Geovany Soto was added to the 40-man roster last November and by all means is now expected to carry the load at Triple-A for the first time in his career. Soto is now 22 and had the most solid season of his career in 2004, hitting .271 with nine home runs and 16 doubles in 103 games behind the plate for Double-A West Tennessee. Known for getting on base consistently, Soto also appeared in the Arizona Fall League and batted .270 with a .356 OBP in 21 games. With the bulk of the Cubs' catching prospects still in Class-A, Soto has the quickest chance of reaching the major league level for now.
Casey Kopitzke carried most of the burden behind the plate at Iowa last year and hit only .221 in 77 starts. He got off to a slow start, going hitless in his first 15 at-bats and hitting just .184 in the first month of the season. Kopitzke features little pop (2 HRs in 410 career minor league games) with occasional hot streaks but shapes up pretty well defensively, as evident by his five passed balls and .991 fielding percentage in the last four years. He will turn 27 in May.
Double-A West Tennessee
Paul O'Toole, a 21st round pick in 2002, served primarily as a backup to Soto last year at Double-A and had a much-improved season over 2003. Like Kopitzke, he features little pop, but he hit over 70 points higher in 2004 with a .258 average in 45 games behind the plate. O'Toole was also used as an outfielder on manager Bobby Dickerson's team in 12 games last year but is expected to be the full-time starter in 2005, a source with the Diamond Jaxx said recently.
Jose Reyes is a prospect primarily geared toward defense, and he should make the jump to Double-A in 2005. The switch-hitting Reyes batted only .226 in 2004, but got the majority of playing time behind the plate at Class-A Daytona with 80 starts. He came on strong toward the end of the season by hitting .294 in his final 18 games. Defensively, Reyes stacks up as well as anybody. He was an All-Star consideration last year, throwing out over 50 percent of would-be base stealers according to Daytona broadcaster Bo Fulginiti.
(The Cubs also began an experiment with 22-year-old Casey McGehee at catcher last season for the first time in his career. McGehee was used primarily at third base last year in Daytona, and one Cub source says he will get the majority of playing time there for now. Still, McGehee made his catching debut on April 9 of last year and finished with 28 starts behind the plate. He worked with former Cub catcher Scott Servais on honing his catching skills after the 2003 season, and the result was six passed balls and three errors on defense. At the plate, McGehee hit .261 in 119 games and recorded 30 doubles.)
Class High-A Daytona
Jake Fox was overly sound in his first year of full-season minor league ball at Mid-A Lansing in 2004. The 22-year-old was one of the premier catchers in the Midwest League and hit 14 home runs to go with 19 doubles. He spent much of the season alternating with teammate Alan Rick behind the plate and occasionally at DH. Fox's defense was somewhat suspect, however, as he led all Cub catching prospects with 25 passed balls and 13 errors for the year. He spent time in the Arizona Fall League to focus on improving his footwork last October.
Rick, a fourth round pick in 2002, hit 30 points lower than Fox (a third-rounder from '03), but added 22 doubles and posted a solid XBH of 40 percent. It's possible the organization may keep Rick at Mid-A for another year, however both he and Fox performed well together last season and showed no signs of restraint by splitting time behind the plate. They would both have the option to DH when not in the lineup as catcher in the Florida State League this season.
Class Mid-A Peoria
It's hard to imagine Tony Richie jumping ahead of Fox on the organizational charts to start the season. Last year was Richie's second in the farm system since his third round selection in 2003, and he rewarded the Northwest League Champion Boise Hawks (Low-A) with eight doubles and a .314 batting average in 42 starts. He struck out relatively little, averaging only one per eight at-bats. Richie also seems to display better overall defense than Fox and, like Reyes, threw out over 50 percent of base runners in 2004.
Oscar Bernard appeared in 29 games behind the plate last season at Boise after three years with the Cubs' Dominican and Arizona League teams. The 21-year-old displays modest pop and could develop into a solid prospect, but will likely be overshadowed by Richie and Fox for the time being.
EXTENDED SPRING TRAINING
Mark Reed was a highly touted third round pick out of Bonita High School in California last year and spent time with the Mesa Cubs following the draft. There he batted .350 with five doubles in 10 games. At 5'11", 175 lbs, Reed isn't the biggest guy in the world, but is said to have a solid left-handed bat with good catching skills. We think he will be given a chance to get his feet wet in short-season ball before making the jump to Peoria.
The Cubs also took catchers Jon Douillard and Olin Wick in last year's draft, but only Wick made it to Class-A in the months after he was selected in the later rounds. Wick, 22, made seven appearances behind the plate at Boise and added a pair of doubles for his only two hits in 13 at-bats with the Hawks. Both he and Reed are virtually the same size, and Douillard, a Vanderbilt alumnus, hit .275 for Mesa and averaged one RBI per game with 11 on the year.
Recent draft day selections indicate the Cubs consider catching a top priority. The team spent early selections on Fox, Reed, Richie, and Rick in their past three drafts. (They drafted five catchers in 2004, signing three: Reed, Douillard and Wick).
If one is to be honest with himself, he is to recognize the Cubs have been one of the worst at developing catching prospects in the last 10 years. In fact, the last true catching prospect that came up through the Cubs' farm system and spent more than two seasons with the parent club was Rick Wilkins (1991-95). Tyler Houston was originally a product of the Atlanta Braves' system and was later converted to third base, and Jose Molina appeared in only 10 games for the Cubs before his release in 2000. Pat Cline and Jeff Goldbach were high-round draft picks of the late 90s with promising futures, but neither could pan out.
The good news is that help appears to be on the way. Soto could become a top 5 or 10 prospect if he can exceed or duplicate his performance from Double-A, and Fox has the potential to find his way to West Tenn at some point this season.
Author's Note: The Cubs released three catchers selected in the 2002 and 2003 drafts: Chris Miller, C.J. Medlin and Patrick McIntyre. Miller joined the San Diego Padres and hit .278 for Class-A Fort Wayne in 12 games last year; Medlin, a 15th round pick in 2002, batted .282 with three doubles and 10 RBI for Class-A Lansing; and McIntyre appeared in 32 games in 2003, hitting .141 between Mesa and Boise prior to his release. Randy Wells, a 38th round pick in 2002, was converted to a starting pitcher and went 6-7 with a 4.43 ERA at Lansing a year ago. As a catcher, Wells hit only .153 in a combined 49 games between Lansing, Boise and Mesa.
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