Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Farm Fresh - Minor League Catchers

Aye, Carimba! The Bucs have a handful of backstops at the top level, and then...well, it's baseball's version of Miss Jan's Romper Room.

First, we don't think that there's any plan afoot to move Ryan Doumit from behind the plate. The Bucs believe that their corners are pretty well manned, once Nate McLouth and Brandon Moss flank the CF in-waiting, Andrew McCutchen, with Jose Tabata in the wings.

First base? We'll see if they sign up Adam LaRoche for another tour of duty, which is likely given the state of 1B in the minors, before that's even a thought. And if you move Doumit for Paulino, Chavez, or Diaz, you're replacing a middle-of-the-order rocket launcher with a popgun, and the Pirates can't afford to do that.

Plus he stayed relatively healthy, with his injuries being the usual catcher blues - a whacked finger and a few balls bounced off the noggin. His glove work became more solid as the year went on, except for a brief August regression. He's set in stone for the Buc's catching duties, at least for the short term.

Dinosaur Raul Chavez gives the Pirates a strong arm, good head, and .250 bat whenever Doumit needs a blow, and has a work ethic that we can only hope rubs off on the youngsters, especially Paulino.

Ronny Paulino has been a minor and winter league monster at the plate since his demotion, and is out of options. So he stays - unless he's dealt, which is probably the plan.

Robinzon Diaz was a good return for Jose Bautista, filling in a crying need in the Pittsburgh organization. He'll most probably start at Indy, and will eventually replace Chavez. But he's a Punch-and-Judy hitter, and doesn't appear to be anything more than Doumit's caddy in the scheme of things.

Baseball Prospectus has this scouting report on him: "Diaz is a little bit of an anomaly: A catcher who hits like a middle infielder, with good contact-hitting ability, a very low strikeout rate, and above-average speed. His defense is quite good."

They also forecast him as a .270-.275 MLB hitter. With some power, that's a nice range. Without it...

When the Pirates pulled Neil Walker from behind the plate and moved him to third, the catching conga line took a spill. The Pirates have two guys in the minors that are fairly young, and should start at Altoona and Lynchburg in 2009. The first is Steve Lerud.

Now entering his sixth pro season, Lerud, 23, started the 2008 season at Lynchburg, and was promoted to Altoona in July.

He was picked by the Pirates in the third round of the 2003 draft from Galena HS in Nevada, where he claimed all of Matt William's records. But a broken foot stopped Lerud from playing after he signed. He was hurt again in 2005 when a wayward pitch broke his hand.

Lerud finally got out of baby ball in 2006, and hit .239 with 12 HR for Hickory. He also K'ed 146 times in 393 ABs and allowed 35 passed balls.

His father, whom he was very close to, passed away in 2007, and Lerud was on the DL a couple of times. It was a completely wasted season, with the big lefty hitting .202 at Lynchburg.

But he showed some signs of life for the Hillcats in 2008, hitting .256 with 8 HRs before moving on to Altoona. Lerud didn't exactly light it up there, batting .233 with 4 HRs, but it was his first taste of AA.

One promising sign was his defense, which vastly improved. Some think his early woes had more to do with the sad sack staffs he caught than his ability. He's hitting .263 at Scottsdale in the AFL, though his OBP is higher than his slugging average.

As Wilbur Miller says: "Lerud will play next year at 24 and catchers often develop slowly. A LH-hitting catcher who can play solid defense and has a little power and a willingness to draw a walk has some value."

Not exactly a Matt Weiter type endorsement, but hey. Steve Lerud is the best we have toiling in the minors. He should start at Altoona and could end up in AAA sometime during the 2009 season. Lerud's Rule 5 eligible, but a pretty safe bet to slide through this year.

The other potential hope in the system is Andrew Walker.

Walker was a fifth round selection in 2007, out of TCU. He was a .300+ hitter for the Frogs with some pop in his bat, but was an overdraft because of the alarming lack of depth at the catching spot in the Pirate's minor league system.

He stroked the ball pretty well at State College that year, hitting .317. Walker was promoted to Hickory in 2008, where he hit .256 with 7 HRs in 212 ABs, playing with a bum ankle for much of the year. The 22-year old struck out once every 4 at-bats, and drew only 9 walks, so his eye sure could use some sharpening.

Walker doesn't have a strong arm, but still nailed 30% of the basepath larcenists that challenged him, not a bad figure for A ball. He should get the call at Lynchburg for 2009.

The other backstops are 24-year old Kris Watts, a lefty with a big bat and porous glove, and three youngsters - Ronald Pena and Josue Peley, both 21, and 20-year old Miguel Mendez. They'll pick up the slack in the lower levels. None are considered hot prospects at this point, but time will tell.

So behind the logjam at the top of the system, the Pirates are peach fuzzy behind the plate throughout the rest of the organization. The good news is that both of the hopefuls are young - Lerud will be 24 and Walker 23 next season - and have time to grow.

The bad news? Neither one appears to be anywhere near MLB ready, nor a sure bet to ever be.

The Pirates seem set at the MLB level, so they should have the couple or three seasons it'll take for a prospect to percolate through the system. They should get through the short term OK.

(Farm Fresh is a periodical series of posts looking at the state of the Pirate's farm system. Other positions covered were shortstop and second base.)


Big Snack said...

Any chance they draft a catcher in the early rounds this year or do ya think they're happy with who they got?

Ron Ieraci said...

Can't say, Rock - I don't know how strong the position is in the draft, and the Bucs aren't deep enough anywhere to bypass anyone.
They still have time - Doumit and Diaz are young. Still, if there's a backstop with some pedigree hanging around between the 5th and 10th round, I think they may take a look at snagging him.