Dodgers Depth Chart Analysis: A Backlog of Backstops

Editor’s note: Over the next few weeks, our pal Christopher Jackson of the Albuquerque Baseball Examiner will be looking at the position-by-position organizational depth of the Dodger system. Today, catchers. Enjoy! — Mike

In the spirit of looking ahead, rather than constantly recapping 2012, I came up with this guest piece, the first in a series, to take an in-depth look at the players at each position in the Dodgers’ farm system. Now, in the spirit of full disclosure, there is no team that is stacked with multiple prospects at every single position. That is a pipe dream that all teams, and their fans, have every year that somehow there is a guy playing X position at Triple-A or Double-A who could seamlessly step into the shoes of his big-league counterpart should an injury or trade occur.

Tim Federowicz remains the Dodgers' top catching prospect, though more for his defense than his bat. (Photo courtesy of the Albuquerque Isotopes)

Tim Federowicz remains the Dodgers’ top catching prospect, though more for his defense than his bat. (Photo courtesy of the Albuquerque Isotopes)

So while it would be easy to say that the Dodgers lack this and lack that in the minors, just about every team could be substituted for Los Angeles in this type of analysis. The purpose of breaking down a team’s depth chart is to gain insight into the type of players it looks for when drafting and scouring the international amateur market. It can be a way to look at the quality of the system, since not every prospect or semi-prospect will actually help his organization, but might end up being traded for a needed piece elsewhere. Last summer the Dodgers dealt from a position of strength/depth, starting pitching, in order to obtain the likes of Adrian Gonzalez, Josh Beckett, Carl Crawford, Shane Victorino, Joe Blanton, etc.

A common refrain this offseason has been “why can’t the Dodgers trade for Superstar Player? They can totally afford anybody now!” The problem lies in a lack of talent in the minors, probably the greatest lingering legacy of the McCourt Era. Good old Frank would simply not give Logan White and his staff the money they needed to spend on elite talent in the draft, and almost completely ignored Latin America.

The good news is the Dodgers have quantity at several positions, though this does not always equate to quality. A good example is catcher, where there are quite a few warm bodies floating around in the minors, but none who seem to stand out as an obvious challenger to A.J. Ellis for starting duties in Los Angeles. Again, this is not unique among Major League organizations. Baseball America has been releasing its top 10 lists by team for a while now, and of the 15 American League teams, only four clubs have a catcher ranked in their top 10. Seattle’s Mike Zunino, a first-round pick in last summer’s draft who has already reached Double-A, is the only sure thing (as much as any prospect can be a sure thing) among those four backstops.

The good news for the Dodgers is that in Ellis, they have a solid, reliable player who has exceeded just about everyone’s expectations so far. His .270/.373/.414 slash line was very solid for a first full season as a big-league starter. A September slump did occur, but the news that he needed minor knee surgery after the season offered at least a plausible explanation for that mini-funk. Of course, Ellis is on the wrong side of 30 and the general fear that, being a catcher and all, a major injury could leave the Dodgers up the proverbial creek without a paddle.

Behind Ellis the Dodgers currently have Tim Federowicz and a bunch of guys who, with a few die-hard exceptions, most Dodger fans could not hope to pick out of a lineup. The one known quantity, at least in name, is Federowicz, the starter at Albuquerque last summer. Acquired from Boston in an unpopular trade back in 2011, Federowicz has developed into a solid defensive catcher, albeit with lingering questions about his bat. His overall line in 2012 (.294/.371/.461, 11 HR, 76 RBI) seems solid, until the usual “but it’s Albuquerque!” comes into play. Federowicz hit a robust .350/.415/.569 at Isotopes Park, .245/.331/.370 elsewhere in the PCL.

Dodgers director of player development De Jon Watson shared this on Federowicz when he visited Isotopes Park in late July: “Defensively he’s definitely made some major strides especially as far as blocking the ball and managing the running game. Offensively the approach is still evolving. He has to get more consistent, trust in the fact that he can go into that right-center field gap. Once he gets that, he’s so quick on the inside it’ll be a reactionary thing for him.”

Federowicz himself agreed with that assessment in a lengthy interview he gave to me last summer.

For better or worse, Federowicz appears to have a clear path to becoming Ellis’ backup in 2013, though many believe he might benefit from full playing time in Albuquerque to keep improving his hitting. Unless the Dodgers sign another catcher between now and Opening Day, Federowicz will be the clear No. 2.

The Dodgers, amid all of their injuries in 2012, were lucky to get through the season really only using Ellis and the now-departed Matt Treanor behind the plate. But rarely does good luck strike twice, so what lies beneath among the Dodgers’ minor-league backstops? It’s not full of future stars, but at least there are some options down the line.

Wilkin Castillo: The offseason’s token (so far) veteran free agent signing, Castillo has limited MLB experience with the Reds and can also play the infield if needed. Right now, he projects as the starter in Albuquerque, largely due to the lack of forward progress shown by the next two catchers on this list. He is coming off a middling .254/.273/.365 season with Colorado Springs, the only Triple-A team that plays at a higher elevation than the Isotopes.

Gorman “Griff” Erickson: A breakout player in 2011 with Rancho Cucamonga and Chattanooga, Erickson flopped in a second stint with the Lookouts, batting .234/.345/.328. A 15th-round draft pick out of San Diego Mesa JC back in 2006, Erickson was a late bloomer, but now he appears to be a mirage of inflated Cal League stats. Expect him to repeat with Chattanooga again, with the Dodgers hoping his patience at the plate (44 walks vs. 56 strikeouts) can eventually help him rediscover his missing swing.

Matt Wallach: Son of third base coach Tim, this Wallach has a rep of being all defense, no offense. His stats at Chattanooga bear that out (.232/.340/.321), though he would have been bumped up to Albuquerque for the PCL playoffs if not for a minor injury late in the year. If he can stay healthy, the former Cal State Fullerton Titan has a shot at being Castillo’s backup, or possibly even his platoon partner (Wallach hits lefty, Castillo is right-handed) with the Isotopes. This will be a pivotal spring for Wallach.

Chris O’Brien: The starter at Rancho Cucamonga most of last season, O’Brien fits the recent mold of most Dodgers draft picks at the position — he was a collegian, his bat was considered more advanced than his defense, and the club has been willing to promote him aggressively. O’Brien did not exactly light it up with the Quakes, batting .252/.305/.377 with seven home runs and 44 RBI. He was considered a better hitter than fielder in college, with his pitch-calling his greatest defensive attribute. A switch hitter, he should join Erickson in Chattanooga this year.

Pratt Maynard: If for nothing else than the quality of his name, Maynard was the rare drafted Dodgers catcher who inspired interest among prospect mavens. A third-round pick out of N.C. State in 2011, Maynard was considered a bit of an over-draft, and it showed in his first full season, where he hit a combined .248/.321/.335 with just three home runs and 37 RBI between Rancho and Great Lakes. Baseball America said prior to the draft that Maynard “needs work in all aspects of defense,” while praising his plate discipline and line-drive power. He did not show much of either, yet, but he is still young. The odds favor him as the starter at either Rancho or Great Lakes, depending on his performance in spring training.

Steve Domecus: Yet another catcher who was praised for his bat and referred to as a future left fielder when he was drafted, Domecus barely played in 2012 for undisclosed reasons. He hit .277/.362/.386 with eight RBI for the Quakes. Due to the uncertain nature of his status, Domecus could end up just about anywhere in the Dodgers’ farm system, though a return to Rancho to pair his right-handed bat with the switch-hitting Maynard seems likely.

Jan Vazquez: A native of Puerto Rico, Vazquez was drafted in the sixth round off the island back in 2009. He has not played much since, bouncing around from team to team, often as a third-string catcher. He hit just .252/.321/.299 in 2012, including a late cameo at Chattanooga. Vazquez might not even end up on a roster to start the season, instead waiting in extended spring until an injury crops up.

Michael Pericht: Quick, who led all Dodgers minor-league catchers in home runs? If you guessed Pericht, buy yourself a beer or the non-alcoholic beverage of your choice. Those 12 homers, though, were about the extent of the highlights for the former 16th-round draft pick out of a small Indiana college (back in 2009). Pericht hit .229/.326/.458 while bouncing around the system in 2012. He has more value than Vazquez, but will probably just end up the backup at Rancho or Great Lakes.

Tyler Ogle: A late promotion to Albuquerque suddenly put Ogle on people’s radar, but it was mainly due to Wallach’s aforementioned injury and Great Lakes being well out of the playoff chase at that point. Ogle’s overall numbers — .340/.432/.590, 9 HR, 38 RBI — look great at first glance, but consider that he was a college player dominating the Arizona League for most of the summer. He is another draft pick, ninth round out of Oklahoma in 2011, who was praised for his bat and downgraded for his defense, particularly a “fringy arm.” Ogle would probably benefit from a full season at Rancho or Great Lakes and seems unlikely to return to the Isotopes in 2013.

Eric Smith: A high school shortstop who did not play catcher until his junior year at Stanford, Smith was the Dodgers’ 18th-round pick last summer. He appeared as much as a designated hitter as he did behind the plate with Ogden, batting a robust .336/.417/.492 with three homers and 55 RBI. He is actually not considered a bad defender, just inexperienced at the position. He deserves a promotion to Great Lakes, which in turn could push someone like Pericht into limbo.

Jose Capellan, J.J. Ethel, Austin Cowen, John Cannon, Andrew Edge: The other random backstops who played sparingly for Ogden and/or the AZL Dodgers last summer. They are all organizational types, none drafted higher than the 24th round. All seem likely to bide their time in extended spring, though not all will make it through the regular spring.

All in all, it is not the most impressive group, but there is enough depth to cover for an injury or two, in the Minors, at least. Like most teams, the Dodgers have struggled to find capable catchers. Their recent preference for college players with more advanced bats than defensive skills is interesting, seemingly born out of a belief that it might be easier to teach a young man to catch than hit. Perhaps it is just a reflection of the position at the amateur level, where there are plenty of people who can catch, but few who can catch well, and most of those are long gone from the draft board by the time the Dodgers get around to finding catchers to fill out their organization every summer.

Look for corner infielders up next in this series, where the more interesting names seem to lie on the side of the diamond where the Dodgers are set, and not at the position they are in need of help.

Dodgers Lacking in Prime Prospect Trade Bait

Editor’s note: Hooray, four days without Dodger baseball! It’s a much-needed break. Today, we welcome back Christopher Jackson of the Albuquerque Baseball Examiner, who did such a good job providing us with an early Isotope status check in April. We talk so much about how the Dodgers have “a lot of starting pitching prospects” without actually looking into how they’re doing, so Christopher reviews how the young arms are coming along through the break. -Mike

The All-Star break is upon us. It is boring. Talking about the impending trade deadline is a lot more interesting. For better or worse, most of that trade talk deals with who the Dodgers are going to get, not how they are going to acquire those players. It takes two to tango, after all, and while some in the comments section might pop off with “just trade Jerry Sands for Justin Upton!” it is time to take a more realistic look at what the Dodgers have on the farm at midseason.

Mike did a solid analysis on the plus and minuses of trading No. 1 prospect Zach Lee already. The problem is that after Lee, things drop off fairly quickly within the organization. There is a reason that Stan Kasten and company have been said to be seeking to take on salary relief instead of giving up a lot of prospects that the organization simply does not have.

The Dodgers have a fair amount of depth in pitching, though in most cases potential will have to outweigh current performance. Most of the pitchers have at least been decent, but there are no real breakout performers. The starters at Double-A Chattanooga are heating up enough to potentially generate more interest. The position players have, by and large, struggled and few if any would bring back anything in return.

So let us break down the pitching prospects in the Dodgers system besides Lee and those prospects up with the Dodgers (e.g. Eovaldi, Van Slyke). All the rankings come from Baseball America.

No. 2 Allen Webster: This season has been a mixed bag for Webster, whose record (3-8) with Chattanooga is not really indicative of how he has pitched. His ERA (4.30) is decent and he has 73 strikeouts to 33 walks in 81 2/3 innings. The Dodgers did move him to the bullpen for five games earlier in the season, but it was temporary and he has posted a 2.25 ERA in seven starts since returning.

No. 5 Chris Reed: Last year’s first-round draft pick has gone 1-4 with a 2.52 ERA between Single-A Rancho Cucamonga and Chattanooga. He has struck out 51 in 50 innings spread over 11 starts and one relief appearance. The Dodgers have kept him on a tight pitch count as they stretch him out from college closer to future big-league starter.

No. 6 Garrett Gould: Well, we know the Astros were interested in the 20-year-old in the failed trade for Carlos Lee and the Dodgers are willing to move him. He has the usual Cal League blemishes (2-6 record, 4.96 ERA), but much like Webster, his record is deceiving. He has 77 strikeouts to 28 walks in 78 innings. Gould has arguably the best pure stuff in the system, something certain teams tend to cherish over actual results.

No. 7 Chris Withrow: The most frustrating arm in the organization is scuffling again in his fourth season with Chattanooga. He still walks too many (28 in 45 2/3 innings) and this year has had trouble staying healthy. At this point his future might lie in relief, so clubs that like to have lots of projectable relievers (looking at you, Padres) should have an interest.

No. 12 Angel Sanchez: The 22-year-old Dominican popped up out of nowhere last year and threw well at Low-A Great Lakes (8-4, 2.82, 84 Ks in 99 IP). Much like Gould, he has found the Cal League a tougher go, already allowing more hits (96) and home runs (12) than last season in 16 fewer innings. He could be ticketed for relief if his curveball does not improve.

No. 14 Scott Barlow: Last year’s sixth-round draft pick has yet to throw a pitch this season, making evaluating him fairly tough. He reportedly had Tommy John surgery recently, and may not be back at full strength until late next year or 2014, ruining any trade value he may have had.

No. 16 Aaron Miller: A sports hernia limited the southpaw to just 36 innings last season. Healthy this year, walks have been his nemesis (45 in 79 1/3 innings) with Chattanooga. His fastball velocity has dropped since he was drafted in 2009, a warning sign to most teams to stay away.

No. 17 Ethan Martin: Withrow’s rival for most perplexing has bounced back, somewhat, from a dismal 2011 campaign. He leads Chattanooga in ERA (2.99), but like Miller has been held back by walks (49 in 93 1/3 innings). Command has always been Martin’s biggest issue and despite the shiny ERA this year, it is clear he has still not turned the corner.

No. 23 Ryan O’Sullivan: The younger brother of former Royal Sean O’Sullivan, Ryan has already jumped from Great Lakes to Rancho Cucamonga this season. He has now made 15 relief appearances to nine starts, but the Dodgers view him as a potential starter down the line. O’Sullivan has a history of injuries at the college level.

No. 24 Josh Wall: The Isotopes closer has an above-average slider and a fastball he seems almost afraid to command. He coughed up three home runs in one inning in his final appearance of the first half on Sunday. If Wall could regain his confidence in his fastball he could at least be another cheap bullpen option, though he is likely a middle reliever/set-up man at the next level.

Taking early stock of the Isotopes

While Mike is on vacation, he asked me to offer up some thoughts about the Albuquerque Isotopes and how what amounts to the Dodgers’ reserve team is shaping up as the season begins. The ‘Topes have only been home for a total of eight days so far this season — they begin their fourth road series of the year tonight at New Orleans (Marlins) — so this is all a very, very preliminary analysis of the 25 players I have observed.

Catchers Tim Federowicz and Josh Bard

FedEx is the man on the spot, the lone Isotope ranked by Baseball America in the Dodgers’ top 10 prospects. While plenty of fans are still smarting about last year’s trade that sent Trayvon Robinson packing and brought Fed and two pitchers to the organization, so far the young backstop is showing promise. “He’s been a lot better this year, he’s a lot more patient,” manager Lorenzo Bundy said of Fed’s hitting (.292/.365/.477). The swing-first, pull-everything mentality from last season is all but gone. Defensively he has looked sharp, making strong throws to second, blocking the plate well and doing a good job of working with the pitching staff. As for Bard, as the Isotopes’ oldest player (34, which makes him the only player on the team older than me … yikes), he has not played much, but he has played well, batting .385 (10-for-26). “Obviously, Josh with his experience … it’s like having an extra coach floating around here,” Bundy said. “He takes the leadership role. He knows his role on this club and he’s ready at any time.”

First baseman Jeff Baisley

Jeff Baisley has been a good presence in the lineup. (Photo courtesy of the Albuquerque Isotopes.)

The veteran slugger has played well so far, batting .313/.390/.531 with three homers and a team-leading 16 RBI. Though primarily a third baseman with Salt Lake (Angels) last season, he has handled first base well defensively and it clearly has not had an impact on his hitting. Personality-wise, he keeps it serious on the field and keeps it loose during batting practice and in the clubhouse. Though he is viewed as a leader, Baisley said he has not had to overly assert himself so far. He certainly continues the recent tradition of high-character veterans the Dodgers like to have in Albuquerque.

Second baseman Alex Castellanos

Though currently on the disabled list with a strained left hamstring (return date unknown), the converted outfielder has been solid so far at the plate (.366/.477/.746), while overcoming the defensive obstacles that come with returning to his old position. The big issue for Castellanos offensively lies with his ability to overcome his aggressive, swing-first mentality. In the field, throwing has been the biggest challenge, but after a week spent with Dodgers special instructors Juan Castro and Jody Reed (laugh about their hitting, but both were good in the field), Castellanos seems to be adapting quickly. Just calm down on the early promotion possibilities; Castellanos himself said he needs close to a full season playing every day at second base before he is ready for MLB.

Shortstop Luis Cruz

The wily veteran has been on “Cruz Control” since he arrived, smacking the ball around (.328/.343/.500) while making some sharp plays in the field. He is another veteran who keeps it loose; his imitation of teammate Trent Oeltjen‘s Australian accent is a sight to behold.

Third baseman Josh Fields

Nicknamed “QB” for obvious reasons, the former Oklahoma State football standout has gotten off to a quiet start (.289/.375/.526) when compared to his teammates. Nonetheless, he has been a solid contributor. This is no sign of the dreaded “jaded ex-big-leaguer stuck at Triple-A” disease that sometimes afflicts players. Much like Cruz, he seemed to be riding high off his strong spring that nearly saw him make the big-league roster. He has been a positive influence, playing good defense with (no surprise here) a very strong arm.

Utility man Elian Herrera

The versatile Elian Herrera has been a sparkplug atop the lineup. (Photo courtesy of the Albuquerque Isotopes)

Bundy said the Isotopes’ turnaround, from a 2-6 road trip to their current record of 11-9, has been thanks in part to the ultra-versatile Herrera. A pure contact hitter (.340/.357/.566), he is Albuquerque’s fastest player and has done well out of the leadoff spot. Defensively, he has looked especially sharp at second base and third base, while also seeing time at shortstop and the outfield. He would strictly be a bench player at the next level, but with Jerry Hairston and Adam Kennedy not getting any younger, the Dodgers could do worse.

Reserve infielders Joe Becker and Lance Zawadzki

Becker is a favorite of Bundy’s especially with his ability to deliver big hits in the clutch, often as a pinch hitter. He is also a capable defender at second, though he lacks the arm for third and has not played much shortstop. Zawadzki joined the team from extended spring on the last day of the homestand. While I have yet to see him play for the Isotopes, he was a solid defender and a streaky hitter last season with Omaha (Royals).

Outfielders Scott Van Slyke, Jerry Sands, Trent Oeltjen, Matt Angle

Van Slyke, the Dodgers’ No. 21 prospect, has been the hitting star out of this group (.364/.437/.610). He has fared well defensively in both outfield corners, with a strong arm and more mobility than you would expect from someone who is listed at 6-5, 250. He made one start at first base during the homestand, looking a little out of practice there, so hold off on the “he can replace Loney” talk. Oh, and I will sit him down to talk about his life growing up around baseball with his father. His stories are hilarious. Sands’ struggles at the plate (.192/.310/.315) have been well-documented so far. Oeltjen has played all three outfield spots, serving more as a fourth outfielder than anything else. As such, his hitting (.250/.328/.350) has yet to get into a groove with such sporadic playing time. Angle has been the lost one of the bunch, looking all out of sorts at the plate (.146/.255/.268) and now finding himself on the DL with a strained hamstring.

Starting pitchers Michael Antonini, John Ely, Stephen Fife, Fernando Nieve, Mike Parisi

John Ely has pitched well at home, not so well on the road. (Photo courtesy of the Albuquerque Isotopes)

Before his call-up to the big leagues, Antonini made one start in Albuquerque he would like to forget (3.1 IP, 7 H, 7 R, 6 ER, 2 BB, 3 HR allowed). Like many young pitchers, the 26-year-old lefty learned the hard way you have to keep the ball down in Albuquerque if you want to have a prayer of succeeding here. He certainly throws a lot of strikes, but he left too many up in that game. Despite being back for his third season with the Isotopes, Ely has remained upbeat and continues to work hard. He has been a completely different pitcher at home (13 IP, 4 ER) than on the road (7.1 IP, 11 ER). Fife has just plain struggled wherever he has pitched this year (1-2, 9.92 ERA). The big righty is a finesse pitcher and so far the PCL is chewing him up. Nieve went from horrible at Omaha (1.2 IP, 11 H, 9 ER) to solid at home (6 IP, 7 H, 3 ER) to then getting ejected in the third inning of his third start for hitting a batter. It has been a very bizarre season for the former Astro and Met, who throws hard but does not strike a lot of people out (8 total in 10.1 IP). Parisi has been the most consistent and effective starter to date. It should come as no surprise, since there always seems to be one veteran who puts together a solid campaign in ABQ (e.g. Dana Eveland last year).

Right-handed relievers Josh Wall, Ramon Troncoso, Will Savage, Francisco Felix

Wall has looked sharp while sharing closing duties. He throws in the mid-90s and looks like another potentially solid addition to LA’s young bullpen down the line. There is still some wildness (4 walks in 8.1 IP) that needs to be smoothed out. Troncoso has looked like a man determined to get back to the big leagues (1.08 ERA in 8.1 IP), while Savage has been lights out (4-0, 2.41) in the long relief/spot starter role, keeping the ball down and utilizing his cutter, fastball and curveball to their fullest extent. Felix, well, somebody has to take it on the chin, and so far he is doing just that (10.13 ERA in 13.1 IP). As the Dodger bullpen fluctuates, his head would seem to be the first on the chopping block down here.

Left-handed relievers Brent Leach, Wil Ledezma, Derrick Loop, Scott Rice, Cole St. Clair

Rice has been the star of the southpaw collective, sharing the team lead with four saves. He is at his most effective not when he is getting strikeouts, but rather when is able to get hitters to try and pounce on strikes, causing them to ground out and pop up early in the count. Leach (0-1, 6.57) has alternated between looking good and taking it on the chin; personality-wise he has not changed from his year in Japan, remaining the same funny, witty southerner who graced the clubhouse in 2009-10. St. Clair has been similar to Leach in terms of pitching, looking good one outing and struggling to throw strikes the next. Poor Ledezma was walloped in his first two home appearances (10 runs total), but has since settled down and regained his confidence. Loop has yet to appear in a game in Albuquerque.

Overall

This is a better team than it looked after losing six of eight on the opening road trip. The Isotopes pulled off their first four-game sweep since 2009 when they took Iowa apart. As long as the pitching stays at least somewhat consistent, the lineup is more than capable of scoring enough runs. What looked like a pack of spot starters, middle relievers and bench players actually has some players with enough talent (Van Slyke, Castellanos, Federowicz, in particular) to help the Dodgers out in the future. Rice and Wall can be both be part of a big-league bullpen, as well. This team may lack the star power when Gordon, Sands (the good version) and Robinson were here last year, but it is still a fun bunch to watch.

As always, you can find all the ‘Topes news and notes you can handle here and you can now follow me on Twitter as @TopesWriter for quick updates, anecdotes, breaking news and even some play-by-play during home games.

— Chris Jackson