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.
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.