The Tiger's catching situation has been devoid of talent at any level for many years. The last All-Star caliber player the organization was able to produce was Matt Nokes. It looked as if Eric Munson may fill the catching void in Detroit when he was drafted in 1999, but the Randy Smith regime quickly moved him to first base. There are some that thought Brandon Inge would end that dry spell, but his offense hasn't supported a full time role to this point in his career. And thus, the drought continues. Looking at the catching depth from top to bottom in the minor league system, it is a good thing the Tigers signed Ivan Rodriguez to a 4-year contract, because any hope we may have of developing a catcher is a long ways off.
By definition, there were no prospects playing in the upper two tiers of the Tigers system this season. Toledo utilized major league veteran Mike DiFelice, and 27-year old minor league veteran Guillermo Rodriguez, neither of which should be counted on to contribute in Detroit. DiFelice was dealt to the Cubs late in the 2004 season, and Rodriguez mustered only an .187/.244/.338 line in 73 games.
Moving down a level to AA-Erie, the outlook isn't much better. The primary receiving duties in Erie belonged to the 24-year old Max St. Pierre. While a 24-year old may still register as a prospect on some scales, any thoughts of that nature are tempered after seeing him bat .248 in his third trip through the Eastern League. St. Pierre's defensive skills are top notch, and there is still the possibility that he could be a useful backup catcher at the major league level at some point. Filling in the remainder of the time was 29-year old minor league veteran Brandon Harper. Harper hit well, posting a .289/.372/.524 season, but his age is a definite deterrent when considering him as a future option. Of these four players in the upper minors, St. Pierre is the only player drafted by the Tigers, in the 26th round of the 1997 draft.
When you move down to the other two full-season clubs in the organization, things appear a little more promising on the surface, but a deeper look reveals another pretty weak crop of catchers. Lakeland handed their catching duties over to 2001 4th round choice Mike Rabelo, out of the University of Tampa. In his three seasons in the Tigers organization, Rabelo has demonstrated the ability to hit for average, but has shown almost no power, posting only 53 doubles and 7 homeruns in over 1,300 career minor league at-bats. Considering Mike will be 25 heading into the 2005 season, he is another player that should not be counted as a future contributor in Detroit. Backing him up in Lakeland was fellow 2001-draftee Alex Trezza. Trezza is yet another example of a decent defensive catcher with practically zero offensive abilities of note. Alex has not shown that he can hit for average, or hit for power, or control the strike zone with any aplomb. At this juncture, it appears both Rabelo and Trezza are destined to careers as organizational fodder.
The West Michigan Whitecaps are where the catching situation begins to look up, at least a little bit. The primary catcher for the Tigers Midwest League affiliate was 23-year old Danilo Sanchez. Sanchez posted very good numbers offensively (.294/.355/.443) and defensively in 2004. His only knock being the age at which he posted them. Danilo will need to continue to hit well, and hopefully climb the organizational ladder a little quicker if he hopes to make an impact in Detroit. A late season call-up from Oneonta, Andrew Graham was Sanchez' primary backup in the season's second half. A 2003 draft choice of the Tigers out of Armstrong Atlantic State University, Graham improved offensively in the 2004 season. The big (6-4, 215) Australian hit .253 in limited action while at West Michigan, an improvement over his 2003 performance of .182 in Oneonta. As a collegian, Graham showed the ability to control the strike zone, and hit for power. Defensively, Andrew is above average, with good catch-and-throw skills, and a strong arm. At this point, neither Sanchez nor Graham should be looked upon as high caliber prospects, but the 2005 season in Lakeland will be very telling as to the path their careers will take.
Well, we have finally come to a portion of the minor league system that shows some promise behind the dish. Unfortunately, that promise exists at the two lowest levels of the minor leagues. Oneonta and the GCL Tigers have a plethora of 2003 and 2004 draftees. The cream of the crop in this group is Dusty Ryan and Cole Miller. In his New York-Penn League debut, Ryan posted very good numbers in a pitching dominated league. Another big catcher, Ryan has yet to display the power that he is projected to develop, but that is likely to come with maturity. In 2004, Dusty continued to improve offensively as the season progressed, ending the season with an .274/.369/.433 line, all while showing better than expected defensive skills. Due to his size, many scouts feel Ryan may have difficulty staying behind the plate, but so far the Tigers brass are encouraged by what they have seen. While still very early in his career, Cole Miller showed some potential. Miller's offensive stats (.269/.292/.431) may not look inspiring on the surface, but at only 19, Miller has a lot of room for improvement. While at the College of the Siskiyous, Miller hit for average and power, while flashing some speed, stealing 8 bases in 25 games. Cole was one of the top junior college catchers in the nation in 2004, and should be a big part of the Tigers catching resurgence in the minor leagues. Two other young prospects that have showed promise are 2003 draftee Cody Collet, and his GCL teammate James Skelton (2004). A high draft choice last year, Collet has tons of potential both offensively and defensively, but he must overcome the injury bug that has plagued him in his first season. Coming out of high school, Cody had showed what many considered major league power potential, and possibly the best defensive abilities in the nation. Skelton was another high school draftee, and while he is still very raw, he has all the tools to be a top flight prospect. James showed he could hit for average and demonstrated the beginnings of developing some moderate power in his senior season at West Covina High School. Defensively, Skelton is a quick, agile catcher with an above average arm. Rounding out the low levels of the minors are Joel Roa, Justin Barnes, and Aaron McRae, all of whom were drafted in the last two years. Barnes needs to improve quickly, or risk being released as he is already 23 and struggled significantly at Oneonta. Roa and McRae both struggled in their first taste of the New York-Penn League. McRae will need to show something in spring training, otherwise he could be cut, particularly considering the depth of catching prospects littering the lower minors. Roa still has a chance to establish himself as a prospect, but will need to show something at West Michigan in 2005 in limited playing time behind Dusty Ryan.
Overall, the catching position is still probably the weakest within the organization, and there's not much hope on the immediate horizon. Dusty Ryan and Cole Miller have a chance to turn the catching tide, but both are still a long ways away from the major leagues. It could be a while before the Tigers see any contribution behind the plate from within, but fortunately for us, we still have Pudge to keep us entertained through the 2007 season.