When we first learned that veteran catchers Sean Coughlin and Ed Easley would return to the Instructional League for a second consecutive season, I surmised that they were there primarily to help guide the younger pitchers and tutor neophyte catchers Ryan Babineau and Rossmel Perez in the nuances of catching. As it turns out, leadership was only part of the reason for their presence on the 20-man position player roster, according to Instructional League field coordinator Jack Howell.
"[Easley] went through a period this year where he had a lot of passed balls," Howell explained. "So I think he really wanted to work on his catching and his receiving. He was really trying to fine-tune some things that he wasn't happy with."
Howell went on to say that he felt Easley's problem with passed balls was more mental than anything physical and that last year's 61st overall pick did indeed show improvement at catcher this fall. But just in case Easley never fully overcomes his troubles at backstop, the organization is working to cover their bases, namely first and third.
"With Easley, we actually did catcher to first, then towards the end, we started getting him some grounders at third: A catcher who can play the corners," described Howell. "He comes to us being a third baseman from the past, and he played some first in Visalia as well, so that wasn't a huge change."
As for Coughlin, he may have been the most improved player at South Bend this year on both sides of the ball. His power potential has shone through so brightly that the organization may want to move him from the backstop position to one that allows him to concentrate more on his hitting stroke.
"The veteran guy that really has made some strides catching, making himself into a guy to whom pitchers really enjoy throwing," is how Howell described Coughlin. "Also, because of his potent left-handed bat, we wanted to get him some work at first. Now I feel, going into the spring, that we could go either way with him. He could really help out and play part-time over at first when he's not catching or just be a frontline catcher for us. It was a good Instructs for him."
It was an even better Instructs for Nelson Gomez, a 210-pound corner infielder who belted 10 homers and 12 doubles in 225 Missoula at-bats. He was one of two players unfamiliar with the catcher position who got a chance to try it out during the Instructional League.
"We tried catching him; we didn't have enough time in Instructional League to really get a good look, but we gave him a shot at that," Howell said. "But we played him at first, and he can play the outfield. Maybe we can continue working on him to being a first base/outfielder that could catch in a pinch if you need it."
"Obviously, his bat is going to be what carries him. He showed some sock there in Missoula. He needs to cut down on his swing a little bit with two strikes and work on his two-strike approach, but I was real happy with his swing."
The other infielder to get his first ever look as a backstop was Raywilly Gomez. Gomez earned FutureBacks Position Player of the Year honors for the DSL Diamondbacks by leading the team in seven major offensive categories, but his 29 errors at the hot corner led to an atrocious .858 fielding percentage there.
"He made some throwing errors in the Dominican Summer League," understated Howell. "[Infield coordinator] Tony [Perezchica] did a great job working with him on his throwing, and he made some great plays at third."
"We tried him catching as well, and he really took on to it. [Catching coordinator] Bob Didier was very impressed with him. Bob said he threw real well to the bases. That's something we'll continue to have him work on in the Dominican Instructional League and come into spring maybe having him catch for us."
"We just tried playing them all over. Mainly Cowgill, Worthington, and Linton in center, and when they weren't playing center, I got them adjusted to playing one of the corner slots. I think we got a lot of work in and played those guys in a lot of different positions. I feel confident going into this year feeling we could play them at any outfield position and they'd be fine."
That extra versatility not only aids these individual prospects in their ultimate goal of reaching the big leagues, but helps the entire organization in terms of development. Howell, A.J. Hinch, and Josh Byrnes are better able to place Diamondbacks prospects at the levels that best suit them if they don't have to worry about having three right fielders at one level and three left fielders at another.
The one risk, especially for the two Gomezes learning catcher, is that by diversifying their defensive portfolios, these prospects will take longer to develop at their primary position. That may have been the case for Jaime D'Antona, who had been playing catcher one a week or so for the past two seasons, and isn't as strong as he could be at the corner infield positions as a result. That actually delayed his call to the majors and reduced his role once he finally made the 25-man roster.
But D'Antona tried to learn catcher at a relatively advanced age. Raywilly Gomez won't turn 19 until next year. Instructs is the perfect time to teach players new positions, because they are still young enough to learn and if the position change doesn't pan out, the move can be aborted without doing much developmental damage.
The Diamondbacks have utilized their three-week Instructional League well in this regard, and it will be very interesting to see exactly how each of these players are used come April.
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