Someone suggested an article about the Nationals’ minor league catching prospects. I brought the subject up – and will try to push the topic along – but will disavow any claim of expertise in evaluating their development. I haven’t seen any of them play – except to the extent Pedro Severino, Spencer Kieboom and Raudy Read have enjoyed cameos on Nats TV broadcasts.
What I think I know comes from box scores, Nationals Prospects, weekly blurbs in WaPo about Nats’ minor leaguers generally, and scouting reports for mlb.com and excerpts from services I don’t subscribe to. I have some biases. I don’t like high school draftees or independent free agents (read, “DSL players”). Too immature, physically and otherwise, inconsistent coaching, too much time invested in re-building skills of players that are “athletic” but otherwise raw. For me to consider a minor leaguer a real “prospect” I think he ought to be major-league ready by his 25 or (at the th latest) 26 year and have advanced through the system at least one level per year. (That doesn’t th mean a player won’t “arrive” later but by that age there should be some evidence he’s worthy of serious attention.)
Batting lines speak for themselves. Defensive stats for catchers – in my opinion – are virtually useless. Framing, stolen bases, blocking pitches, all depend, to a significant extent, on the guy on the mound. You have to see a catcher in action –and I’ve seen very little of any of these guys, and nothing at all of some of them – or rely on reputation until it’s confirmed or rebutted by observation.
The Nats have five minor league catchers currently spoken of with optimism in some circles – mostly among those fans who hope one will emerge as next season’s backup. These are, in no particular order, Taylor Gushue, Pedro Severino, Randy Read, Spencer Kieboom and Jakson Reetz. Someone suggested the title of this article should be entitled “Quantity over Quality.”
I don’t think any of these younger three are going to be major league ready in 2018. And 2019 may be a stretch. The best catching prospect – Tres Barerra – based on his 2017 batting line is one to watch. Not that he’ll be in the majors next season either, but keep your eye on him. Overall, the Nats’ record developing catching prospects is as miserable as their record developing pitchers, or maybe worse – Jesus Flores was a Rule 5 draftee and Wilson Ramos came in a trade. In terms of 2018 help, Severino is the best bet. His image has been badly mauled by last season’s work at Syracuse and in Washington. He was thought to have a great arm, defensive agility and good rapport with pitchers but, at least in Washington, he flopped around behind the plate like an NHL goaltender. And he wasn’t going to win any Vezina trophies. His bat, surprisingly vigorous in DC in 2016, reverted to the form showed in his minor league history, including last year’s time in Syracuse.
Some have advocated for Severino because “he could serve as a pinch-runner for Wieters.” Apart from Wieters’s own issues getting on base, how important can a back-up catcher’s pinch-running aptitude be in roster development? So, why is he the best bet among the five? He has the most major league experience, little as it may be. Moreover, little is expected from a back-up catcher. A backup catcher who can hit is a rare as Bigfoot. What a manager hopes for, mostly, is defense and a guy who can occasionally run into a pitch and hit it a long way. Severino has a big physique and showed some power in 2016 and at least has the appearance of a threat in the box.
S. Kieboom made the 40-man roster in 2016 out of necessity, not merit. Some columnist (WaPo?) wrote about Kieboom’s “breakthrough” season at Syracuse this year. One-hundred sixty at bats does not a breakthrough make (especially after 60 at bats at Harrisburg at .183). Although he did show good hitting chops at Hagerstown in his low-A year. He’s 26. Is he a late bloomer? Defensively, his reputation seems good. A full-time job at Syracuse for at least the first half of this season would reveal much.
This touches on what is for me a delicate point. The Nats seem to use their minor league catchers as inventory, not attempting to give them the accumulated experience to get to the major leagues. Often their minor league teams split the job between a couple of prospects. (E.g., Severino and Kieboom at Syracuse, Kieboom and Read last season at Harrisburg, Gushue and Reetz at Potomac.)
It seems to me a real “prospect” would be worth 115-120 games at the same level unless he clearly outshines the competition. Raudy Read, more than any of the others, had a “breakthrough” season. Long-promised power materialized, in a nearly-full season (108 games) at Harrisburg. His addition to the roster in September surprised me, as I thought Severino (or possibly Kieboom) would have been better served by the additional experience. (It’s possible the decision reflects management’s assessment of Kieboom, not shared with the proletariat.) Power is a very good thing, particularly in a catcher. Unfortunately, the Washington exposure did not temper negative opinions about his defensive ability. (This is part of my negative associations about the DSL. Read now has seven seasons of professional experience, two in the DSL. After seven seasons, he ought to have polished the rough edges on his defense. Is there something about the DSL we don’t know? Playing conditions? Lack of individualized attention? Why are the upper levels of the minors seemingly re-teaching the same skills year after year?)
Gushue came from Pittsburgh in exchange for Chris Bostick, which would seem like a fair deal no matter how it worked out. (Although Bostick made the Nats look short-sighted in the final weekend of the regular season.) He started the AFL this year 0-17 (or something like that) but has shown the last couple of times out he is “getting it.” His 18 homers at Potomac (second year of advanced-A) were a surprise. I think the assignment to the Fall League is a sign the Nats’ front office really (finally) realizes they badly need a real catching “prospect.” Latest reviews, however, indicate Gushue still needs work on his defense, though Nats management is reported pleased with his “work.” Maybe exposure to the Fall League, and a full year at AA, will make his defense major league appease-able. I think the Nats organization hopes for that very much. If he’s really concentrating on defense and game management, some drop-off in the batter’s box would be acceptable.
The last gossiped about prospect is Jakson Reetz. Splitting the most recent season between Hagerstown and Potomac, he has shown the least of the five with the bat but has the best advance notices about his defense. He is only 21, and is somewhat undersized in comparison to the others (tho not small, either), so maybe he has a higher development ceiling. Clearly he has a long way to go and a lot of competitors to pass (e.g., it’s highly improbable he will pass Gushue this season and will have to endure a another season on the soggy playing fields of Woodbridge.
If I allow my eyes to glaze over a bit, I can make this review feel positive. The challenge, however, is to get past 2018 and probably 2019.