The one mark against George Kottaras is lack of experience behind the plate, something the young catcher is conscious of and working diligently to fix.
"This guy just needs games," Tye Waller, the Padres' Director of Player Development said. "He comes from Canada and playing in the states there is a better brand of baseball and I think that is the biggest adjustment."
Kottaras proved he could handle the adjustment with ease this year. Playing in the Midwest League, the left-handed hitter tore up the league at the plate, despite the distraction of playing for the host of the Olympics, Greece.
Pressure mounted from all sides with a family that wanted to be well represented. Only their strong support enabled him to come through with flying colors. In fact, Kottaras wasn't fazed at all by the experience, picking up where he left off upon his return.
"He was smoking hot when he left," Waller explained. "He didn't get a lot of playing time because he is a young guy and had the Olympics. He is very under control at the plate. He uses the whole field and shoot, had he not gone to the Olympics, he would have possibly qualified for having a batting title or chasing one down."
Colt Morton began the year at catcher for the Fort Wayne Wizards and it wasn't until he left that Kottaras began to see significant playing time. He saw action in 78 of the Wizards' 140-game schedule and just fifty of those came at catcher.
"We just want him to continue to improve behind the plate, calling the game, and getting used to handling the staff," Waller said. "He made tremendous progress at that this year and hopefully with Instructional League we will make more progress and see this guy climb through our system."
"He didn't start playing until a few years ago," Wizards' broadcaster Terry Byrom said. "He is still learning to play catcher. Before he went to Greece, he started to throw guys out a lot more. His throwing to second base improved a lot. Joe Ferguson worked with him a lot on that and his footwork and all the mechanics of being a catcher.
"He is certainly not as good (behind the plate) as a couple of other guys in the organization – I don't know of any other catchers that have the hitting potential he has."
Most catchers develop at a slower rate in the batter's box for some reason. They are, perhaps, too focused on catching to keep their focus at the plate. Kottaras, though, has shown no signs of slowing down. He walked more times (51) than he struck out (41) while maintaining a .310 average and developing some pop with his bat.
He got on base in each of his last 24 games in Fort Wayne, a testament to his command of the strike zone and ability to put the ball in play when needed.
"I was telling Randy Ready, our manager, because he didn't get to see him much in spring training," Waller began, "and we moved the guys down he was on the mend somewhat, and I told him at the beginning of the year, I said, ‘This guy, before the year is out, is going to be your best hitter.' And he said, ‘I haven't seen much yet' and I said, ‘Believe me.' It ended up being that way."
"He is a legitimate hitter," added Byrom. "There is no doubt about that. He had a good eye. If anything he just needed be a little more aggressive. He took walks in situations where maybe you would want him not to. Having said that, you look at a guy like Barry Bonds who walks 200 times and the Giants lead the National League in runs scored.
"It is tough to ask a guy to go out of there comfort zone. He is a guy that can punch the ball so badly that you kind of almost wanted him to hit at times.
"From the first time I watched him take batting practice on the first workout, the ball just made a different sound of his bat than anyone else's."
While Kottaras is earning praise, and rightfully so, it is not a time to get complacent. There is still plenty of work to be done. As a catcher, Kottaras must continue to work on quickly getting into a throwing stance to stop would-be basestealers. He also needs to work on his rapport with the pitching staff. Kottaras, for example, never worked with Travis Chick. Whether that was because Chick had developed a regular catcher in Luke Carlin or if it was because Carlin had a better feel for calling a game is debatable, but the fact remains Kottaras will be consistently learning the position, a fact he realizes.
He also hit just .237 against left-handed pitching in 59 at bats. That won't be an area that is easy to work on but it would be nice to elevate that average up over .260.
Needless to say, Kottaras has become one of the best prospects in the Padres' system after a sensational year with Fort Wayne. At 21 years old, he has time to develop and will only get better. To have the plate discipline that he showed at this level is amazing and as he continues to understand the game he may turn some of those opportunities into runs batted in, getting a tad more aggressive in the process.
Denis Savage can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Padres scouting report: George Kottaras
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