Depth and Youth: RC's review of the catchers

Today RC takes an in-depth look at the catchers in the organization. Seven catchers made this year's Top 60 list, and several others were considered as well. Which players came close to the Top 60, and what are their strengths and weaknesses? Why did the players rank where they did? Which catchers have the best tools? RC provides answers inside, along with detailed scouting reports.

It's been a long time since the Royals developed a starting catcher in their system - over a decade, in fact. In 1998, homegrown products Mike Sweeney and Sal Fasano combined to catch 145 games for Kansas City, but that arrangement lasted just one season. The organization has struggled ever since to develop a legitimate big league catching prospect, as the drafts over the past decade were focused more on building minor league catching depth than bringing in potential high impact talent.

The collection of catchers considered for this year's Top 60 is an interesting mix. It is led by Wil Myers, whom the Royals selected in the third round of the 2009 draft. Upon signing, Myers instantly became the organization's top-rated catching prospect. Indeed, despite a professional track record of just 84 at bats, Myers is the best catching prospect the Royals have had at least since the days Sweeney was taking his cuts in the Carolina League.

Another positive development for the system is a new emphasis on signing international players with high upside. Three of the catchers on this year's Top 60 - Shin Jin-Ho, Salvador Perez, and Jose Bonilla - were acquired on the international free agent market. The South Korean Shin signed as a 17-year-old last year for a then-club record $600,000.

Overall, the catching depth in the system is clearly better than it has been in years. Seven catchers appeared on this year's Top 60, the most at any non-pitching position on the diamond. However, the vast majority of the talent is located at Class A and below, so it will still be some time before that depth pays dividends at the big league level.

Tools Rankings

Best Arm:
1. Myers
2. Bonilla
3. Perez
     Best Receiver:
     1. Pina
     2. Perez
     3. McCauley
Best Overall Defense:
1. Pina
2. Perez
3. McCauley

Best Hitter:
1. Myers
2. Perez
3. Bonilla

     Best Raw Power:
     1. Myers
     2. Bonilla
     3. Jin-Ho

Most Athletic:
1. Myers
2. Cruz
3. Eigsti

Cream of the Crop

Wil Myers entered a system that badly needed a blue chip catching prospect. The Royals signed the 18-year-old third rounder to a high first-round bonus at the signing deadline, and he debuted for the Burlington Royals in mid-August. RC was on hand for the young catcher's debut, and we saw three of the four games he played for the B-Royals before he was promoted to Idaho Falls.

It didn't take long for the North Carolina native to make an impression. With dozens of friends and family in the stands, Myers drilled a fastball over the left field wall in just his fifth professional at bat, staking the B-Royals to a 1-0 lead in his second professional game. Batting with the bases loaded and two outs in the third inning of his fourth and final game in Burlington, Myers smoked an outside fastball into the right-center gap, clearing the bases with a clutch three-run triple. He was promoted to Idaho Falls after the game, where he went on to torch Pioneer League pitching to the tune of a .426/.488/.735 line in 18 games.

Clearly, Myers' short 2009 debut couldn't have gone much better. At the plate, he features perhaps the quickest hands in the system, and his swing is somewhat reminiscent of a young Paul Molitor's - very short and direct to the ball. Because he's more of a line-drive hitter, he profiles as a player more likely to win a batting title than a home run crown, but he it isn't difficult to envision him developing into a hitter with double-digit home run power.

Behind the plate, Myers is a work in progress. He didn't catch very often as an amateur, so he had some trouble handling professional pitchers in 2009. Indeed, Myers allowed six passed balls in just 87.1 innings behind the plate, a ratio that ranked dead last among the organization's catchers. On the positive side, Myers is gifted with an incredible arm that generated 1.7 second pop times in pre-draft workouts, and he gunned down 42 percent of attempted base stealers in 2009. The answer to the question of whether or not his receiving skills catch up to his arm will ultimately determine if he can stay at the position, but we like his odds. Even if he doesn't, he's got the speed and athleticism to play just about anywhere on the diamond.

Until Myers signed, Salvador Perez was the top catching prospect in the organization, and he remains as the system's other top tier catcher. Signed by the club in 2006 as a 16-year-old out of Venezuela, Perez has routinely impressed the organization with his maturity, aptitude, and work ethic. At 6-foot-3, 175 pounds (which is his listed weight, but we're guessing he's closer to 200 by now), the now 19-year-old Perez has a big league body with potentially solid big league tools across the board.

Perez began the season with the Bees in the Midwest League and hit just .189/.230/.236 in 127 at bats. He rotated between catcher and DH with fellow backstops Sean McCauley and Jose Bonilla, and in late June, he was reassigned to Idaho Falls in order to get more regular playing time. Once in the rookie Pioneer League, Perez's bat picked up where it left off in 2008, and he finished the season with an impressive line of .309/.357/.421 for the Chukars.

Thus far in his career, Perez has yet to show the type of power numbers one would expect from someone his size. Indeed, he has hit just three home runs over the past two seasons, but he could add power as he progresses through the system. Defensively, Perez is one of the best catch-and-throw catchers in the system. So far in his career, he has used his quick release to gun down 40 percent of attempted base stealers, and he erased 34 percent in 2009, one of the top marks in the system. He has also made a lot of progress as a receiver, and he was particularly good last year in Burlington, allowing just one passed ball in 178.2 innings behind the plate. After the season, Perez was awarded the Frank White Defensive Player of the Year Award, which recognizes the top minor league defensive player in the organization.

All told, Perez projects as a very good defensive catcher, and with his offensive potential, he could have the best all-around set of tools among all of the system's backstops. Myers ranks higher because of his immense offensive potential, but because Perez is so much more advanced defensively, the young Venezuelan might actually stand a better chance of one day being a starting catcher in the big leagues.

Other Top 60 Prospects

Shin Jin-Ho (or Jin-Ho Shin, if you prefer -- we have no idea which is correct) ranks third among the organization's catchers almost by default. We haven't yet seen the South Korean import, but the scouting consensus seems to be that he's a big kid (6-foot-3, 190 pounds) with excellent raw power and arm strength. Given his reported tools, his age (he was just 17 when he signed last year), and his unprecedented bonus, he has a combination of talent and upside that isn't quite matched by the players below him on the list. He should begin this season in extended spring training, and the odds are strong that he'll be assigned to the Arizona League this summer.

Manuel Pina was acquired in 2009 by the Royals, along with outfielder Tim Smith, from the Rangers in exchange for the oft-troubled but talented Dan Gutierrez. The only catcher on our list who resides on the Royals' 40-man roster, Pina played his 2009 season at Frisco in the Double-A Texas League. There the 22-year-old Venezuelan hit .259/.313/.393 with a career-best eight home runs in 321 at bats. The mini power surge was a little surprising for a contact hitter who entered the season with a total of four home runs in 714 career at bats, but Pina's bat wasn't the reason the Royals were interested in him. Rather, it was his reputation for playing stellar defense behind the plate.

Indeed, Pina arguably became the Royals' top defensive catcher upon joining the system. In 708 innings behind the plate last year, Pina allowed just three passed balls, which easily would have been the best ratio in the Royals' system. For his career, he's erased 30 percent of attempted base stealers, which is also very solid. We've heard conflicting reports about how much the Rangers' minor league pitchers liked (or disliked) throwing to him, but one thing's clear from the numbers - he's an excellent receiver, and his defense alone could feasibly get him a look in Kansas City.

Jose Bonilla and Sean McCauley shared catching duties in Burlington in 2009, and both have solid attributes that make them interesting prospects. Bonilla, 21, has a tremendous arm that he's used to cut down 36 percent of attempted base stealers thus far in his career. He also possesses the best power among the catchers in the system not named "Myers," and he's just a year removed from a season in the Arizona League in which he hit .357/.405/.625. Unfortunately, he was a bit exposed in the Midwest League last year, where he hit just .217/.281/.311 in 351 at bats. He was also prone to passed balls, and he did a poor job blocking wild pitches, although he did make some improvement in both areas over his 2008 performance. If the system has a young Miguel Olivo clone, Bonilla is probably it.

McCauley's biggest problem thus far is that he's had trouble staying healthy, and like Bonilla, he struggled to hit in the Midwest League after putting up decent offensive numbers in rookie ball. Still, the young Virginia native is one of the best receivers in the system, and he won't turn 21 until May. His athleticism allows him to move well behind the plate, and he's excellent at blocking pitches. McCauley also has a quick release, and he's thrown out 36 percent of attempted base stealers thus far in his career. Last season, he erased 40 percent of stolen base attempts.

McCauley was drafted for his defensive prowess, and until last season, the Royals had been pleasantly surprised with his offensive productivity. At 6-foot-2, 170 pounds, McCauley is wiry but strong, and he shows decent pull power in batting practice. Because of his advanced defense, he should continue moving through the system even without gaudy offensive numbers, but an offensive rebound of some sort in 2010 wouldn't be shocking. He figures to stand a good chance of starting the season with Wilmington, where he'll likely share catching duties with Perez or Bonilla.

Fernando Cruz is the final catcher on our Top 60, and the organization's newest convert to the tools of ignorance. Selected as a 17-year-old shortstop in the sixth round of the 2007 draft, Cruz was quickly moved to third base. The Royals felt that Cruz would get stronger and add weight to his 6-foot-2 frame, and that his bat would eventually develop enough to hold down a corner infield spot. Indeed, we've seen Cruz every year, and each year, he's bigger and stronger - he's gained at least 30 pounds since we first saw him in the Arizona League in 2007 (he's now listed at 205 pounds). Following the 2008 season, Cruz began catching at instructs, and he did well enough to convince the Royals to make the switch in 2009.

Catching for the Burlington Royals last season, Cruz, to put it mildly, wasn't very good. He allowed 10 passed balls in just 192.1 innings behind the plate, and he caught just 19 percent of attempted base stealers. Of course, it would be unfair to expect someone so new to the position to thrive immediately. His arm plays pretty well behind the plate, but he does have a bit of a tendency to sail his throws. Cruz is still very young - he won't turn 20 until next month - and he has the size, arm strength, and athleticism that could eventually make him a quality backstop.

When he was at the plate in 2009, instead of behind it, Cruz was one of the B-Royals' best hitters, and he began to show flashes of becoming the type of producer the Royals initially envisioned. The switch-hitter produced a line of .277/.308/.394 with three home runs in 188 at bats in his second tour of the Appy League. He was particularly good from the left side, hitting .308/.336/.413 against the league's right-handed pitchers. Cruz has a line drive stroke from the left side with an up-the-middle approach, and he's adept at taking outside pitches to the opposite field. From the right side he offers a little more loft and power, but his numbers against southpaws have lagged behind those from the other side of the plate. The move to catcher instantly made him a more interesting prospect, because his bat figures to play better there than at third base.

Others Considered

Among the Top 60 snubs, Ben Theriot was closest to making the list. Kansas City selected Theriot out of Texas State in the ninth round of the 2009 draft and signed him for $100,000. The 22-year-old debuted last summer for Idaho Falls, where he hit .290/.389/.355 in 93 at bats. Theriot gained a reputation for shutting down the running game after gunning down 75 percent of attempted base stealers during the 2009 collegiate season. He wasn't nearly as effective in his professional debut, erasing just 25 percent, but he handled the Chukars' pitching staff well and solidified his reputation as a good receiver. At the plate, the left-handed hitting Theriot doesn't project to hit with much power, but he's shown good plate discipline throughout his collegiate and brief professional career.

Juan Graterol merited some consideration for the Top 60 with a strong, but limited, 2009 performance in which he hit .309/.364/.351 in 94 at bats. However, the 21-year-old Venezuelan's future might not be behind the plate. Graterol spent much of his time at extended spring training learning how to play first base, and he played just half of his 32 games in 2009 at catcher. In fact, the majority of his time behind the plate came after an injury ended McCauley's season in Burlington. It is a bit interesting that the Royals decided to try Graterol at another position. He isn't very athletic, and he's a little pudgy, but he has also thrown out 46 percent of attempted base stealers over the course of his career.

Ryan Eigsti is an interesting player. As the primary catcher for the Blue Rocks in 2009, the 24-year-old Bradley alum caught the best pitching staff in the Carolina League. Indeed, he handles his pitchers very well, and he has solid receiving and catch-and-throw skills (he caught 36 percent of attempted base stealers in 2009). At the plate, he showed some pop in 2008, banging out nine home runs for the Bees, but his home run total fell to three last season with Wilmington. Still, Eigsti is a strong kid with sufficient skills to at least stick around for several years as an organizational catcher.

Speaking of organizational catchers, Jeff Howell was another player we considered. In the three drafts between 2004 and 2006, the Royals drafted and signed a total of eight catchers. Of those eight, only Howell remains (as a catcher, anyway). The 26-year-old is a steady influence in the clubhouse, and he's developed a solid reputation for the way he handles pitching staffs. At the plate, he's a somewhat unspectacular but steady contributor with a little pull power.

The final three catchers we considered - Travis Jones, Mauricio Matos, and Miguel Moctezuma - are all raw, recent draft picks who played the 2009 season in rookie ball. Jones was the Royals' 50th rounder in 2008, and the club lured him away from a commitment to Arizona with a $100,000 bonus. Despite being blessed with excellent raw power (he reportedly beat Eric Hosmer in a high school home run derby), Jones looked utterly lost in 2009. Playing for the B-Royals, he hit a measly .144/.222/.233, and he threw out just 16 percent of opposing base stealers. In July, RC was on hand for a particularly bad game in which Jones committed an error, allowed two stolen bases, and went 0-for-4 while seeing a total of four pitches. He's still young, but the clock is already ticking for Jones, and he'll have to show progress quickly.

In Matos' second tour of the Arizona league, the 2008 10th rounder hit .300/.320/.386 in 70 at bats. His batting average was solid, but it came with very little power or plate discipline. He threw out just 12 percent of attempted base stealers, and he committed five passed balls in 22 games behind the plate. Moctezuma, meanwhile, also struggled to control the running game, and he too was prone to passed balls. Playing for the B-Royals, the 2008 19th rounder hit just .208/.266/.347 in 72 at bats.

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