05/18/06 8:00 AM ET
Back(stops) to the future
A look at the catchers available in June's First-Year Player Draft
By Lisa Winston / MLB.com
It is rare at this point (before a player has turned pro) to find the "whole package" in a draft-eligible catcher -- someone who is a Major League-quality hitter who also projects to be a good defensive catch-and-throw catcher in the bigs.
Those guys go high. After that, it comes down to good hitters who probably project to another position, or good defensive catchers (often at the college level) who a club will gamble on, hoping they'll hit well enough to justify their glove.
The players we list here all have question marks over their head, but enough talent in one form or another to slide into a high draft spot -- even, in one or two cases, a possible first-round slot.
But if you're scouring the scene for other catchers who could go in the first five or so rounds that are not on this list, suggests one scouting director, simply look at the roster of any top Division I school. Find a player who has been that team's starting catcher for three years, a guy who's proven he can handle a staff at that level, and assume he could be drafted.
"Guys who have been proven starters for two or three years at major universities will get pretty good looks. That's just the way it is," he said. "Some people might think they get picked too high, but they can surprise the heck out of you and turn out to be pretty good players. It's interesting how different clubs look at the situation differently. They might look at a good defensive college catcher who's already caught guys throwing in the 90s but can't hit, versus a 17-year-old high school pitcher who might throw 95 one day, and take the sure thing college catcher."
In addition, don't assume that all of these guys will stay at catcher if/when they turn pro. And by the same token, don't assume that the best eventual catchers from the 2006 draft class will qualify at catcher right now.
Some top current catchers, such as Michael Barrett and Jorge Posada, started their pro careers at other positions before moving behind the plate. Clubs will often look at middle infielders for a player with good hands, strong arms, poor speed or footwork and leadership skills and convert them after they sign.
With all those caveats, here are a few catchers who could have their names called in the first few rounds:
Hank Conger, Huntington Beach (Calif.) H.S.
The Korean-born Conger, whose given name is actually Hyun, got the nickname "Hank" from his Atlanta-based grandfather in honor of Hank Aaron. Whether by coincidence or karma, this Hank is also a great power prospect. A switch-hitter who is a little better from the left side, he likely projects as the first catcher to be taken in the draft, though there is some question as to whether he will remain at the position in the long run.
A bright, hard-working kid with good aggressiveness, he has good hands and a strong arm behind the plate. On offense, to go with that power, he has a compact stroke and good bat speed. He's signed a letter of intent to USC and is already something of a legend in Southern California after hitting 34 home runs for the Ocean View Little League team that fell one game short of the Little League World Series in 2000.
"Hank's an interesting guy who's on everybody's radar screen," said one scouting director. "I think where he falls will be interesting because there are some questions on whether he can receive or not."
"We like him as a mid-first round guy," said one scout. "There's a good chance he can stay at catcher and he has as much power as anybody."
"Switch-hitting catchers with power don't grow on trees," said another scouting director.
Chad Tracy, Pepperdine
The son of Pittsburgh Pirates manager Jim Tracy will probably not stay at catcher when he turns pro, but his bat and his remarkable makeup should help his draft status. He has good bat speed and hits to all fields. He's quite agile but has a weak arm that almost unquestionably will prompt a quick position shift. But what everyone comments on is his work ethic and attitude, which are off the charts.
"He's a certain big leaguer that I project as a very competent backup type," said a scout. "I don't think he'll hit or catch enough to be an everyday guy, but he's a sure-fire projectable big leaguer. He just seems to understand where his strengths and weaknesses lie, and you come away with a sense that he will work on the weaknesses. He's a very good receiver with fringy arm strength, a quiet, relaxed, confident receiver. He has an unorthodox approach to hitting but he gets the barrel of the bat on the ball."
"As a college catcher, he's had more exposure to catching better guys but he's been up and down in terms of throwing," said a scouting director. "He's a proven hitter with good bloodlines which people will respect."
"He's a baseball player. He plays the game well," said one scouting director. "There is some question about his arm strength, but I think some of that is due to his footwork. I think his throwing skills in question can be helped. His receiving is fine and he's a pretty good baserunner for a catcher. He has a few things to work on but he's got a chance to be an average Major League hitter with fringey power. He's an aggressive hitter, but under control."
"He's probably the best hitting catcher of the bunch," said second scouting director. "He's an accomplished player, but pulling off catching will be a reach for him. But he'll play somewhere because he can hit."
"I think he's a good hitter, but I'm worried about his arm," said another scouting director.
Max Sapp, Bishop Moore H.S. (Fla.)
Power, power, power. Sapp has it to spare. A left-handed pull hitter with plus bat speed and a good eye, there is little question he can hit and that should be enough to move him up to the first few rounds of the draft. But despite an ability to call a good game and a strong arm, his receiving skills are very much in question. He's committed to Florida State, but someone will likely be willing to gamble on that sweet left-handed power swing.
"He has huge raw power and a very good arm strength behind the plate," said one scouting director. "The question is what kind of hitter is he going to be and what people think about his receiving ability. He's also going to have to stay on top of his frame. He's a large kid and he's going to have to watch that. He's built like a Todd Pratt but with much better offensive capabilities."
"The team that takes him will believe that he can catch," said another scouting director.
"If you're convinced he can play behind the plate, he's a pretty good package," said a third scouting director.
"We're lukewarm on him" admitted one more scouting director, "because, honestly, we don't think he can catch. We like the bat but not the catching tools."
Brian Jeroloman, Florida
Jeroloman is without question the top defensive catcher on the board. His quick release, plus accuracy and instincts offset a slightly below-average arm. He has soft hands, works well with his pitchers, and is a hard-nosed player with excellent makeup. A line-drive hitter with occasional power, there are doubts about his future as a Major League hitter, which would be what would keep him from being a legitimate first-round pick.
"He played at a major school with a pretty good program for three years, so he has experience," said a scouting director. "He's a good receiver with leadership skills who can run a staff and [he's] a line-drive hitter."
"He's probably the best defensive catcher in the draft," said another scouting director, "but the bat is suspect."
Ty Weeden, Sante Fe H.S. (Okla.)
The 6-foot-2, 225-pound Weeden has plus power and projects for more of it as he matures. He has average arm strength, but his defensive mechanics need work. The younger brother of pitcher Brandon Weeden (currently pitching for Kansas City's High Desert Mavericks in the Advanced A California League), he can also play first base, the outfield and pitch and is considered one of the best prep hitters in Oklahoma. Weeden, who has signed a letter of intent with Arkansas, needs to tweak some of his defensive mechanics, but if he can do that, the bat should carry him the rest of the way.
"He's a big strong kid with power and good enough bloodlines," said one scouting director. "He's an offensive guy who falls into that category of 'Do you think he'll stay behind the plate?'"
"A power-hitting catcher who definitely has bat potential," added a second scouting director. "He's a guy we think is probably going to be a first baseman."
Jordan Newton, Western Kentucky
Newton, one of the 10 semifinalists for the Johnny Bench Award, given to the top collegiate catcher, is a third-year starter for Western Kentucky. Something of a sleeper, he has some extra-base pop. He was a 31st-round pick by the Mets out of high school.
"He's an interesting guy," said one scouting director. "He's put up really good numbers this year in a slightly lower-level Division I program. He's a good offensive player,so the question is if you think he'll catch long-term."
Torre Langley, Alexander H.S. (Douglasville, Ga.)
If there is a sleeper in the bunch, it could be this pint-sized high school catcher with the outstanding defensive abilities. Named for Joe Torre, a pretty good catcher himself, Langley weighed under three pounds at birth and is now somewhat generously listed at 5-9 and 170 pounds. But he has made a name for himself with his agility behind the plate and his full defensive toolbox. In a thin crop of catchers, he could slip into the first few rounds and score one for the little guy. A member of the USA Baseball Junior National Team in 2005, he was named the top catcher among all of the participants in that summer's Pan Am Junior Championships in Mexico. He has a strong, quick, accurate arm and is a hard-nosed, dedicated player. While his size might preclude him being in that coveted power-hitting catcher mold, he could be one to watch.
"For me, you're not going to find a better arm in the draft and if he hits any,he'll be in the big leagues," said one scouting director. "His size is not a concern -- is Paul Lo Duca's size a concern? If you're little, you have to be either really fast or really strong. This guy is really strong and only going to get stronger."
Also keep an eye on: Jeff Dunbar, Cal-Riverside; Matthew McBride, Lehigh University; Joe Benson, Joliet (Ill.) Catholic Academy; Justin Dalles, Park Vista Community H.S. (Fla.).
Lisa Winston is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.