Tuesday, November 3, 2009

State of the System: Catcher

Andrew and I will be running through the Red Sox system position by position over the next month or so, highlighting the interesting prospects in the Red Sox system.

The Red Sox have a bit of an odd roster construction right now, with a total of 5 catchers on the 40 man roster. The strengths and weaknesses of Jason Varitek and Victor Martinez are likely familiar to you already. George Kottaras, has some promise, but appears to lack the contact skills to be an average hitter in the majors and Dusty Brown is defensive minded backup who hasn't been able to hit well at AAA. Finally, you have Mark Wagner, the only one of the five who hasn’t appeared in the major leagues yet. Of the three non-regular catchers, Wagner is by far the most interesting.

At 25, Wagner is not an elite prospect. His minor league career has been up at down, with a fairly regular pattern appearing. During his first stint in a league Wagner struggles. Despite being a relatively polished college player from UC Irvine, Wagner only managed a .570 OPS in his first crack at A ball. The following season he excelled in the Sally League, posting a .842 OPS before getting promoted to the Carolina League (high A) where he put up a .520 OPS in 65 at bats. The pattern continued in 2007 when he crushed A+ pitching for the entire season, followed by a disappointing .666 OPS in AA Portland as a 24 year old in 2008. At the end of the season last year there were some doubts as to the viability of Wagner as a major leaguer, but a strong showing in the Arizona Fall League, followed by a great season in AA this year (.301/.410/.477) raised his stock substantially. Unsurprisingly, he did struggle in AAA for the second half of the year (.619 OPS), causing the Red Sox to leave him off the roster during September roster expansions. He’s doing his best to erase those doubts with a massive start to winter ball in the Dominican, hitting .346/.455/.615 with 2 home runs in 26 at bats.

Scouting wise, Wagner has a great defensive reputation, an excellent batting eye, and makes solid contact. Wagner’s clear weakness is his lack of power (only 6 HR in 307 AB split between AA and AAA last year); despite this fact, I think his all around skill set makes him a great backup catcher. It wouldn’t shock me if Wagner would be able to out produce Varitek as soon at next year. When taking into account Victor Martinez’ defensive limitations behind the plate, the switch makes even more sense. Given that catchers often develop offensively much later than other position players it wouldn’t be shocking for Wagner to become a second tier starter. It wouldn’t be shocking to see Wagner put up a .280/.350/.400 line next year. While a .750 OPS isn’t going to carry a team, it would have been good for 15th among catchers with 250 AB last year. In the event of an injury to Youkilis or Victor Martinez turning to Wagner might be the best offensive option short term.

Luis Exposito is the other interesting catcher in the Red Sox system. In many ways, Exposito is Wagner’s opposite. Unlike Wagner, Exposito only had one year in junior college before being signed as a draft and follow pick just before the 2006 draft. He is young for his league (appeared in AA at 22, a full two years before Wagner did), is highly projectable, with the potential for 25 home run power, but he can be prone to strikeouts and does not have a great batting eye. In 2009 Exposito held his own in A+ ball, posting a .756 and hit even better during a short stint at AA. Although Exposito put up a .371 OBP in Portland this year, that was inflated by a high batting average. Prior to AA, the highest OBP of Exposito's minor league career was .332. Exposito will open next season at AA and is at least two years away from making an impact at the major league level, but he has the potential to be an all star catcher if he can learn to control the strike zone better.


  1. so er, going back to basics:


    is avg/obp/slg?

  2. That AVG seems a but on the optimistic side. He only hit .214/.268/.351 in AAA last year.

    His overall minor league numbers track pretty well with Varitek's minor league numbers. Varitek had a little more time in AAA before starting with the Red Sox at age 26, which will be Wagner's age next season.

    Given that Victor is not going to be the everyday catcher, I think it makes sense to call up Wagner. In Varitek's first season with the Red Sox in 1998, he hit .253/.309/.407 in 86 games (221 AB). I think that is probably closer to what we can expect for Wagner.

  3. Looking at the minor league stats and their relative ages in the minors Tek and Wagner are eerily similar. Tek had better power, but struck out a little bit more. Looking at Tek now it is easy to forget just how good he was at his peak.

    If I had to revise my guess I'd say .260/.340/.380. I still like Wagner's ability to make contact - although he hit only .214 in 150 AB at AAA he wasn't striking out any more than he did at AA when he was hitting .301.

  4. Is that just a sign of bad luck then or is the defense at AAA level that much better than AA?

  5. I would guess a little bit of both. His BABIP was a little on the low side at AAA (.270), but without more knowledge of the kind of contact Wagner was making it is hard to say. In general, the defensive efficiency (% of batted balls in play that become outs) increases as you move up the minors. Someone wrote an article about that (BP?) but I can't trackc it down.