I initially planned to write this post after hearing that Jesus Montero was going to Seattle to be the centerpiece of a Cliff Lee trade. However, since the 20-year old phenom is still in the Yankee system, the already-impressive Yankee catching depth is all the stronger. After the jump, let’s take a look at the Bombers’ deep stable of catching prospects, and see how they are doing this season.
Jesus Montero (20, AAA): The much-ballyhooed Montero, one of the top 5 prospects in all of baseball, had uncharacteristic struggles to begin the 2010 season. The Venezuelan phenom posted a terrible .696 OPS in April and an even worse .635 OPS in May, and prospect followers were beginning to wonder if Montero’s bat was not as close to big league ready as previously thought. Montero began to heat up with the weather, however posting a .829 OPS in June and a 1.054 OPS so far in July (including 3 for 4 with his 8th homer of the season today). While the overall season numbers may not be up to his usual standards, Montero’s .259/.335/.430 line represents a significant improvement from earlier in the season, and if he keeps this up, he could wind up with a more than respectable season for a 20 year-old at the highest level of the minors. It is hard to pick out a specific problem for Montero in April and May, as his K:BB rates don’t indicate red flags of insufficient patience or contact (7:13 in April, 11:16 in May), and his plate discipline has remained solid (approaching a career-high single-season) walk total. Likely, Montero was struggling with the transition to higher level pitching, and his inability to make hard contact led to a lower BABIP (.276 in April, .226 in May, compared to .333 in June and July).
While the offense seems to be returning to expected levels, Montero still appears to be having problems defensively. A career-high 13 passed balls and a meager 21 percent of opposing basestealers caught indicate that Montero is still ways away from becoming even average behind the plate. It is worthy of note that Montero is likely to greatly exceed his career high number of games at catcher in a season (67 this year already, with a previous high of 71 in 2008), so it will be interesting to see how he handles the wear and tear of extra catching. If Montero continues to hit like he has in July, and Nick Johnson is nowhere closer to coming back, it may be tempting to bring Montero up to the bigs to fill the DH spot. However, given his defensive struggles, I would prefer Jesus to spend the full season in AAA working on his catching and his confidence at the plate against AAA pitching, with an eye toward getting a shot to make the team out of spring training. I’m not sure if he’s a catcher long term in New York (and given the organization’s willingness to deal him for Cliff Lee, they may feel the same), but Montero’s bat would be insanely valuable if he can become even adequate behind the plate, so it’s worth it to keep trying him there.
Austin Romine (21, AA): Austin was hours away from becoming the Yankees’ top catching prospect, but the failure of the Lee trade to go through ensured that he would remain in Montero’s sizable shadow. Romine got off to a hot start in April (.917 OPS), but his numbers have declined every month, and he is currently posting a meager .508 OPS in June, in the midst of a 5 for 34 slump. Despite Romine’s recent struggles, his season line of .277/.355/.415 is pretty consistent with his career numbers, and we should expect him to OPS around .750-.800 for the remainder of the season. A major knock against Romine in previous years has been plate discipline, but he is walking at a career-high rate, with 33 walks on the season already 4 more than his previous high. The fact that Romine has been able to sustain his level of production at age 21 in AA, a big jump in talent, bodes well for Romine’s ability to adjust at the highest level.
Although no defensive stud, by all accounts Romine has been solid behind the plate this season (though he still has room to improve). Only 4 passed balls allowed is a pretty good total, compared to the 18 he allowed in 54 games in Charleston in 2008, and the 11 in 80 games in Tampa. While his blocking has evidently improved, Romine’s CS% of 19 won’t wow anybody, though the difficulty with this statistic is that we do not know how well pitchers are holding runners on, so it’s problematic to assign full responsibility to the catcher. Romine’s defense currently projects him to be able to handle the catcher position in the bigs, and with his bat, he could be a very valuable player at the position. Because of his superior defense, Romine projects better than Montero as a major league catcher, and could be the successor to Jorge Posada should Montero shift positions or get traded. After cracking the back end of some top 100 prospect lists in the offseason, Romine will likely move up the list into the top 50, since there are few upper-level catchers with Romine’s offensive upside and defensive ability.
The tandem of Mitch Abeita and Jose Gil in high-A Tampa are most likely organizational filler, so I will not spend time dissecting them.
JR Murphy (19, low-A): Murphy, a 2nd-round draftee in 2009, received a bonus of over $1 million primarily for his bat. What Murphy lacked was experience at the position, having played mostly outfield prior to being drafted, Yankee scouts believed that he was athletic enough to handle the position. While Murphy’s bat is his strongest tool, he has gotten off to a slow start in Charleston. On the season, Murphy is hitting .236/.271/.325 with 2 homers, good for a .596 OPS. He has struggled every month, with .654 OPS in June as his best performance so far. Defensively, the results for Murphy are not great, as expected for a relatively raw catcher. e has surrendered 5 passed balls in 23 games, and thrown out only 20 percent of attempted basestealers. At only 19, Murphy is young enough to improve on both sides of the ball, and his bat in particular projects to be much better than it has been so far. Murphy has a high enough offensive ceiling to become a starting catcher, but for that to happen, the defense will need to improve and he will have to start hitting like he is capable of doing.
Kyle Higashioka (20, low-A): Higashioka was an intriguing draft prospect in 2008, when he was signed to an overslot bonus after turning down a scholarship to Cal. So far, the performance has not matched the hype, as Higashioka has yet to exceed a .665 OPS at any level of the minors. On the season in Charleston, Higgy is posting a .208/.286/.322 line, so he is not doing much of anything right at the plate. 36% of his hits have gone for extra bases (15 doubles, 6 homers), so although Higashoka has not had that many hits on the season, he has shown the ability to hit for some power. While his offensive performance has underwhelmed so far, Higashioka has looked strong defensively, surrendering only 4 passed balls and throwing out a solid 34% of attempted basestealers. Although Higashioka is miles away from the majors, he is looking like his defense could be strong enough to make him at least a useful backup at the big league level. While he is significantly less advanced with the bat than Montero and Romine, he is not so old for his level that we shouldn’t consider him a prospect. If he can get his batting average up into the .250-.270 range and his OPS above .700, he could compete for a starting spot some day in an organization with less catching depth than the Yankees.
Francisco Arcia (20, low-A): An international signee in 2006 from Venezuela, it feels like Arcia has been in the organization forever, but at 20 in low-A, he still has room to develop. Arcia has had more offensive success than Higashioka to this point (since they’re at the same level, it makes sense to compare them), posting a .730 OPS this season between Staten Island and Charleston, going .314/.397/392 since being moved up to the South Atlantic League. While Arcia has shown less power than Higashioka, he has shown better on-base skills and has hit for a higher average thus far. Defensively, Arcia is solid, but has work to do. He has allowed only 2 passed ball in 26 games at catcher, while throwing out a weak 24.4 percent of attempted basestealers. Like Higashioka, Arcia needs to make improvements to even have a shot at the bigs, specifically in the areas of power and defense.
Gary Sanchez (17, GCL): The 17 year-old bonus baby Sanchez has made a big splash in the Yankee organization since signing for $3 million out of the Dominican Republic in 2009. Sanchez started strong at the plate by hitting a grand slam in his professional debut for the GCL Yankees, and has continued to rake since then. In 20 games, Sanchez has hit .378/.455/.622 with 4 homers and a 9:18 K:BB ratio. With numbers like this at age 17, it is hard to find many warts in Sanchez’s offensive game, but perhaps his strikeout rate (nearly 1 per game) is a little high (though certainly understandable for a 17 year-old in his professional debut). Albeit in small sample sizes, Sanchez has shown the ability to hit both lefties and righties well, which bodes well for his future success.
Defensively, scouting reports on Sanchez have him as a good bet to stay at catcher throughout his minor league career, but the results so far have been less impressive than his offensive showing. In 13 games at catcher, Sanchez has 12 passed balls and has only thrown out 20 percent of attempted basestealers. At only 17, the youngster has plenty of time to refine his blocking and throwing, but the tools are there to become a solid defensive catcher. While big at 6’2″ and 195 pounds, Sanchez physically is a better fit for the catcher position than Montero. He is so far away from the big leagues, but so far Sanchez is looking like the 2nd coming of Jesus Montero with the bat, and if you believe the reports (and ignore the passed balls) that say that he is better defensively than Montero was at 17, you can see why Sanchez may be the Yankee catcher of the future. Obviously, many things can go wrong between rookie ball and the majors, but Sanchez may be the best bet out of anyone in the organization to replace Jorge Posada’s Hall of Fame caliber offensive production and be at least adequate defensively. If he keeps this up, the big bonus combined with the great numbers at 17 will earn Sanchez a spot on many top 100 lists, and a high ranking on my organizational list.
With the ridiculous depth at catcher that the Yankees currently possess, prospects for finding a successor look promising. Austin Romine is probably the best bet to take up Posada’s mantle after he retires, but if Gary Sanchez continues to hit like he has in rookie ball, he could shoot through the system and start breathing down Romine’s neck in no time. JR Murphy has the offensive ability to become a Yankee catcher (even if he hasn’t shown it yet), but he may be squeezed out unless he has a breakout season. It is a great luxury to have the type of catching depth that the Yankees do, but at some point, some of these players will have to become trade bait, so the performance of guys like Arcia, Murphy and Higashioka is still important even if they are not likely to beat out Romine, Montero, or Sanchez.
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