Question: Should I be concerned by the fact that Jason Heyward now has 29 plate appearances for the 2015 season, having appeared in all six games the Cardinals have played, and exactly zero walks?
I mean, I know the Cards' coaching staff has been preaching their standard brand of aggression to him, theoretically in hopes of getting him to contribute more power to the Redbird cause, and for once I actually didn't hate that bit of coaching. There have been times in the past when Heyward seemed overly passive, and freeing him up to let it fly a bit more often could be a very productive area of emphasis. His approach in the early going, however, suggests to me he isn't adjusting to this new, more aggressive plan of attack all that well. The middling results don't particularly concern me as of yet, but that 0.0% walk rate....kind of does. Am I jumping at shadows and fretting over nothing far too early?
I'll be honest, folks: the 2015 catching crop is dire. Unlike the 2013 class, which featured an absolute ton of prep talent, this year is closer to 2014, but probably even worse. There's no Max Pentecost at the top nearly readymade for pro ball, bringing upside on both the offensive and defensive sides of things. No Kyle Schwarber propping up the rankings with a DH-level bat behind the plate, either. Then again, I will admit that I think this same thing nearly ever year, that the catching class is just terrible, with very few exceptions, so it could be entirely a perception issue on my end. Perhaps catching prospects, beyond the elite guys, are just always kind of underwhelming and tough to spot, just due to the level of athleticism, or maybe the specific type of athleticism, involved in the position. It's rare a catching prospect looks like a star until he is one (call if the Lucroy Corollary, perhaps), so maybe scouting the position is just always going to make you feel like it's a thin class -- again, outside of the few elite guys at the very top -- until suddenly it isn't.
Today's group consists of the three highest-ceiling catchers in the draft this year, as a place to start. All three are high-schoolers, which probably shouldn't be surprising, and all three have at least a chance to develop into dynamic, star-level talents in professional ball, although they all have their warts, certainly. Down the line a bit I'll pull in the college guys, who represent much more the high floor, lower ceiling end of the spectrum this year, and some players of interest from all over, including the son of a former Cardinal farm product. Today, though, we're starting with the guys I think could actually be stars one day.
Chris Betts, C, Wilson HS (California)
6'2", 220 lbs
So, what's so great about this guy?
Among all the catching prospects in this year's draft class, Chris Betts is easily the biggest name at this point. In fact, he's the only catcher period listed in the top 50 prospects by the mlb.com guys, which I personally disagree with, but it's fairly easy to see why. Betts has the kind of power potential you just don't often see in catchers, and the tools (mostly), to stick behind the plate, at least for now. The power alone, particularly when you look around the game right now and see how little of it there truly is to be had, is enough to push Betts well up draft boards.
That power at the plate is the most notable tool Betts brings to the table, and it probably rates a 65 or even 70 in terms of the raw grade. The in-game grade is a bit more modest, if only because Betts has yet to fully balance his approach and tap into that strength. He's smart enough to maintain a solid approach at the plate during games, using more than just the pull side to hit, but it limits his ability to do damage somewhat. It's a bit like Matt Adams going the other way so much in 2014 to try and beat the various shifts he faced, but seeing his power production suffer as a result. On the other hand, you much prefer to see a guy do that at such a young age, rather than selling out for power and trying to teach him how to use all fields down the road, I think. Bottom line is this: Chris Betts has a very, very intriguing bat, regardless of the position he plays.
That thing I said a moment ago about Betts having kind of a Matt Adams thing going on with his approach at the plate? That's not the only thing about Chris Betts that might remind you of Matt Adams, and therein lies probably the chief question about Betts the player. Chris Betts...does not have a great body. He's a big dude just in general, and while he's not full-on Adams just yet, it's a body you could easily see going that way if he isn't very careful. To his credit, Betts did come into showcases last year in better shape than he had previously been, so he seems capable of keeping it under control. Still, it's a concern going forward, particularly when you consider the position he's attempting to play and the rigors it presents.
As for the defensive tools themselves, Betts has hands and he has an arm. He's a quality receiver, to the extent you can spot such things in limited looks at such an extremely young age. The hands are quiet, and he doesn't stab at the ball. That's the extent of what I can say; a trained scout with better, longer looks would probably be able to see a bit more. The arm, though, you don't have to see much of to be impressed. It's strong and accurate, and Betts doesn't mind showing it off, in early-career Yadi fashion, shooting pickoff throws all over the place.
The downside for Betts defensively is a real lack of athleticism behind the plate. He isn't a very nimble player, either in blocking or throwing. As strong as his arm is, it needs to be, as he's slow in coming up out of his crouch and doesn't seem to have great feet. Again, it's very much a concern with the body, as he's big and somewhat slow, and it would be easy to see him outgrow the position if he can't maintain his conditioning at a fairly high level.
Betts presents the classic problem with so many catching prospects, in that he currently play one of the most premium positions on the field, but if he is forced to move off it he immediately drops all the way down to the other end of the spectrum. Very few catching prospects are the sort of athlete capable of moving to, say, shortstop or center field to maintain their defensive value; the moment they stop being catchers they generally become first basemen or designated hitters. And, let's face it: there are very few guys whose bats still look good when they're all the way down at the bad end of the defensive spectrum. Betts might actually be one of those guys who could still be a real prospect limited to first or DH; the power potential and overall offensive package is enough that he could very well be Kyle Schwarber in a few years. For now, though, any team picking him will likely keep him behind the plate and attempt to bring the rest of his defensive game up to the level of his arm, as it would be a terrible waste not to allow him to take advantage of the throwing ability he possesses.
This video, going by the name of the account and the nearness of the female cheer, feels to me like it was taken by Chris Betts's mom. Which is just adorable, and always touching.
via Bettsball's Channel:
Garrett Wolforth, C, Concordia Lutheran HS (Texas)
6'3", 200 lbs
So, what's so great about this guy?
Well, to start with, he's a switch-hitting catcher with serious offensive potential, so....you know. What else do I really need to say?
Probably a little more info is in order, I would imagine, considering how much you guys paid to get in here. Don't worry; the Baron will make sure you get your money's worth.
Wolforth, beyond the obvious remarkable combination of position and switch-hittability, is a remarkable athlete overall, in that specific way catchers often are that doesn't necessarily translate to other areas of the field. (See my above points about Betts's place on the defensive spectrum.) He moves around well behind the plate, with much faster feet and better short-range nimbleness than the more heralded Betts, and the arm strength is at least as good, if not a tick or two better. The hands and receiving are more raw with Wolforth, but there isn't a catcher in this class with the pure throwing ability, both arm and feet, he brings to the table.
There's also the issue of age, giving Wolforth another advantage over any other high school catcher in this year's draft. He was originally slated to be a 2016 draftee, and would have been one of the older prepsters coming out. He reclassified himself to be eligible for this year, though, and will now be the youngest player available, a full year younger than some of the other guys he's up against. Carson Kelly is one of the more recent examples of a player being extremely young on draft day; like Kelly, Wolforth will still be just seventeen when his name is called in June. He's committed to Dallas Baptist, but let's face it: when a kid takes the step of reclassifying in high school so as to be draft-eligible a year early, he's...probably not getting to college. That's a near-Bryce Harper level step to take, and you don't do that if you have any real intention of going to college for three years. (Well, that's not entirely true; Robert Stock somewhat famously left high school early to go to USC, but that's the only example I can think of. And that was just a weird situation all around, it seemed.)
At the plate, Wolforth brings excellent bat speed from both sides of the plate, giving him plenty of power potential (though his swing plane is a bit flat to project big-time over the fence numbers), and he shows solid bat-to-ball skills for his age. He's still just seventeen and a switch-hitter, so the developmental road is going to be a fairly long one. Blake Swihart of the Red Sox is probably the absolute best-case scenario, and he has yet to make his MLB debut after being drafted in 2011. Catchers take time to develop, switch-hitters usually take time to develop, and seventeen year olds take time to develop. What I'm trying to say is don't expect to see Wolforth zooming through whatever system he ends up in, even if the club in question tends to be aggressive with their prospects.
I'll be honest: I would do backflips naked in the street (see? I upped the ante since the Kaminsky days), if the Cardinals were to end up with either Wolforth or the last player I'm covering here today with anything later than a first-round pick. Even if they had to reach in the first to take one, I probably wouldn't completely hate it, but neither of them should require a pick that high, I don't believe at this point. Wolforth represents the highest ceiling of any catching prospect in the draft this year, with the potential for elite throwing skills combined with an offensive profile you virtually never see from a catcher. What he could be is a monster; it's just going to take plenty of time to see if he gets there.
Wyatt Cross, C, Legacy HS (Colorado)
6'3", 200 lbs
So, what's so great about this guy?
Garrett Wolforth has the highest ceiling of any catcher in the draft. I can't deny that. If you ask me who my favourite catching prospect in the draft is this year, though, I'm probably going to say Wyatt Cross. (Though I have to admit, the year age advantage Wolforth has might push me back over to his side in the end.) It's mostly just a gut feeling thing, honestly; when I watch Cross I just get the feeling I'm watching a very, very good future professional learning his trade.
It all starts with the defensive tools, where Cross is much more polished in his receiving than the noisier Wolforth, while sporting better actions and quickness on the draw than the larger, slower Betts. He has a plus arm and excellent feet, giving him pop times as good or better than Wolforth despite ranking a tick lower on pure arm strength. I will say, the extra year in age and maturity Cross has on Wolforth likely accounts for much of the difference in their receiving technique; it's entirely possible Wolforth may be just as good a receiver as Cross with another year of catching under his belt. Then again, it's also possible that doesn't happen; in scouting where the players are right now, I will take Cross's hands and receiving by a pretty fair margin. He's an outstanding receiver, and puts me in mind of watching Austin Hedges when I was scouting him back in 2011. Cross is at that level.
He combines those defensive chops with an offensive game built around a sweet left-handed stroke that shows potential for both above-average contact skills and solid-average power down the road. The swing itself needs some work, as he begins his load by bringing the bat almost straight up vertically, which can lead to a swing that's entirely too steep starting down (see: Rasmus, Colby early on), but so far he seems able to adjust and make contact at a good, if not elite, level. Still, he's definitely not a finished product mechanically.
I see, down the road, a hitter who resembles Max Pentecost a bit, albeit from the other side of the plate. Cross, I believe, should be more of a line-drive slasher than a real slugging threat, but one capable of above-average BAs and high, contact-driven slugging rates. It's honestly too early to say much about his plate approach in terms of patience and discipline; I just don't have enough evidence to speak very much to what kind of approach he takes into his at-bats. According to all reports, though, he's a very high baseball IQ player, so hopefully that translates into strike zone awareness and control as well. We'll just have to wait and see on that front, I suppose.
It's a good body, strong but not overly thick, capable of the short-range nimble actions catchers need to perform but also big enough to suggest he could produce some decent pop at the plate. He could probably carry another 10-15 pounds on his frame without a problem, though much more than that and I might start to worry a bit. Unlike Betts, however, Cross hasn't shown any predisposition toward carrying extra weight as of yet, which is probably a positive. He's not a runner -- none of these guys are, really -- but actually does possess the kind of athletic tools that could allow him to play another position, probably third base or maybe a corner outfield spot, without having to move directly down to the 1B/DH ghetto if catching doesn't work out for some reason. Short of an injury or other health-related issue, however, I don't see any way Wyatt Cross ever plays anything but catcher. After all, he looks, to my eye at least, as if he could be a great one.
You know what kind of sucks? The fact you can't get decent apple cider year-round. I'm sitting with a juice glass of supermarket cider on my desk in front of me, and it just isn't very good. A little too sweet, not quite enough spice kind of flavour, just really lacking depth in general. I know not to expect greatness from a bottle of cider I bought from the non-fancy grocery store in mid-April, but even a solid 45-grade cider experience would have been perfectly acceptable. And maybe this really is a 45, and my expectations are just too high. But I'm disappointed in this cider, and so I feel like inflicting my mild unhappiness on all of you in the form of entitled whining, which I'm told is the single great skill of my generation.
Oh, the players? A ranking, you say? Um, sure. Cross and Wolforth are right there together for me, though personally I like Cross just a hair better for the hands and framing ability. Betts is a bit behind, even though I still like him quite a lot, just because I'm more doubtful about his future position. The hands, arm, and power are all very impressive, though, and make him a premium talent all the same. I just don't think he's miles ahead of the other catchers in the class the way many of the rankings seem to think.
This cider, though, it definitely deserves to be lower on the list than a lot of other beverages. I'm not sure any amount of development, including heat and mulling spices, is going to push this toward anything more than mediocrity. Future utility drink for sure.