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Cubs Top Prospects: The Catchers

Cubs Top Prospects: The Catchers
Is there anyone behind Castillo?

This is the first in a series of position-by-position analysis on the Cubs best prospects.  I'll rank the top 5 at each position and provide varying degrees of scouting info and statistical analysis.  As you know, my preference at the lower levels is to rely more on scouting, then gradually integrate more statistical analysis as players move up the organizational ladder.   Each name in the top 5 is linked to his stat page on Fangraphs for those interested in a more detailed statistical look.

Each part of the series will include full analysis of the top 5 prospects and I'll mention a few who didn't make the cut.  We'll start with a player and his bio (age, height, weight, and bats/throws L or R) I'll include the ETA and the level they're most likely to play at next year.  And then finally, with positions never really set in stone, especially at the minor league level, I'll include a position change candidate.

For the first part in the series, I'll use the term "best prospects" loosely, as I'll start with an area in which the Cubs are not likely to have anyone crack my top 25, which will come at the end of the series.  Making it even more difficult, the Cubs decided early on that 17 year old Venezuelan bonus baby Marck Malave was not a catcher, playing him exclusively at 3B in the DSL.  Malave had a tough year as one of the youngest players in the league, but he would have easily made this list had he been able to stick at catcher.

An interesting wildcard in all of this is Stephen Bruno, who has been getting some work at catcher in instructs and apparently it's been something the Cubs and Bruno had already agreed to try when they drafted him.

While there are a couple of interesting guys, there isn't a lot of depth here. The Cubs best catching prospects entering last season, Welington Castillo and Steve Clevenger, are now major leaguers and only Castillo looks like he can be a starter.  After that it gets really thin and because none of the prospects are at the upper levels, we're going to have to do a lot more projecting than stat-crunching.

Here are the Cubs top catching prospects...

1.  Wilson Contreras, 20, 6'1, 175 lbs, R/R

  • Likely 2013 club: Kane County (A)
  • ETA: 2016

This guy has really grown on me.  He's athletic for the position and of all the catchers I saw in the instructional league, he was the quickest out of the chute.  He also displayed a strong throwing arm.  Like the Cubs most recent top catching prospects: Clevenger, Castillo and Geovany Soto, he's a converted infiielder (3B) so he's going to have to learn the nuances of the position.  The physical tools are all there.  Thankfully for Contreras, he had the perfect manager in Mark Johnson, a former big league catcher, to help him with things such as managing a game and handling pitchers.

As for his bat, Contreras batted .276/.316/.357 and is an aggressive hitter who started to show some gap power late in the season.  He hit near the middle of the lineup most of the time on what was a dynamic offensive team, so that should tell you the Cubs have some faith in his bat.  At 20 years old and standing 6'1, 175 lbs, he has time and room to fill out a bit and gain strength, perhaps leading to a bit more power down the line.  Aside from refining his receiving skills, Contreras also appeared to be working on this approach at the plate.  He drew 5 walks in his 22 PAs this fall at instructs.  Small sample but it did appear he was making a concerted effort to be more selective.

He's raw and may not be as likely to make the majors as the next two guys on this list, but he has the highest ceiling in this group.

2. Chadd Krist, 22, 5'11", 190 lbs. R/R

  • Likely 2013 club: Daytona (advanced A)
  • ETA: 2015

Krist was drafted in the 9th round as a senior out Cal-Berkely, so you know he's got the intelligence for the position.  A polished catch and throw guy with a questionable bat, Krist surprised everyone by hitting .328/.365/.397 at Boise and then getting off to a hot start in Peoria before settling in at .253/.324/.447.  Krist's ceiling is as a backup catcher who, despite his good offensive start, will contribute more with his receiving skills than his bat.  He has an average arm behind the plate but makes up for it with a quick release time.  He's already close to maximizing his ability and his future will depend on whether he can continue to hit at the upper levels.

3. Rafael Lopez, 25, 5'9", 190 lbs., L/R

  • Likely 2013 club: Tennessee (AA)
  • ETA: 2014

Lopez is the most advanced catcher in this group, having played at Daytona where he hit .269/.338/.403. But as you can probably surmise from his age and build, he's maxed out physically.  He is what he is going to be, which is a backup catcher with a good catch and throw skills, a good approach, and a decent bat.  Drafted last season in the 16th round as a senior out of Florida State, Lopez was already an older prospect and injuries have slowed him down since, so time is not on his side.  There's not a lot of upside here, but he's polished. If he shows he can hit AA pitching, he'll be close to being MLB ready.

4. Justin Marra, 19, 5'10", 190, L/R

  • Likely 2013 club: Boise (short season A)
  • ETA: 2016

Marra isn't as advanced defensively as any of the catchers on this list, but he may have the most polished bat.  He has excellent plate discipline (18% walk rate) while also making consistent contact.  He showed some doubles power in Rookie Level Arizona but he doesn't have the build to be a home run hitter.  I think that he's a little limited physically, so much of his value and hopes will ride on his bat and ability to get on base.  If he can become an average catcher defensively, he could make it as an offensive-oriented backup.

5. Carlos Escobar, 21, 6'3", 200 lbs., R/R

  • Likely 2013 club: Boise (short season A)/Kane County (A)
  • ETA: 2016

The second of the new front office's draft selections at catcher (15th round), Escobar is another solid defender with a decent arm and a quick release. Offensively, he has solid approach at the plate.  He has the best size in this group and he did show some extra base power in a very limited sample size at Rookie Level Arizona.  He has the potential for a bit more down the road but his swing can get long, and if he doesn't shorten it up, it's hard to envision him hitting for average.  Escobar may have to maintain high walk rates (16.7% this year) as he faces more advanced pitchers to be offensively viable.  Like Krist and Lopez, he has some of the kind of intangibles and overall approach you like in your catcher, but none of that matters if he can't hit at the upper levels, so Escobar will have to prove he can hit as he progresses through the system.

Position Change Candidate: Stephen Bruno, 21, 5'9", 165 lbs., R/R

The next infielder who may convert to catcher is Stephen Bruno.  If he is able to make that transition smoothly, he could vault to the top of the list.  He didn't catch in any games in instructs, just bullpen and side sessions.  In an article by Carrie Muskat of Cubs.com, Bruno seems to be taking the challenge with a good attitude,

"It's going pretty well," Bruno said. "I've been improving a lot. I've been doing it [for a couple of weeks] here and there, learning the basics. I'm moving well behind the plate, though I don't know where to set up yet. I feel pretty athletic back there.

"So far, so good. I'm enjoying it and it's a great opportunity for me to expand my horizons. I like learning. It makes me more valuable to an organization."

It's that type of mental makeup that gives Bruno a chance to stick there and with the Cubs being relatively deep at Bruno's other positions (OF, 2B, 3B), this will give him his best shot at becoming a starter down the road.  There's not much question about his bat.  Bruno has a knack for squaring up the baseball and makes consistent, solid contact.  He should hit for average, though he's aggressive up there and doesn't walk much. He's an athletic player, more so than Clevenger was when he made the switch, and should be an above average runner for a catcher.

Others:
This is not a deep position for the Cubs so the depth chart consists of many organizational types such as Michael Brenly, Juan Apodaca, Taylor Davis, Sergio Burruel, Lance Rymel and Micah Gibbs.  One guy who didn't make this list who has the potential to be more than that is Neftali Rosario, but injuries and some regression this past season very much put his long term value in doubt.  When he was drafted in the 6th round in 2011, the Cubs felt he had potential both at the plate and behind it.  It could be a make or break season for him in 2013.

Filed under: prospects

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  • John, I remember Keith Law thought Micah Gibbs was a steal when the Cubs got him. Obviously, he failed to develop. Any thoughts on why?

    Also, with Fall Instructs concluding do those players go winter leagues? Stay in AZ? Or take the winter off?

  • In reply to CubsML:

    I thought he was a steal too, but injuries played a role. It has really hampered his ability to progress as a hitter, the area where he needed the most work. I haven't given up hope completely, but he's really going to have to show something to put himself back in the prospect category.

    Most, if not all, of those guys will go home and take the winter off, except for (hopefully) their own workouts and keeping themselves in shape.

  • In reply to John Arguello:

    Seems like a lot will need to go right next year to keep the 2010 draft from being a total bust.

    Do you know if Hendry and his team had full control to draft best player available under the Ricketts family's first draft? Or were they on a tight budget that first year?

  • In reply to CubsML:

    That year is beginning to look like a huge bust. They were still too budget conscious. They certainly were through the Trib days and then it extended on to Rickett's first year, perhaps because of all the debt he took on. They didn't catch on to the draft game until 2011, so there's a lot of ground to make up.

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    In reply to CubsML:

    Matt Szczur and Ben Wells will still be on most if not all top 20 lists next year, but I agree, that draft was pretty bad.

  • In reply to Jason Pellettiere:

    Szczur for sure. Wells is iffy for me because of the injury. Haven't seen that velo we saw last spring yet.

  • In reply to Jason Pellettiere:

    And it's no coincidenee that those are two guys that they actually did spend money on.

  • In reply to CubsML:

    Well ... the bat was always a question. He was viewed, IIRC, as a good receiver (albeit, with an average-ish arm). There was some pop in the bat, but bat speed wasn't good enough. The hope was that he'd be able to hit for enough that the combination of some pop and being a good defensive catcher would help move him along. That just hasn't happened.

    The Cubs C depth is so thin that I would actually consider him somewhere in the top 5 (that doesn't mean that much ... I'm not sure any current catcher in the system would crack a top 30 list of Cubs prospects).

    A quick note on the 2010 draft while I'm at it ... Off the top, they actually had a decent bump in spending from 2009 (I'd have to check again, but my recollection was that there was a decent bump). Golden was an over-slot (still mildly curious about him), there was Szczur, and then there were the prep arms (Wells, Reed, Hartman, Richardson). I believe Beeler was given over-slot money as well, and I'm almost certain Dustin Geiger was as well. Most of the prep over-slots were intriguing enough assets to justify over-slotting them to grab talent when possible. It certainly wasn't the 2011 draft as it pertains to spending, but I'm almost certain it was a bump from 2009.

    The draft looks very pedestrian right now. That said, I'm still very intrigued with Ben Wells (Although admittedly, a bit concerned about the odd path this year ... he was on a nice roll in May, with good velo and action on the fastball and improved secondary stuff before the shutdown). I was very big on Aaron Kurcz, and he's turned in a nice season ... just not for us. Austin Reed has shown some progress, and in time, could be an intriguing pen arm option. For all the talk about Szczur's inability to maximize his power potential because of his swing, what's lost is that, if he can make consistent contact and carry the current gap power, he has a shot to see some big league time (now, I know some think he was exposed in AA in regards to his potential to hit for a solid average ... I'm not of that mind just yet).

    The tanking of the top of the draft (Hayden, Reggie Golden, and Hunter Ackerman, along with Gibbs) really hurts this draft.

  • In reply to toonsterwu:

    I appreciate the reply toonsterwu. Glad to see you're active here.

  • Also, is this blog going behind the paywall?

  • In reply to CubsML:

    No, I'm happy to say this site will still be free.

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    Do you know if all these catchers are RH hitters? I assume no switch or left handed hitters?

  • In reply to Jim Odirakallumkal:

    Lopez and Marra are LH hitters, which is always helpful. I'll add that to the post.

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    In reply to John Arguello:

    Thanks John. Would love to find a Switch hitting or at least left handed catcher. Seems like we haven't had a respectable left handed catcher since Paul Bako or the switch hitter Damon Berryhill ? LOL

  • In reply to Jim Odirakallumkal:

    Very rare indeed. I do think Clevenger will be a better hitter than he showed in the 2nd half. He's still a backup, but if he can hit a little, say .270 with some walks, from the left side, he could end up being useful.

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    In reply to John Arguello:

    No doubt. He started off so hot. I believe he went on the DL hitting close to .400

    If he could hit in the .270 range, and I think he can back up 1b too so assuming Lahair is gone, he will be useful.

  • John, it's "quickest out of the chute," not "shoot." Think bull riding or bareback riding at the rodeo.

    I certainly agree with your evaluations, both of the individual prospects and you overall assessment - they're all projected to be backups, at best. Do you have any knowledge of why Neftali Perez looked so bad this year after a successful 2011 season?

  • In reply to cubsin:

    Thanks for catching that. Chute is indeed what I meant :)

    I'm guessing you mean Neftali Rosario and I don't really know why. He had some injuries early on but never got it going when he came back. Without knowing much personally about Rosario, I don't really want to speculate, but it is discouraging. He's young, but he should have gotten better, not worse.

  • This seems to be a weak spot for the Cubs. Some with potential and some with question marks.

  • In reply to Steve Flores:

    Unquestionably a weak spot. If Castillo can't cut it, the Cubs will have to pick up a vet until they can develop someone.

  • Good stuff. Love this new format. Didn't see an ETA on Bruno though. Any guesses?

  • In reply to Carne Harris:

    Thanks. Was trying to make sure I got all of your guys' input from the other day.

    If Bruno becomes a full-time C, his timetable gets longer, much as Clevenger, Castillo, and Soto's did. So I'd say late 2015. If he sticks to what his super utility role, he could be up a year sooner.

  • In reply to Carne Harris:

    Well, if he moves to catcher full-time, one would imagine that he might not get pushed as fast. Right now, on paper, there's a chance he could start in Daytona as a 2nd/3rd/super-util option. Polished college bat with a good hit tool.

    If he gets moved to catcher, a good example of what might happen might be Steve Clevenger (it's almost forgotten now that he was a middle infielder before) in that you could see him start the year at XST to get work in at learning the spot. Will be curious what they do, but as middle infield is a strong spot in the system, it's an interesting idea. (they also tried the MI-C move with Matt Cerda, which certainly didn't take).

  • Brenley joined the Diamondbacks tv today.

  • In reply to CubsTalk:

    Congrats to Bob!

  • Almost makes me wish we drafted Mathiesen. Guys been tearing it up, made one of BAs top 20 prospect lists. But think I've heard that this is a good year for prep HS C's?

  • In reply to Furiousjeff:

    I liked him in last year's draft too but can't argue with taking all those high ceiling arms.

    You heard right, next year will be a good year for prep catchers. Cubs should get a crack at one of the betters ones with their 2nd pick.

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    The Cubs need to draft pitching badly, but if there is one position we should be looking for in the draft, it's catcher. Contreras and Krist are mildly interesting, but we don't really have a top prospect here. Our minors have outfielders and infielders, but no catchers.

    Just in the short-term, i think we need to sign a marginal vet that can live at Iowa, in case of injury. That might be Recker, but we need at least enough depth that we don't have to make a trade for Koyie Hill again.

    But the catcher situation is a problem!

  • In reply to Zonk:

    Agreed. I think it needs to be addressed. I do like that the Cubs have guys like Lopez, Krist, and Escobar who seem to be advanced as far as the intangibles side of catching, that's good for developing pitchers, but none of these guys will be starters -- if they make it at all.

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    Like the idea of Bruno moving to catcher, if he can stick there it would give his bat some nice value. Random aside, does anyone else follow Micah Gibbs on twitter? Half his tweets are about how Obama is a Communist and turning America into an eastern bloc state, okay I might be exaggerating a bit but it always amuses me to read his slightly extreme right wing views.

  • In reply to James Knott:

    Ha! I don't really follow players on Twitter. Maybe Gibbs should worry more about what he does on the baseball field.

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