notion that Santana’s success at the plate has more to do with Santana than with who he’s facing.   

Indeed, the Rangers feel that Santana has a remarkable ability to make quick adjustments at the plate and that, combined with his intelligence and passion for the game, lead me to have about as much confidence as one can have in an 18 year old kid maximizing his considerable potential.

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4 comments

  1. arrindallas@aol.com

    Excellent reading. By the way, could you give us the names that fell just short of the cut? When I emailed Jamey Newberg, he said he thought Chris Stewart could have a multi-year career. Any other names? I’ve heard they’ve signed some international guys recently.

  2. peachygbc_1@yahoo.com

    If Stewart is #6 we are in good shape. Can you imagine what these guys could bring back in trades. Salty and Laird are not even part of the discussion. If we want to part with Salty are we in the Bedard trade…I bet that’s a good starting point. Give JD some credit here. Mike where can we find out whom is recently signed from the international market.

  3. Mike

    arrindallas:

    Chris Stewart, Jonathan Greene, Tomas Tellis, Saloman Manriquez and Kevin Richardson are all prospects in my book. There have been plenty of years that I would have been happy with that bunch as my top five catching prospects.

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