With the first month of the season in the books (and/or down the drain), we're gonna review the Cubs organization and check out the pipeline.
First up, the catching corps:
1. Michael Barrett
6-24 CS (25%) ñ 3 E, 1 PB
18-63 .286, 4 HR 18 RBI, 4 2B, 4 BB/6 K, .324 OBP, .540 SLG
2. Henry Blanco
3-4 CS (75%) - 0 E, 0 PB
2-21 .095, 0 HR 0 RBI, 4 BB/3 K, .240 OBP, .095 SLG
There isnít much Cubs fans donít already know about Michael Barrett and Henry Blanco. Like ex-Cub David Kelton, Barrett was a high school shortstop from the Atlanta area who was moved to 3B after he became a pro. Also like Kelton, Barrett did not remain at the hot corner permanently. While Kelton was moved to LF, Barrett was transformed into a catcher. So it shouldnít be too surprising that Barrett has had his share of growing pains behind the plate. There is no question that he has become a solid major league hitter and run producer (to the extent that he was chosen to play for Team USA in the WBC), but his defense has been a source of frustration for his teams (first the Expos, and now the Cubs), his teamís fans, and Michael himself. Barrettís main problem has been his defensive mechanics (blocking pitches in the dirt, ìsellingî pitches slightly off the plate, and making accurate throws to nab runners trying to steal). There also have been occasional reports that some Cub pitchers (most notably Carlos Zambrano) donít like to throw to Barrett. Although Barrett has improved his defense over the past few years, the Michael Barrett you see behind the plate right now is probably as good as it will get.
A member of Team Venezuela in the WBC and now in his 17th season in professional baseball (and second season with the Cubs), 34-year old Henry Blanco is the prototypical MLB back-up catcher, a good mechanical defender with very good ìcatch & throwî skills. He also is a popular catcher among Cubs pitchers. Blancoís only problem is with his bat, where he is a streaky hitter with only occasional power. While he will never be a #1 major league catcher, he probably can look forward to a couple of more years as a MLB back-up. His future with the Cubs post-2006 depends entirely on whether a cheaper alternative (that is, one of the Cubs youngsters) can be developed to replace him by the end of this season. Blanco will be a free-agent after the 2006 season.
1. Geovany Soto
9-34 CS (26%) ñ 5 E, 0 PB
15-57 .263, 0 HR 4 RBI, 4 2B, 6 BB/13 K, .328 OBP, .333 SLG
2. Casey Kopitzke
2-4 CS (50%) ñ 0 E, 1 PB
3-20 .150, 0 HR 1 RBI, 3 BB/4 K, .261 OBP, .150 SLG
23-year old Geovany Soto is the #1 catcher at AAA Iowa (PCL) for the second season in a row. A native of Puerto Rico and a cousin of former Cubs utility infielder Ramon Martinez, Soto was added to the Cubs 40-man roster after an impressive performance in the Arizona Fall League in 2004, and will have one minor league option left as of Spring Training 2007. Built like a rock, Soto certainly looks a catcher, and has many of the same offensive and defensive attributes and characteristics as Henry Blanco. Also like Blanco, Soto projects as an MLB back-up catcher. Besides experience, the main difference between Blanco and Soto at this point is that Soto is not as accurate with his throwing. If Soto can improve his ìcatch & throwî skills, the Cubs will probably let Blanco walk after the 2006 season and tentatively annoint Geovany Soto as their back-up catcher going into 2007.
Casey Kopitzke is the epitome of the ìorganizational player,î someone who may be short on talent, but who is fundamentally sound, and ready, willing, and able to fill-in when and where needed. Casey might not ever see the light of the big leagues, but I wouldnít be at all surprised if he doesnít end up as a roving catching instructor or maybe even a manager at some point in the future.
WEST TENN (AA)
1. Jose Reyes
3-8 CS (38%) - 0 E, 0 PB
10-36 .278, 0 HR 3 RBI, 2 2B, 0/8 BB/K, .278 OBP, .333 SLG
2. Tony Richie
4-15 CS (27%) - 0 E, 1 PB
11-49 .224, 0 HR 5 RBI, 2 2B, 1/9 BB/K, .250 OBP, .265 SLG
Only a month younger than Geovany Soto and with one year more of professional experience, Dominican Jose Reyes is the #1 catcher at AA West Tenn (SL) for the second consecutive season. A switch-hitter who is even more of a ìsingles hitterî than Soto and Blanco, Reyes was (surprisingly) added to the Cubs 40-man roster after last season, and then had a strong offensive performance in the Dominican Winter League where he was one of the leagueís top hitters. Unlike Soto, Reyes is consistently above league-average at throwing out base-stealers. He is also more ìathleticî than Soto, a faster runner with a stronger and more accurate arm and with cat-like quickness behind the plate. If Soto is the Rock of Gibralter, Reyes is the Black Panther. I was surprised that the Cubs sent Reyes back to AA this season, but obviously itís a matter of wanting to get both Soto and Reyes maximum playing time in 2006. But either one of the two could end up as the Cubs eventual back-up catcher, although Soto will probably get first crack at the #2 job, probably as soon as next season.
Drafted in the 4th round behind Jake Fox in 2003, Tony Richie was a 1st team All-American and All-ACC at Florida State. While Fox has opened eyes with his power and improving defense, Richie seems to be on track to be a minor league back-up catcher. He is an OK hitter (albeit without much power) and OK (but nothing special) defensively, and while itís true that Richie has been promoted to AA while Fox remains at Hi-A, there is no question that Fox has emerged as the better prospect of the two. Richie may be at West Tenn, but he is there as the #2 guy behind Jose Reyes. Richie got more playing time early in the season than he might have originally expected because of a finger injury suffered by Jose Reyes in the first game of the season. Although he could move up to AAA in 2007 and continue as the back-up to Jose Reyes, Richie also just might remain at West Tenn and back-up Jake Fox.
1. Jake Fox
8-31 CS (26%) ñ 3 E, 1 PB
27-83 .325, 5 HR 14 RBI, 6 2B, 9/18 BB/K, .396 OBP, .578 SLG
2. Alan Rick
0-9 CS (0%) ñ 0 E, 3 PB
4-26 .154, 0 HR 3 RBI, 1 2B, 2/5 BB/K, .241 OBP, .192 SLG
3. Olin Wick
1-2 CS (50%) ñ 0 E, 1 PB
3-15 .200, 1 HR 4 RBI, 1 2B, 0/1 BB/K, .200 OBP, .467 SLG
Currently 11th in the Florida State League in hitting, 7th in OPS, and tied for 3rd in home runs, Jacob ìJakeî Fox is older than both Soto and Reyes, but has less professional experience. Selected by the Cubs in the 3rd round of the 2003 Rule 4 (June) Draft out of the University of Michigan (where he was Rich Hillís catcher, as well as 1st team All Big Ten and 3rd team All-American), Fox has progressed somewhat slowly through the system, spending two seasons at Lo-A, and now into his second season at Hi-A Daytona (FSL). He is one of the more-patient hitters in the Cub minor league system, and while he is the only catcher in the organization besides Michael Barrett who could be described as a bonafide dangerous hitter and run producer, Fox has struggled with his defense, and that is what has stymied his progress. He has similar problems as Michael Barrett, in that he needs to work on catching mechanics and throwing. I saw Fox this year in Spring Training, and he seemed to be better at blocking balls in the dirt than when I saw him in the minor league camp in 2004 and 2005. But he still needs to work on his throwing. If he can keep improving his defense, he is a good bet to become a front-line major league catcher, possibly Michael Barrettís eventual replacement. Fox will likely be added to the Cubs 40-man roster after this season, and then spend the 2007 season as the #1 catcher at AA, with a probable MLB arrival in 2009, or possibly as early as 2008.
Alan Rick was a 4th round pick in the 2002 Rule 4 Draft, selected by the Cubs out of a Florida high school. A left-handed hitter with some power, Rick has yet to overcome a significant strikeout problem. Just way too many swings and misses. Couple that with poor defensive skills, and Rick may be on borrowed time as a member of the Cubs organization. Itís amazing that he got promoted to Daytona this year, since he hit only .197 at an even lower level (Peoria) last season.
Olin Wick was selected in the 48th round of the 2004 Rule 4 Draft out of the University of Puget Sound. Wick, a switch-hitter who turns 24 next week, spent the previous two seasons in short-season ìAî leagues. He does not project as anything more than a minor league back-up guy.
1. Mark Reed
7-17 CS (41%) ñ 2 E, 0 PB
12-34 .353, 0 HR 1 RBI, 1 2B, 5/13 BB/K, .450 OBP, .382 SLG
2. Jake Muyco
9-16 CS (56%) ñ 3 E, 0 PB
6-43 .140, 1 HR 5 RBI, 3/8 BB/K, .191 OBP, .209 SLG
3. Justin Morgan
4-8 CS (50%) ñ 1 E, 0 PB
1-7 .143, 0 HR 0 RBI, 0/4 BB/K, .143 OBP, .286 SLG
A 3rd round pick in the 2004 Rule 4 (June) Draft and younger brother of Seattle Mariners CF Jeremy Reed, 20-year old Mark Reed is making another try to master Lo-A (where he hit .135 last year). So far, so good, more or less. A left-handed hitter with a plus arm, Reed is generally doing OK at bat, as well as behind the plate. While he hasnít displayed any power so far at Peoria (MWL), his line-drive stroke is working real well to the tune of .353. On the other hand, he has struck out once in every three PA. Reed is likely to move up the pipeline to Hi-A Daytona in 2007.
Sharing catching duties at Peoria with Mark Reed, 2005 8th round draft pick Jake Muyco (North Carolina State) is probably the best ìcatch & throwî guy in the Cubs minor league system. When Muyco is catching and Jesus Yepez (who has the best pick-off move in the Cub organization) is pitching, the opponents may be at more of a disadvantage with runners on base than they are with the bases empty! MWL teams have learned not to try and run on Muyco. Unfortunately, Jake must have attended the Steve Lake Famous Catchers School at NC State, because he just canít hit the side of a barn, much less a baseball. So for Muyco, itís just a matter of learning to hit, one of the hardest things to do in sports if you donít have the aptitude. Still, Muyco will likely take his cannon arm and follow Reed to Daytona in 2007.
The third catcher at Peoria is Justin Morgan, who was selected by the Cubs in the 39th round of the 2005 Rule 4 Draft out of the University of Louisiana ñ Lafayette, and who spent last season at Mesa (AZL) where he hit only .221 with 20 K in 69 PA. Like so many catchers who pass through the Cubs system, Morganís defensive abilities far outshine his offensive skills.
Still in Extended Spring Training and yet to be assigned to a club in 2006, Yusuf Carter
(6í3 215) could be a very special player. It was thought during Spring Training that Yusuf might start the season at Peoria, but now it appears that the switch-hitting 21-year old will be the #1 catcher at Boise (NWL) when the Northwest League season commences in mid-June. A 2003 graduate of Canarsie HS in Brooklyn, NY, and a 12th round selection in the 2005 Rule 4 (June) Draft out of El Paso CC, Carter is considered to have one of the ìlivelierî bats in the organization. Before being drafted and signed by the Cubs last year, he had been selected in the June draft twice previously (but did not sign), first by the Seattle Mariners in 2003, and then by the Oakland A's in 2004. He is the nephew of long-time MLB outfielder and ex-Cubs broadcaster Joe ("And Rightfully So") Carter, who was the #1 pick of the Cubs in the 1981 June Draft.
Carterís primary back-up at Boise will probably be Peter Farina
, who spent some time at West Tenn this past month while Jose Reyes was recovering from a finger injury. The 22-year old Farina played college ball at Virginia Commonwealth (where he was Sean Marshallís catcher), and was the Cubs 21st round selection in the 2005 June Draft.
Another catcher likely to be assigned to Boise is 19-year old Dominican Mario Mercedes
, who hit .298 last season at Mesa. Like fellow Dominican receiver Jose Reyes, Mercedes is shorter, quicker, and more athletic than a lot of the other catchers in the system.
Also at Extended Spring Training and a little bit further down the pipeline is Welington Castillo
(just one "L" in Welington), who will likely be the #1 catcher at Rookie-A Mesa (AZL) in 2006. A 19-year old from the Dominican Republic, Castillo is a solid receiver and a good hitter and run producer with above-average plate discipline (.378 OBP at Dominican Summer League in í05).
Unlike scouts from the Díbacks and the Dodgers, Cub scouts rarely forage into Mexico, but they did at least once last year and signed catcher Enrique Lujan
. A strong kid from Saltillo, the 21-year old 6í3 220 Lujan has outstanding power that also comes with about one strikeout in every three plate appearances. He played in the Mexican League last season at Tijuana, and will likely be assigned to Mesa (AZL) in June, where he will probably share playing-time with Welington Castillo and any other catchers the Cubs may select in the June draft.
(Venezuela) and Carlos T. Perez
and Alvaro Sosa
(Dominican Republic) will likely remain in their homelands for one more year, playing for the Cubs affiliates in the Venezuelan and Dominican summer leagues.
ONE MORE THING
Also of note is the luck the Cubs have had converting a couple of their catchers to pitchers after they failed to master the art of hitting. Both Carlos Marmol
(who was added to the 40-man roster after last season) and Randy Wells
(who was a non-roster invitee to Spring Training and is a strong candidate to be added to the 40-man roster after the 2006 season) are former Cubs catching prospects who were transformed into pitchers. And now Oscar Bernard
, who was the #1 catcher at Peoria last season, is making the transition to pitcher. It will be interesting to see if Bernard progresses as fast and as well as Marmol and Wells.