Note: This article is the fifth in a series that will look at how the A’s depth chart lines up at each position. Depth charts go from the big leagues down to the lowest levels. These depth charts are not meant to be prospect rankings, as a top prospect may be further from the big leagues than a player at Triple-A with more experience but a lower ceiling projection.
Big League Depth
Thanks to a busy off-season, the Oakland A’s are guaranteed to enter the 2015 season with a different set of catchers on their Opening Day roster than the ones they carried at the start of 2014. Derek Norris, a 2014 AL All-Star, was traded to the San Diego Padres in December. Then John Jaso, who was the A’s everyday catcher or DH when he was healthy, was traded to the Tampa Bay Rays in January. Late-season addition Geovany Soto was also not retained (he signed a minor-league free agent deal with the Chicago White Sox).
The A’s new battery will have big shoes to fill offensively in 2015. The A’s 2014 catching corps led the American League in OPS with a combined 783 mark. A’s catchers hit 15 homers to go along with their .279/.357/.426 line. Defensively, the A’s are hoping to see a significant improvement from their catchers in 2015. According to Baseball-Reference.com, A’s catchers were below-average last season in Range Factor (both per game and per nine innings) and Total Zone Fielding.
The A’s had a particularly difficult time controlling the running game, a weakness that was dramatically exploited during the final weeks of the regular season and the AL Wild Card game. A’s catcher threw out 22% of would-be base-stealers (league average was 27%) and the A’s two regular catchers both had well below-average caught-stealing rates (Norris was at 17% and Jaso was at 11%).
The A’s have reason to be optimistic that their defensive numbers behind the plate will improve in 2015. Stephen Vogt was the best defensive catcher on the A’s roster last season, but he spent the first few months of the season in Triple-A. He was then limited to just 15 MLB games behind the plate because of a foot injury, which hurt the A's defensively behind the plate. He is expected to be able to carry the majority load of playing time behind the plate in 2015. Vogt caught all three runners who attempted to steal on him last season and had an above-average Total Zone Fielding score. He caught 31% of would-be base-stealers in 2013, when he appeared in 44 games behind the plate with the A’s.
Offensively, Vogt projects to be an above-average hitter for his position. Last season, Vogt got off to a red-hot start at the plate with the A’s. He struggled during the final seven weeks of the season as he battled foot and ankle injuries. Even with the late-season struggles, however, Vogt still posted an OPS+ of 112 and a .279/.321/.431 line. He is a career .305/.367/.467 hitter in eight seasons.
Although he technically needs to win the job, newcomer Josh Phegley is the overwhelming favorite to back-up Vogt in 2015. Phegley was one of the players acquired by Oakland in the deal that sent Jeff Samardzija and Michael Ynoa to the Chicago White Sox. In many ways, Phegley has a similar profile to Norris. Both are right-handed hitters with above-average power for the position and the ability to hit left-handed pitchers. Both were considered offense-first catchers coming up through the minor leagues, although Phegley has done a lot to improve his defensive game over the past two seasons. The A’s are banking on Phegley’s throwing ability behind the plate (he caught 44% of would-be base-stealers in Triple-A last season and was two-of-eight in limited MLB time) to be an improvement over Norris in 2015.
As a hitter, Phegley will still need to establish himself against big league pitching. He hit only .206/.223/.299 in 204 big league at-bats in 2013. Last year, Phegley hit .216/.211/.514 in 37 at-bats with the White Sox. Phegley has proved all he can prove with the bat at the Triple-A level. Over the past two seasons, he has homered 38 times in 168 games while batting .289.
Vogt and Phegley are the only two catchers on the A’s current 40-man roster. Should one be injured during camp or should Phegley struggle badly, the A’s would be likely to look outside the organization for another catcher by Opening Day.
The A’s have four non-roster catchers in big league camp. Bryan Anderson spent September on the A’s roster last season, but the former St. Louis Cardinals prospect only received one major league at-bat. He is a solid hitter and he batted .320/.397/.538 in 78 minor league games last season. However, he is known much more for his bat than his glove. Bruce Maxwell (more on him below) is the A’s top prospect at the position, but he is still a ways away from the big leagues.
Luke Carlin and Carson Blair were both signed as minor league free agents this off-season. Carlin is a veteran who has been playing professional baseball since 2002. He has 56 games of big-league experience. Carlin has long been known for his defensive abilities, especially his game-calling and his pitch blocking. Blair, a former Boston Red Sox’s farmhand, has just 17 games of experience above the A-ball level. He showed promise last season in High-A and Double-A, but isn’t close to big-league ready.
The A’s will have some decisions to make when it comes to allocating their catchers between the Triple-A and Double-A levels. Given the A’s crowded first base/DH depth chart in the upper-levels, Oakland isn’t likely to carry more than two catchers on their active Triple-A and Double-A rosters. Consequently, some of the players listed above could find themselves in A-ball or looking for opportunities with another organization by the end of spring training. Of course, this supposes no injuries, which is a rare situation.
Bryan Anderson and Ryan Ortiz are the only two catchers on this list who logged time at the Triple-A level with the A’s last year. Anderson was a late-August addition and appeared in just five Triple-A games with the A’s, although he played in 57 at that level overall. Ortiz was on the A’s Triple-A roster throughout the 2014 season. He played in 81 games and hit .215/.362/.291. Ortiz has had an interesting career path. Considered an intriguing prospect because of his offensive potential early in his career, Ortiz has struggled with the bat in the upper levels. However, his defense has improved considerably. Ortiz has a career OPS well above 800 at the A-ball level, but his career OPS is 688 in Triple-A and 602 in Double-A. He will be eligible for minor league free agency at the end of the year.
Blake Forsythe joined the A’s organization partway through the 2014 season as a minor league free agent. The younger brother of Logan Forsythe, Blake is one of the top defensive catchers in minor league baseball. The 25-year-old won the MiLB Gold Glove award in 2013. He appeared in 72 games last season with Double-A Midland. He was outstanding behind the plate. At the plate, he hit just .224/.307/.349, but he made a significant overall contribution to the RockHounds’ Texas League title run. Unfortunately, a collision at the plate during the post-season ended his year a few games prematurely.
The other two catchers to log significant time for the A’s at the Double-A level last season were Beau Taylor and Bruce Maxwell. Both struggled offensively, but both are intriguing prospects in their own right. Carson Blair finally reached Double-A with the Red Sox last season after six years in A-ball. Blair has made significant improvements both offensively and defensively the past two seasons and he is still just 25. He is in big league camp as a non-roster invitee. If he impresses the big league coaching staff this spring, Blair could land in Double-A to start the year.
Given his 13 years of professional experience and his game-calling abilities, Luke Carlin is a strong possibility to land on the A’s Triple-A roster, along with Anderson. Both catchers are likely to serve as emergency third catcher options for the A’s this season, meaning that both Carlin and Anderson could be called upon at any time during the season if one of the A’s big league catchers were be injured. Ortiz will also be competing for a spot back on the Triple-A roster. He has the most familiarity with the A’s minor league pitchers and coaches. Maxwell is likely to get most of the starts in Double-A behind the plate. Taylor will be competing with Forsythe, Blair and others to be the second catcher on that Midland roster.
Bruce Maxwell is the only catcher among the A’s top-25 prospects. The 2012 second-round pick has plenty of work to do before he gets to the big leagues, but he has promise both offensively and defensively. In college, Maxwell was one of the top hitters in Division III, posting video game numbers for Birmingham-Southern. Since turning pro, Maxwell has shown an ability to hit for average and get on-base, although his in-game power is still developing. Maxwell had a rough time at the plate during his first taste of Double-A last year, but the A’s are hopeful that he will be able to build off of his 24 games with the RockHounds last year to improve as a hitter this year.
Defensively, Maxwell has improved considerably since his pro debut. He was relatively new to catching when the A’s drafted Maxwell, and he has made improving his defense a priority since signing with the A’s. A student of the game, Maxwell has improved his throwing, game calling and his receiving skills to the point that he is average to slightly above-average in all three categories. Maxwell is participating in his second big league camp this spring and will get plenty of time in front of the A’s big league coaching staff, including former A’s minor league hitting coordinator Marcus Jensen. Jensen, who is the A’s new assistant hitting coach and catching coordinator, has worked closely with Maxwell on both his hitting and his catching since Maxwell turned pro.
Beau Taylor has also struggled at the plate with the jump from A-ball to Double-A. The A’s 2011 fifth-round pick is a career .330/.420/.485 hitter in High-A, but he has a .216/.298/.299 career line in 175 games in Double-A. Taylor is a strong defensive catcher and he has a good eye at the plate. If he can get another crack at Double-A and prove that he can hit at that level, he would make a return to the A’s top-50 prospects list. Taylor may have to wait for another shot at Double-A if the A’s use Blair or Forsythe at that level along with Maxwell at the start of this season.
Max Kuhn, a 2014 13th-round pick, is making the transition to catching after spending his career mostly in the infield up to this point. Kuhn had a strong first season at the plate and he is a baseball rat who dove into his new opportunity as a catcher. Kuhn is listed as an infielder on the A’s spring mini-camp roster, so it’s possible the A’s have shifted their direction on where Kuhn will play defensively this year. In any case, he is likely to start the season with Low-A Beloit.
Nick Rickles, Jose Chavez and Iolana Akau are three talented defensive catchers who are all working their way through different challenges. Rickles was one of the top throwing catchers in minor league baseball in 2013, but he missed the entire 2014 season after injuring his throwing shoulder. He ended up having surgery on the shoulder. It remains to be seen whether Rickles’ arm strength is back to where it was at the time of the injury. If so, he will factor into the discussion for a spot in High-A.
Jose Chavez (sometimes known as Santiago Chavez) was the youngest player in the A’s system to appear in a full-season league last year. The native of Mexico didn’t turn 19 until August and he appeared in games at the Double-A and Low-A levels before finishing the year with short-season Vermont. Chavez’s glove is significantly ahead of his bat at this point, although he was competing against pitchers several years older than him all last season, when he hit .172. Chavez has a very strong arm, quick feet and a solid understanding of how to call a game. He is a candidate to play at the Low-A level for most of 2015.
Iolana Akau was a 20th-round pick out of a Hawaii high school in 2013. The A’s paid over-slot to sign Akau away from a scholarship to the University of Hawaii. Akau has plus arm strength and is an excellent athlete with quick feet and soft hands. He has struggled offensively with the transition to professional baseball and the A’s have been conservative with his development. He spent the past two seasons with the A’s Rookie League team and is likely to play there again in 2015. Akau won’t turn 20 until the end of the 2015 season, so the A’s have time to develop him.
Seong-min Kim knows all about gradual development. The native of Korea spent two-and-a-half seasons in the Arizona Rookie League before finally getting an opportunity with short-season Vermont half-way through the New York-Penn League season. Kim’s best tools are his ability to hit for power and his strong right throwing arm. He is still making adjustments at the plate and behind it, but Kim could make his full-season debut in 2015. He turns 22 in May.
Other Players to Watch
Phil Pohl was a valuable member of the A’s depth chart last season, spending time on both the A’s Triple-A and Low-A rosters. A solid defensive catcher and strong leader behind the plate, Pohl hit .242 with a .313 OBP in 281 at-bats last season. He could slot in at a number of different levels for the A’s this year.
Ryan Gorton spent the 2014 season as the High-A Stockton Ports’ back-up catcher. A 2012 pick out of Oregon State, Gorton didn’t sign with the A’s until just before the 2013 season because of a torn meniscus in his knee that caused him to fail his post-draft physical. Once healthy, he signed with Oakland. Gorton is another solid defender who could help the A’s at a number of different levels this season.
Kyle Wheeler was 26th-round pick of the A’s in 2013. He spent his pro debut in the AZL and jumped up to short-season Vermont in 2014. Wheeler struggled with the bat (.181 with a .227 OBP in 27 games), but he was outstanding defensively. Wheeler threw out 43% of would-be base-stealers.
Injuries have impacted the development of Ryan Lipkin and Josh Miller, but both will be competing for spots on rosters this spring. Lipkin, the former USF star, has always been a strong defensive catcher. He has missed most of the past two seasons with a variety of injuries, but if healthy, could factor in that upper-level depth discussion. Miller missed all of last season with injury and may be a candidate for short-season Vermont or Low-A Beloit. He was a 2013 pick out of South Carolina –Aiken.
Argenis Raga has played all over the infield during his professional career, but he moved behind the plate in 2013 and has made steady improvements with his glove over the past two years. Raga had a strong season at the plate in the AZL, batting .338/.400/.479. He isn’t particularly big, but he uses the opposite field well and is potentially a number two hitter.
Andy Paz, who was born in Cuba and raised in France, sparked a lot of interest when he posted back-to-back 800+ OPSs in the Dominican Summer League. Since coming to the US in 2013, Paz has struggled at the plate. Last season, he appeared in 46 games at three different levels and hit .146/.228/.212. He will be looking for a rebound season in 2015.
Robert Mullen could make his US debut in 2015 after two years in the Dominican Summer League. Mullen played in the A’s US Instructional League last season, which is usually a sign a player is ready to make the jump from the Academy to the States. He has the makings of a solid defensive catcher with a good approach at the plate offensively.
The A’s haven’t made many international signings over the past 12 months, but one was Jose Rivas, a well-regarded Venezuelan backstop, who signed for a reported $220,000. Rivas will spend the 2015 season at the A’s Dominican Academy. The 16-year-old has a strong arm and is considered a good athlete. His development will be gradual, but he will be one to keep an eye on.