A Good Catcher is Hard to Find

Catching is a rare commodity. The Phillies had a strong, young catching prospect coming through the system, but used him - Johnny Estrada - to get Kevin Millwood from the Atlanta Braves. Now, with Mike Lieberthal perhaps starting to show a few dents and scrapes, the Phillies have to wonder, "who's next?" Perhaps the 2004 Draft will answer that question.

There will be a number of teams looking to improve specific parts of their organization in the draft. One key spot that many teams can use help at is catching. There's the old argument about which is more important for a catcher, offense or defense. The prospects that combine both are definitely few and far between.

So, who has what and are there any impact type catchers to be found among the ranks in the 2004 Draft? Here are a few names to consider if your team is looking for help behind the plate.

Neil Walker - Pine Richland High School, Gibsonia, PA
It's likely that just one catcher will be taken in the first round of Monday's draft. That one guy would be Neil Walker. The 6' 2", 205 pound Walker has the distinction of not only being a quality offensive player - he hit .580 with 9 homeruns in 38 at bats this season - he is also a switch-hitting catcher.

Walker is truly one of those guys who combines great offensive skills with well above average defensive abilities. He has great balance behind the plate and isn't afraid to put his body in front of balls in the dirt to do what he has to do to block them. His arm is just slightly above average and is the weakest part of his game, but the fact is that it is still above average.

Walker was suspended for part of the season after being caught drinking alcohol at a party. On the bright side, he stepped up, admitted what he did and took the punishment, accepting all responsibility. While some teams worry about the suspension, others look at the maturity that he showed in accepting responsibility. It all depends on how you look at it and for now, it appears to just be a little blip on the radar screen that is easy to ignore.

Coming from western Pennsylvania, Walker easily caught the eye of the Pirates. Word is that Pittsburgh has him penciled in as their first round pick when their choice - number 11 - rolls around. Several members of the Pirates front office have seen Walker play and came away with very good impressions. Pittsburgh generally looks for college players in the draft, but they may well make an exception for a talented, local kid with a bright future.

Kurt Suzuki - Cal State Fullerton (Jr.)
The odds of Suzuki going in the first round aren't great. The Phillies definitely need catching and might be willing to reach a little to find the right catcher in the first round, but they're not likely to have quite a high enough impression of Suzuki to reach into the first round for him. If the Phillies don't take him in the first round, odds are that he won't be there for them in the second. It's likely that Suzuki will go either in the sandwich picks between round one and two or in the early to mid second round.

Of all the hitters in the draft, Suzuki may have the best idea of what to do at the plate. He led Cal State Fullerton in homeruns (13), RBI (74) and average (.438) this season. One of the reasons for Suzuki's success is that he rarely swings at bad pitches. In fact, he had nearly twice as many walks as strikeouts this season. That stat alone makes him likely to go to the likes of Billy Beane at Oakland, J.P. Ricciardi in Toronto or Paul DePodesta in Los Angeles. This is exactly the kind of hitter that those GMs look for.

Behind the plate, Suzuki seems to enjoy blocking balls in the dirt and it's the best part of his defensive skills. His arm is okay, but he does have a quick release, which at least gives him a shot at throwing out baserunners.

Jason Jaramilio - Oklahoma State University (Jr)
If you're a GM sitting there hoping to get Suzuki and miss him by a few picks, odds are that you turn immediately to Jason Jaramilio. Some teams have Jaramilio and Suzuki as almost interchangeable picks.

Jaramilio's ticket to the draft is made up primarily of his defensive skills. Teams that put a premium on defensive minded catchers will likely put Jaramilio ahead of Suzuki. This is a guy that has all of the intangible leadership skills that a catcher needs to have. He also has the personality to come in and take command of a team from day one.

Offensively, he's a switch-hitter with similar skills from both sides of the plate. Scouts figure he'll have average major league power and hit for a slightly higher average than most catchers.

It will be interesting to see where Suzuki and Jaramilio wind up being drafted and which one of them goes first.

The Best of the Rest

After the first couple rounds go by, that's when teams will likely turn their attention to catchers. While Pittsburgh will likely take Walker in the first round - and if they don't someone else will - and Suzuki and Jaramilio are likely to go by the end of the second round, there will be a lot of catchers available after those top three are taken.

John Poterson, a high schooler out of Chandler, Arizona is already 6' 1" and 220 pounds. Long-term, most scouts don't think Poterson has the defensive skills to stay behind the plate. He's had some injury problems during his high school career and seems to freeze a little in game situations. At best, he's a project no matter where a team figures on playing him, but especially if they want him to be a catcher.

Devin Ivany out of the University of South Florida was a shortstop in high school, but moved to catcher at USF. He took to the position well and seems comfortable there. Defensively, he still has a little learning to do, but has the basic skills and with a little work could become an above average catcher. Of the players in the draft that most scouts believe will be affected by the change to wood bats, Ivany is perhaps the one that they think will have the most problem. Because of that, they expect a fall from his .357 average. One of the things that will determine how high he's drafted is how much scouts for a particular team think that average will fall.

Landon Powell is one of the real interesting catching prospects in the draft. In 2000, Powell looked for a loophole in the draft and took his GED to get into the draft after his junior season in high school. Nobody drafted him and he went to South Carolina and had a rough start to his college career and was even benched for long periods of time. This past season, Powell was in the lineup almost every day of his senior season and hit 15-58-.356 at South Carolina. The biggest concern is that his big frame (6' 3", 220) will get even bigger and he may become almost too big. This is one of those guys that teams generally love or hate. All odds point to him becoming a solid major league player with the right coaching and guidance.

The Phillies will almost have to draft some catching in the upper rounds of the draft. Their organization is woefully short of catching prospects and they need to address the situation. It's unlikely that they'll reach for anyone in the first round and it's highly unlikely that Walker will still be there when they use their first round pick, which is number 21 overall. If Walker is there, they'll grab him.

Will the Phillies look at catching with their second round pick (#62)? Depends who's there. If Suzuki and Jaramilio are both gone, the others could be a bit of a reach.

If it's not one of the top three, the Phillies may be best off with Powell. Yes, there are concerns and he is by no means a blue chip kind of prospect. The problem is that after the top three, the catching talent drops off and stays at a bit of a plateau for a while. Poterson, Ivany and Powell are just three of the basic catching prospects that will be out there. The Phillies could also go with a "corner the market" approach and draft two or three catchers in a row depending how things fall.

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