Catching Prospect Outlook

MESA, Ariz. -- Catchers have long since been known throughout the baseball world as warriors. They're usually the first ones through the door of a morning and the last to leave of a night. This year is no different.

Last year at roughly this same stretch of Spring Training, we profiled some of the Cubs' many catching prospects at minor league camp. Many of those players went on to excel in 2005, while some only floundered.

Once again, the Cubs lost little to no depth at the catching position during the off-season as every genuine to upper-level prospect remained with the organization. Here is where we see some of those prospects beginning 2006:

At Triple-A, Geovany Soto had a relatively down year in 2005, one year removed from his strongest showing yet at Double-A the previous season. At Iowa, he hit only .253 and struggled on defense according to some of his coaches. (He threw out 30 percent of would-be base stealers and committed a league-high 11 passed balls.) Nonetheless, Soto still garnered a late-season promotion to Chicago as a September call-up despite making only one plate appearance.

Entering the Triple-A picture this season should be 22-year-old Jose Reyes, who is also in big league camp this spring. Reyes prides himself on defense and keeping runners off base while flexing a modest bat. Last season at Double-A, he led the Southern League in defense and threw out 37 percent of base runners -- a stat good for fourth best in the league.

For potential backups (and we do mean backups ... and potential), the Cubs re-signed the weak-hitting Casey Kopitzke last October, and veteran minor leaguer Dennis Anderson was signed to a minor league contract and invited to camp. Neither could be with the Cubs past Spring Training.

Expect either Jake Fox or Tony Richie (possibly both) to move above A-ball and into Double-A West Tenn this year. In somewhat of a surprise move last season, both broke spring camp and landed at Daytona, as Richie bypassed Mid-A ball while Fox predictably moved from the Midwest League up to High-A.

The result? Neither struggled to cope with each others' existence, as both hit a respectable .280 in roughly the same amount of at-bats. Fox drove in more runs and reached base at a higher rate than Richie, who was slightly better defensively.

Further down at Daytona this season is where it could get tricky since neither Alan Rick nor Oscar Bernard won over too many supporters last season at Peoria. Rick was in a season-long batting slump from the start and hit below .200 most all year. Bernard's season began inauspiciously when he was suspended 15 games for violating MLB's Minor League Drug Prevention and Treatment Program. As a result, someone from Low-A a season ago might be able to follow in Richie's footsteps and jump straight from short-season into Advanced-A.

As for who, Mark Reed, the highly touted third-round pick from 2004's draft, got off to a slow start at Peoria and improved only slightly later in the year at Boise. Jake Muyco, a top 10 pick from North Carolina State last June, struggled offensively with just a .215 average in 121 at-bats for Boise.

For all intents and purposes, Rick could find himself starting at Daytona without really warranting the move up. Another year at Peoria would be his third in a row there. All the same, he could be on a short leash with all the competition around him.

Bernard, meanwhile, is a different story since the 22-year-old has temporarily abandoned catching and is trying to follow right-hander Randy Wells, another former catcher, into a pitching role.

For Peoria's part on the Cubs' minor league radar, it's there where Reed will most likely begin the year. The younger brother of Seattle's Jeremy Reed started there last year and admitted he wasn't ready for full-season action after only one month. After going to extended spring training and eventually to Boise in June, he hit .250 for the Hawks in 55 games. Muyco, Olin Wick, or former Vanderbilt standout Jonathan Douillard are still around and could also be bound for the Midwest League.

It's possible that Yusuf Carter, son of former Cub Joe Carter, could begin the year at Peoria as well. But with only limited action in the Arizona Rookie League a season ago, the safe bet would be on extended spring training.

Overall, the catching unit as a whole is getting stronger despite the lackluster performance of a few prospects a year ago. Closest to the major leagues, Soto earned the late-season promotion to Chicago last season and Reyes had arguably the best year of his minor league career at Double-A.

Further down but not far off, Fox and Richie could both make an immediate impact in Double-A this year. The only real struggles may be at the Class-A level where no prospect has yet to stand out. Reed is still being touted, but has yet to excel, while no one has really gotten a good look at either Carter's potential based on his Arizona League performance.

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