Changing of the shin guards: Youth moving in
Arrivals of catching prospects signal talent trend behind plate
When Buster Posey leaped into Brian Wilson's arms at the conclusion of last year's World Series, millions looked on in wonder, many surely wondering what it must be like to be in the young catcher's shoes at that moment.
A select few likely felt that a bit more intensely than others, thinking that in the very near future, they could get the opportunity to follow the same path. They may not be Rookies of the Year, as Posey was, but there does seem to be a definitive youth movement afoot behind the plate.
Handing the everyday task of such an important job to a young, inexperienced backstop typically hasn't been common, with prospects often brought up and brought along slowly. They're eased into the roles with the help of willing and able veterans. Posey had Bengie Molina with him in San Francisco for the first half of the season. The Orioles' Matt Wieters had Gregg Zaun in 2009. Both Wieters and Posey took over fairly quickly and neither will be giving up the reins any time soon.
Catchers trying to make their way up to the big leagues watched these colleagues ascend and succeed. Some had even played against guys like Posey and Wieters in previous seasons in the Minors, giving them the chance to truly appreciate the process.
"We played him [last] year," said Angels catching prospect Hank Conger about Posey, whom he faced early in the Pacific Coast League season. "It was kind of interesting getting to see him with their pitching staff, how [manager Bruce] Bochy and they handled it, how he handled himself so well."
11 young backstops for '11
|J.P. Arencibia, Blue Jays|
|Alex Avila, Tigers|
|Jason Castro, Astros|
|Hank Conger, Angels|
|Jonathan Lucroy, Brewers|
|Buster Posey, Giants|
|Wilson Ramos, Nationals|
|Jarrod Saltalamacchia, Red Sox|
|Carlos Santana, Indians|
|Josh Thole, Mets|
|Matt Wieters, Orioles|
Blue Jays catching prospect J.P. Arencibia has been watching with interest.
"Especially since I came up playing against those guys," Arencibia said. "I know what I bring to the table. I see them and I'm obviously happy for them and their success, but I know I'm right there with them."
The Blue Jays hope Arencibia is right, as he heads into Spring Training with a chance to break camp as the No. 1 catcher. He played against Posey in 2010 in the PCL and saw Wieters in the Double-A Eastern League in 2008. Perhaps it's a good omen that Arencibia will have a Molina like Posey did -- Jose, in this case -- to help him learn the ropes."
And there are plenty of ropes. Get a handle on them and a young catcher can pull himself up to stardom. Struggle and there might just be enough rope in which to get tangled. It's what makes it so difficult to develop a good, young, all-around catcher. It's hard enough to make it to the big leagues at any position, but add in the rigors and demands of catching and it's no wonder that youth movements behind the plate are so rare.
"It's a lot harder," said Arencibia, the No. 48-ranked player among MLB.com's Top 50 Prospects this year. "If you go up to the big leagues as a shortstop or outfielder, it's still the same game. You get up as a catcher, there's scouting reports, there's a microscope on everything.
"You're still using instincts as a baseball player and a catcher, but there's a lot more to it than just fielding your position. "You need to know the other team in and out and the same goes for your whole [pitching] staff."
"It's pretty tough," Conger concurred. "In Triple-A, you have veteran guys, guys who have been in the big leagues. I felt it was a lot tougher to get on the same page. At the same time, you're trying to work on your hitting, trying to clean up your footwork. ... you have to grind it out. You have to put twice as much work in as everyone else."
Whoever called catching equipment the tools of ignorance understood the irony in coining the phrase. It might be foolish to want to play a position that requires a mask, chest protector and shin guards, but it takes more than a healthy serving of baseball IQ to handle the mental rigors of the role.
That's a big reason why it's worth noting that Arencibia and Conger, both of whom hope to break into the big leagues to stay in 2011, are far from alone. In his own division, the American League East, Arencibia might see Jarrod Saltalamacchia establish himself as an everyday catcher with the Red Sox and Wieters continue to improve. Then there is the Yankees' top prospect (and No. 9 on the MLB.com list), Jesus Montero, who could at least hit himself into the Majors this season.
In addition, Carlos Santana in Cleveland, Jason Castro in Houston, Josh Thole with the Mets, Wilson Ramos in Washington and Jonathan Lucroy in Milwaukee continue to show they belong in the lineup every day. Most are not rookies, but they are still learning the nuances of the position at the highest level, with many being counted on to help their pitching staffs compete this coming season.
"I don't concentrate on other people and what they're doing," Arencibia said. "Matt and Buster, at the Minor League level, I watched those guys. Once you're in the big leagues, it's all about your team and winning. I'm not worried as much about what the other catchers are doing. There's enough clutter and psychology, I try to narrow it down to my pitchers and my staff and trying to win ballgames."
Handling a staff. Ask any catcher, young or old, and they'll likely name that as the most difficult task before them. And it's often what keeps some from reaching the big leagues, at least at that position. Both Arencibia and Conger have been called "offensive-minded catchers" more than once. That can be a kind of back-handed compliment, implying that their bats might be ready but that there are questions about their ability to handle the defensive rigors on a daily basis.
It's a reason many teams move quality hitters out from behind the plate, so their offensive games don't get bogged down on the defensive end. The Royals are moving Wil Myers to the outfield this year. The Nationals sent top pick Bryce Harper there before he ever played a professional inning. While most love Montero's bat, the reviews on his catching are not as favorable.
"My first year, I had a couple of thoughts like that," Conger said about a possible position change. "The injuries were tough. Coming out of high school, what helped me a lot was that the organization had confidence in me to catch. Their confidence, trying to help me out, trying to work on becoming a catcher, [switching] was never really a big thought. I knew this is what I wanted to do.
"Personally, I love it. The expectations. Expectations should be high. I don't want to go in thinking, 'I just want to be an average catcher.'"