Unmasking the next wave of catchers

MESA, Ariz. – His name had surfaced the night before as one of the prospects the Atlanta Braves might give up in a deal to acquire San Diego Padres ace Jake Peavy, a minor leaguer unknown to most baseball fans but high on the lists of scouts who spend their late-autumn afternoons watching the developmental Arizona Fall League.

After catching prospect Tyler Flowers hit three home runs last Wednesday for the Mesa Solar Sox, one carrying farther into the desert air than the one preceding it, however, a scout looked up and said, "The Padres can forget about that guy."

Coincidence or not, the next day Padres general manager Kevin Towers said that trade talks had broken off with the Braves. And while the expectation is that the teams will reopen negotiations at some point, there is little doubt that Flowers' performance here – he begins this week with a league-leading 11 home runs and a .373 batting average – has stamped him as an up-and-comer at a position that in recent years has been short on quality in the major leagues.

The 6-4, 245-pound Flowers, who doesn't turn 23 until Jan. 24 and has not yet played above Class A, is not alone. As catchers such as Jason Varitek of the Boston Red Sox, Jorge Posada of the New York Yankees and free agent Pudge Rodriguez near the end of their distinguished careers, a new generation of receivers is bubbling in the pipeline, with players such as Flowers and Taylor Teagarden, Matt Wieters and J.P. Arencibia, Mike McKenry and Jesus Montero advancing rapidly at the game's most demanding position.

Teagarden, 24, already is in the big leagues with the Texas Rangers, who also have veteran Gerald Laird and two other well regarded young catchers, Jarrod Saltalamacchia and Max Ramirez. This makes the Rangers the most logical trading partner for teams looking for a catcher, including the Red Sox, who are seeking options in case they do not re-sign free agent Varitek.

The teams looking for immediate help behind the plate are likely to be disappointed, but give it a couple of years. That's when the next wave should hit, judging by the talent on display here, where big-league clubs send many of their top young prospects.

"Catching in this league is a lot better than in the International League, I'll tell you that," said Gary Allenson, who managed the Triple-A Norfolk Tides and in the Arizona Fall League as manager of the Surprise Rafters.

The Rafters have one of the game's top catching prospects in Matt Wieters, the fifth player drafted overall in 2007, who last season was named the top prospect in the Baltimore Orioles' organization, as well as possessing the best defensive tools in the minors by Baseball America.

Wieters, a switch-hitter listed at 6-5 and 230 pounds, hit a combined .355 in his first season of pro ball in 2008, including .365 with 12 home runs in just 61 games in Double-A.

He hasn't put up similar numbers in the AFL, partly, Allenson suspects, because he's tired, never having caught so many games before in one year. A former backup catcher for the Red Sox and Toronto Blue Jays, Allenson said Wieters is also just now learning one of the most important components of a catcher's craft, calling a game.

"The hard part is, these guys nowadays, from Little League on, someone in the dugout is going like this," said Allenson, mimicking giving a sign. "They do it in Little League, in high school, college. Wieters didn't call a game until he got to pro ball. But he does a pretty good job of recognizing swings."

What is problematic, Allenson said, is that clubs are too often inclined to overlook a catcher's defensive deficiencies if he can hit 20 homers and drive in 80 runs. "I think the biggest problem," Allenson said, "is that you don't get paid to block pitches in the dirt.

"But if I can't block your breaking ball in the dirt, then you're not going to want to throw it when you need to throw it. And because if you do throw it in the dirt and it'll get by me, instead you hang it, and bad things happen."

That said, Allenson said he is impressed with what he has seen from Wieters behind the plate. "He's pretty good, especially for a big guy. "He's got really good hands. How big is Joe Mauer? (6-foot-5). He won a Gold Glove this year."

Stan Cliburn, who manages Triple-A Rochester for the Twins, has two of the top catching prospects in the AFL in Toronto's Arencibia, another first-rounder in 2007 who matched Alex Rodriguez's high school home run record at Miami's Westminster Christian Academy, then hit 27 home runs this season split between Class A Dunedin and Class AA New Hampshire, and McKenry, a 7th-round pick of the Rockies in 2006 who came out of Middle Tennessee State without the fanfare of his Phoenix Deserts Dog teammate.

"J.P. has had a little sore back," Cliburn said, "and this McKenry kid has taken every opportunity to be the leader of this club with his bat. He's tearing up the league with home runs and RBIs."

McKenry has nine home runs, second in the league behind Flowers, and he and Arencibia both rank among the league leaders with 23 RBIs.

"But it's his job behind the plate that has impressed me, blocking balls and throwing runners out."

McKenry is generously listed at 5 foot 10 and weighs 200 pounds. "I call him Hack Wilson," Allenson said. "I'm 5-10, and I can eat peanuts off the top of his head. But it doesn't matter, the way that guy hits. He's impressive. Stranger things can happen. How big is Pudge Rodriguez? (5-9)."

Cliburn, another former catcher (one year in the big leagues with the Angels, 13 in the minors) had Mauer as he advanced through the Twins' system.

"He was such a natural, I only taught Joe Mauer two things because he was so polished when we got him as an 18 year-old kid," Cliburn said. "His footwork was tremendous, his arm strength was tremendous. He was born with hands that were developed. He was a scout's dream, with 8's (the highest score on the scouting register) across the board.

"But Joe is such a tall guy, we weren't getting a lot of low strikes. When he was receiving the ball, he was catching it deep, in here, instead of with his arms extended out front. He's so tall, the umpire was not getting a good read. So we worked on that.

"The good ones, they take pride in their catching. Arencibia is the same way. He says how he's got to work on his hands, that they've got to be softer. The catchers that know they have a 'plus' bat, they know if they want to become a Varitek or a Posada or a Pudge Rodriguez, they have to polish their games behind the plate as well.

"Johnny Bench was a great hitter – he hit all those home runs for the Reds &nadsh; but he was a great thrower and receiver, a guy who went an entire season without committing a passed ball."

One major league executive in Arizona last week said he was encouraged by the catching he saw there. He mentioned Mesa's Lou Marson, who hit .314 for the Phillies' Double-A team and caught for the USA team that won the bronze medal in the Beijing Olympics, and Montero, a top Yankees' prospect who last summer played in the Class A Sally League.

Is there an impact catcher on the horizon?

"It could be Wieters, as far as pure impact," the executive said. "There may be a Geovany Soto (the Cubs catcher named the National League Rookie of the Year) in here that we don't even know yet.

"In this league, sometimes you see kids trying to do too much. It's almost the big leagues for some of these guys, and it's human nature to try to do too much.

"Arencibia, if he keeps his bat going, his defense is plenty good for me. He's going to be fine. Flowers can catch and throw – he's got a great arm. He's just so big and strong, I sometimes wonder how he gets it all going. Is he going to be able to get rid of it quick. I'd like to see him work more on agility drills. But he's driven to make himself better.

"Changing of the guard? Yeah, you can see it coming."