Wednesday, May 09, 2012

Catching Up With the System

It’s no secret that I believe that catcher is the most important position on the baseball field. The catcher controls the game defensively, works with the pitching staff, and is basically the quarterback on the field. The Indians are fortunate to have an offensive star and underrated defender behind the plate in Carlos Santana, a guy who clearly put in a lot of work this offseason in improving his defense. They’re also lucky enough to have former Gold Glove catcher Sandy Alomar on the big league coaching staff, and former catcher Dave Wallace as their minor league catching coordinator. Wallace was an elite defensive catcher in his own right, spending seven seasons in the minor leagues but never quite hitting enough to get a shot in the show. Having Wallace shepherd the catchers in the organization is a fantastic opportunity, as if anyone knows how to play the position it is Wallace. He’s managing the Lake County Captains this year as well after spending last season at the helm of the Mahoning Valley Scrappers. Wallace is a rising star in the organization, and has future major league manager written all over him. I got a chance to sit down with Wallace in spring training and talk to him about the catchers in the organization, and we had a really good talk about the players he has come to know so well.

The first catcher we talked about isn’t really a catcher anymore, as the Indians decided this offseason that Chun Chen’s bat was too far ahead of his glove and have moved him primarily to first base. Signed as an international free agent in 2008, Chen has caught just three games for AA Akron this year, while playing 16 at 1B and 7 at DH. I asked Wallace what Chen had to do in order to stay behind the plate, and he talked about how much Chen has improved behind the plate in the past couple of years, but still how far he had to go in terms of cleaning up his release, working on his footwork, and just not rushing things when he’s behind the dish. Wallace believes that with time, Chen could become an adequate defensive catcher, but with an organization that’s so stocked with catchers and relatively barren at corner infield though, the decision was made to move Chen from catcher to 1B.

The 23-year old converted 3B is now hitting .289/.367/.392 for AA Akron this year, with just 1 HR, 7 RBI, 12 BB and 26 K in 26 games. He hit .262/.330/.451 with 16 HR in the Eastern League last year, so while the AVG and OBP have improved, the power hasn’t really materialized yet this year. As a catcher, Chen’s bat is outstanding, but as a first baseman it is merely average. If he’s going to have a future as a first baseman at the major league level, the bat is going to have to improve. I think that if the Indians didn’t have such an embarrassment of riches at the catcher position in the system, Chen would still be a full-time catcher today. As Wallace said in our interview, “to have this many quality catchers in the system is a little rare; we’ve talked about it amongst the staff how fortunate we are as an organization back there.”

Going from one extreme to the other, we next discussed AA Akron’s primary catcher, Roberto Perez. When I told Wallace that Perez was the best defensive catcher I’d ever seen up close, he agreed, saying “I would agree with that; he’s special back there. A lot of times we like to use big league guys as examples for these guys to watch film, and the guy I compare Roberto to is Yadier Molina. I do not do that without the utmost respect for Yadier, as he’s the best in the bigs right now, but mannerisms, skill, talent…Roberto looks like him back there and really does some stuff that reminds you of Yadier.” That’s the ultimate compliment that you can pay to a guy defensively, and the outgoing Wallace used a hushed, almost revered tone when making the comparison. Perez is a tremendous catch-and-throw guy who moves well behind the plate, blocks everything in the dirt, really handles his pitchers well and absolutely controls the other teams running game.

With all that being said, why is Perez not regarded more highly as a top prospect in the system? Well, as good as his defense is, Perez struggles with the bat. His career line as a professional is .241/.369/.350 with 12 HR in 288 games. He’s got good patience, a little bit of power, but not much of a hit tool. This season with AA Akron, he’s put up a line of .234/.315/.344 with 1 HR, 6 BB and 17 K in 21 games. Because of his struggles with the bat, Perez’s ceiling is probably a defense-oriented backup catcher in the major leagues. Still, that can be a valuable role on a team and Perez can carve out a long career in that role. He’s got one major-league quality tool already, and that’s more than most players in AA can say.

Drafted in the 4th round in last year’s draft, catcher Jake Lowery played for Wallace last year in Mahoning Valley and jumped straight to high-A Carolina this year. He started out hot for the Scrappers last season, but started to wear down as the strain of a full college season plus the New York-Penn League season took their toll on the young catcher, but still ended up hitting .245/.377/.415 with 6 HR and 43 RBI in 69 games for the Scrappers. He’s an offense-oriented catcher who won the Johnny Bench Award out of James Madison University last year. I asked Wallace about Lowery’s offense as well as his defense. “He won the Johnny Bench award, but that’s an award based mostly on offensive stats. Obviously we like his bat, but he’s got the tools to be a very good defensive catcher as well. His arm strength is very apparent, especially when you see him throw from his knees. That isn’t necessarily something we go out of our way to teach guys but he’s proven to us that he can do it consistently, accurately, then we’re not going to make him stop.”

Lowery is off to a decent start this year with high-A Carolina, hitting .257/.330/.356 in the pitching-dominated Carolina League. He has one HR, 7 2B, 11 BB and 34 K in 27 games for the Mudcats. More than anything, he’s provided solid defense and leadership from behind the plate, something Wallace expected out of the youngster. “In the short time he’s been with us, he’s show the intangibles and leadership abilities necessary to be back there. He does a good job calling a game, and is another guy we’re really excited about coming out of last year’s draft.”

Another talented young backstop in the system is local boy Alex Lavisky out of St. Edward’s High School in Lakewood. Lavisky was aggressively assigned to low-A Lake County in 2011 after being selected in the 8th round of the 2010 draft for his professional debut. He struggled offensively, but had no problems with the glove. I asked Wallace about his defense, and he responded by telling me that, “he’s (Lavisky) solid defensively, he’s guy that with two strikes and the winning run on 3rd, the pitcher’s not scared to throw a slider in the dirt because he knows Alex is going to block it. His work ethic is 2nd to none; no one is going to outwork him out there.”  Lavisky doesn’t look like a kid less than 2 years removed from high school out there. He’s a physically mature kid who moves well behind the plate and has a cannon for an arm.

As good as Lavisky was defensively last year, he really struggled at the plate. He hit just .207/.251/.391 with 8 HR and 24 RBI in 49 games for the Captains, striking out 66 times against just 9 walks. Those are ugly numbers no matter how you slice them, and Lavisky was sent down to the New York-Penn League when short season play opened in June. He didn’t fare any better against that competition, hitting .201/.276/.328 with 5 HR in 68 games. The tools and raw talent are there, they just aren’t materializing in games just yet. Wallace isn’t worried about Lavisky’s offensive future though. “We don’t worry about his offensive production last year. He probably worries a lot more about it than we do. He’s got a bright future ahead of him.” Back in Lake County this season, Lavisky opened the season on a hot streak but has cooled off of late and is hitting a familiar .229/.283/.333 with a HR and 13 RBI in 24 games for the Captains. He has improved his K/BB ratio, but it’s still not pretty as he’s drawn 7 free passes and struck out 30 times. From a tools perspective, Lavisky has everything you’d want in a catcher. He just needs to work on pitch recognition and selection, improve his approach and start swinging at pitches that he can drive so his tremendous raw power can present itself more in game situations. 

A guy who’s flown under the radar after being selected in the 7th round last year is Michigan native Eric Haase. Haase was committed to come south to Columbus and play his college ball at The Ohio State University, but never made it past I-90 and was diverted East to Cleveland. Haase made a brief debut in the instructional league last year after signing, and really impressed the coaching staff with how much good weight he put on last winter. “Just to see how he grew up physically over the offseason was impressive; the intangibles are all there, the skills are all there, it’s just a matter of refining them.” Haase is still just 19 years old, but was one of the more impressive players I saw in Goodyear. He’s the rare catcher that really does have all five tools, as he was his team’s leadoff hitter, best pitcher, starting catcher and occasional third baseman in high school. He’s got outstanding speed for a catcher, has touched the mid-90’s on the mound, and has downright shocking power to the opposite field. I saw him hit several balls out to right field in batting practice, and it’s easy power that comes from a fluid, line-drive swing. It’s still awfully early to make any kind of assessment on a kid who hasn’t even played in short-season ball yet, but the Indians may have really gotten themselves a steal in the 7th round last year. There’s no doubt that the tools are there, they just need to be refined and show up in game situations as well. And did I mention that Haase wanted to get out of Michigan and play at The Ohio State University? I mean, the kid clearly has outstanding judgement.

The bottom line here is that from Akron all the way down to extended spring training in Goodyear, the Indians are loaded at the most important position on the diamond. The players are not without flaws and by no means are they all going to end up as productive major leaguers, but there’s a lot of talent back there. If you like defense, there’s Roberto Perez. If you like offense, Chun Chen’s still catching a little. If you want to dream on the future, Alex Lavisky and Eric Haase are probably more your taste and if you want a well-rounded guy who was productive in college, Jake Lowery is your guy. Any way you look at it though, the Indians have a bright future behind the dish, and that’s not even including potential all-star Carlos Santana, who is just 26-years old and under club control through 2017. For a guy who loves to watch quality catchers, it doesn’t get much better than that.  

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