Unless something goofy happens over the next few weeks, Ivan Rodriguez and Vance Wilson will break camp as the catching duo in Detroit. There shouldn't be any surprises here, as these two veterans are certainly the organizations best Major League options at the position.
The catching duties at AAA-Toledo and AA-Erie are a bit up in the air, with three players battling it out for the two catching slots in Toledo. The one catcher left out of the Toledo mix, will help handle the backstop duties with Erie this season. The Tigers brought in minor league veteran Brian Peterson as a 6-year minor league free agent this offseason, and he will have an inside track on one of the two positions with the Mud Hens. Peterson spent the last five seasons with the Cincinnati organization, reaching AA in 2003, and remaining there through last season. His bat is mediocre at best, but his defensive skills will be an asset.
Both of Erie's catchers in 2005, Max St. Pierre and Mike Rabelo, will also be competing for time in AAA. Because of his superior defensive reputation and progressing offensive abilities, St. Pierre is the far more likely candidate to head to Toledo. Look for Max to handle the majority of the Mud Hens catching duties in 2006, with Peterson serving as his backup.
Assuming the aforementioned takes place at Toledo, Rabelo will be headed back to Erie in 2006, where he will likely split time behind the plate and at first base. Manning the majority of the innings behind the plate for the Seawolves will be Danilo Sanchez. Danilo is coming off his best professional season, and seems to really be taking flight offensively. Despite being old for his league, Sanchez is an intriguing player who still has a shot to contribute at the Major League level if he can handle the jump to AA this season. Between Rabelo and Sanchez, Erie should get average defense and solid offensive production out of the position.
With the Tigers aggressively pushing third round choice Chris Robinson to West Michigan after the draft last year, he will almost certainly receive another promotion to high-A Lakeland in 2006. Robinson is a very good defensive catcher, trailing only Max St. Pierre as one of the top defensive catchers in the system. However, Chris's bat still has significant room to grow, and it will be interesting to watch his offensive development after a challenging assignment this season.
Vying for Lakeland's backup duties will likely be Andrew Graham and Joel Roa. Despite having played 26 games for the L-Tigers over the last two years, Roa is unlikely to make the leap to high-A, after spending nearly the entire 2005 campaign at short-season-A Oneonta. He has struggled with his bat at every stop and appears to be viewed as more of an organizational stopgap at this time. Graham has also struggled with the bat, but brings strong defensive skills and durability to the backup role, and has more potential at the plate than Roa. After a late season promotion to Lakeland in 2005, look for Graham to return there and team with Robinson to help lead the ‘06 Lakeland pitching staff.
The low-A West Michigan Whitecaps will have quite a battle for their catching duties this season. Leading the pack will be returning catcher Dusty Ryan. Ryan has as ton of raw potential both offensively and defensively, but struggled to get on track in 2005, and lost at-bats down the stretch to Robinson. Despite his struggles, expect Ryan to receive the majority of the playing time early on, as the organization hopes he can return to the form he showed with Oneonta in 2004.
The second catching slot on the ‘Caps roster will be a dog fight between Roa, Chris Torres, Daniel Sandoval, Cole Miller, and James Skelton. Torres is the most polished hitter of the group, and his catch-and-throw skills made strides both during his senior season at Cumberland and during his professional debut. While being in the mix for the West Michigan job, Sandoval, Miller, and Skelton will be long shots to jump from the GCL to the Midwest League this season.
Prior to being placed on the Military List, and deciding to fulfill his obligations to the US Army, Schuyler Williamson likely had the inside track on the job in West Michigan. With his absence, Chris Torres will look to step up and seize the opportunity.
Remaining catchers such as Roa, Skelton, Sandoval, and Miller will continue to battle throughout extended spring training, hoping for an assignment to Oneonta or the GCL Tigers later this summer.
The organization has made a conscious effort to bring lots of catching options into the system in recent years, and now they must find at-bats for all of them to avoid stagnating their progress. The top three possibilities to succeed Pudge in Detroit over the next two years are considered to be St. Pierre, Sanchez, and Robinson. While all three have their faults, they all currently project as Major League backups at a minimum. If one of them can take a step forward in 2006, they could distinguish themselves as the leading candidate to replace Rodriguez upon his departure.