Twins catching factory

In my last article, I talked about the Twins bright pitching future, fueled by recent draft excellence. In the comments, I asked a trivia question: What former Twins catchers are currently in the major leagues? Twintown, who is master of baseball cards and roster info, had the answer within minutes.

Catchers

Rob Bowen, Damien Miller, Javier Valentin, A.J. [Pierzinski], Chad Moeller (now at AAA Reds).

Former Twins catching about are Henry Blanco (Cubs), Corky Miller (Braves AAA), Danny Ardoin (Houston AAA). Eric Munson, a spring training invitee, is still with the AAA Astros. Former draft choices who didn't sign -- Jason Varitek and Josh Bard -- are still going strong.

Matt LeCroy is laboring for a comeback.

Some former Twins catchers are minor league managers: Brian Harper, Matt Walbeck, Marcus Jensen, JayHawk Owens and Danny Scheffer (from the farm system), Butch Wynegar.

Not all of the above names were developed in the Twins farm system, but many of them were. Going way back, we of course can add Rick Stelmaszek to the list of former Twin catchers who are current coaches. And Phil Roof only recently retired after a long and excellent career managing in AAA. It is an enviable record, to go along with the greatest catching prospect to ever come through the system: Joe Mauer.

Everyone held their breath when Mauer got hurt in spring training with a stress reaction in his leg. I guess he discovered the limit to how much running he should do in the offseason--less than he did last offseason, a lot less. As fans did when he hurt his knee, all the talk centered on his long-term future as a catcher. Most fans want his bat in the line-up and know that it will be somewhat diminished if he stays behind the plate. So the injury was a reason to bang that gong.

I for one think he's most valuable behind the plate, and his great bat is a bonus to the effortless way he plays the game as a catcher. So I hope he follows in the footsteps of guys like Pudge (the first one), and has a long career as a tall catcher.

But the possibility for a long-term injury to Mauer persists, as it does for any player on the roster, and more so for a catcher. This is why I was sad to see Rob Bowen sent through waivers and claimed by the Padres a couple of springs ago. He has shown that he is a major league catcher who could provide depth in case of a Mauer injury. But rules are rules, and he has a good job. So the Twins have to crank up the catching factory once again and develop good depth at the position.

Prior to this year, the system looked pretty grim for catchers. The Twins had drafted and signed a lot of catchers the last couple of years. But none of them had played much above A ball. The only real prospect--Jose Morales--above A ball had not played much in his time since being drafted out of Puerto Rico in the third round of the same draft in which Mauer was taken #1 overall. In his minor league career, he was constantly injured, and when he did play, he could never get into a good rhythm. So most prospect watchers completely forgot about him (me included), and focussed on the prospects at the lower levels when decrying the Twins catching depth.

Despite all the injuries, Morales has been moved along one level at a time, as the organization does with its prospects, results or no. It's a testament to how good Mauer is that he's already had an arbitration year, whereas Morales is just now getting to AAA. But he's making the most of his opportunity down there. I watch as many of the  Rochester games as I can on Gameday and it seems like he's one of the teams' better hitters (.319/.374/.440/.813), prompting Stan Cliburn to put him in the number 3 spot in the order. He's also thrown out some runners and is catching the best pitching staff in the IL. When people talk about bringing a bat up, I'm sure Morales crosses their minds. But that thought is quickly erased because they don't want to start the clock too soon on him, and he really needs to catch. He hasn't caught that much in his life--he is a converted shortstop, and of course there were all the injuries in the minors. So I expect him to stay down there until Rochester is done with the playoffs, then perhaps get a September callup or an AFL assignment.

The other major surprise so far this year is the catching tandem in AA. Neither Cory Feiner nor Kyle Geiger were regarded as prospects going into this year. They both are catch-and-throw guys who could be reasonable back-ups down the road. But their hitting has not matched their catching ability. This year, for whatever reason, they both have hit the ball very well in a tough league. Geiger is hitting .366/.435/.537/.971 in just 41 at bats and Feiner is hitting .313/.366/.484/.851 in 49 at bats. I don't expect those totals to continue all year, but it's a great start.

I mentioned recent high draft choices earlier, and the Twins have four of them playing in A ball. Caleb Moore was drafted in the fourth round in 2005. He's playing decently in Fort Myers, but he's not hitting like he did in college. Then again, no one in Fort Myers is. Jeff Christy is the back-up catcher for the Miracle. He was drafted in the sixth round in 2006, and, like Moore, is more of a catch-and-throw prospect. So his lack of hitting is not all that surprising. Javier Sanchez is the third catcher on the team. A mid-round draft choice out of college in 2004, he hasn't hit at all like was expected of him and time is growing short on his career.

The other recent draft pick is Greg Yersich, drafted in the seventh round in 2005. He's started most of the games early in Beloit, but failed to hit, opening the way for more playing time by the most exciting catching prospect in the system--Alan De San Miguel. De San Miguel is a 19-year-old Australian who is said to have excellent physical tools, but has been injured in rookie ball for most of his brief career. When he has been healthy, he has hit decently and shown off a rocket arm and good receiver skills. He has started to hit after a very slow start in Beloit, so many eyes will be on him this season.

The Twins are the envy of baseball in the way they develop catchers, and the 2007 crop is no exception. It represents a nice blend of catch-and-throw guys who project as backups--Geiger, Feiner, Moore, Christy, and Yersich--with a couple of good starting catching prospects--Morales and De San Miguel. Though the Twins appear set at the catching position in the majors for the next few years, it is a physically demanding position that takes a toll on the body. So catching depth is a key aspect of a championship team. Catching is one area that will not hinder the Twins' championship aspirations going forward.

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