So yeah, those are probably the five best catching prospects in the Mets organization right now. That's my rough order. Yours may vary. Cordero is probably the clear #1, but even he profiles more as one of those career back-up types. You know, a good glove guy with some pop who struggles to hit .250. Maron had a good defensive scouting report in high school and had another nice season for Kingsport this year. The Mets are being very conservative with Maron, but he has posted a .314/.427/.417 line in his three professional seasons. He could turn into Josh Thole with better defense, maybe. He could also top out in AA. The other three guys are of varying levels of interest, but probably wouldn't make a Top 30 list of Mets prospects.
So to summarize, the Mets cupboard is a bit bare behind the plate. But it's not really just the Mets. Jesus Montero of the Yankees has widely been considered one of the best catching prospects in baseball, yet very few scouts or pundits think he can actually stay behind the plate. Ryan Lavarnway, who has had a breakout season in the Red Sox system, has the same issues. Hank Conger would have been a consensus top five catching prospect last year, but he has also struggled against major league pitching and been basically replacement level this year.*
*which of course still makes him a large upgrade over Jeff Mathis.
I can go on. J.P. Arencibia was the Blue Jays catcher of the future coming off a breakout year in AAA in 2009 where he slugged .626. He's shown some real power for the Jays this year, but the holes in his swing have been exploited by major league pitching. So now Blue Jays fans are clamoring for Travis D'Arnaud, currently mashing at AA, but showing the same worrisome strikeout issues Arencibia did in the minors. In fact, this backhanded compliment of D'Arnaud from Kevin Goldstein pretty much sums up the conundrum of catching prospects.
There are legitimate knocks against him, including an impatient approach, a need to improve his throwing mechanics, and a tendency to get hurt, but d’Arnaud is nearly universally seen as one of the top three catching prospects in the game.
Okay, I won't continue to bore you with examples. Good catching prospects are rare. Even with the best outcomes, like Joe Mauer, you have to worry about durability and whether, or for how long, they can stay behind the plate. Catchers can also have odd development curves. Jarrod Saltalamacchia, for example, was predicted to break out and become a star every year since 2008.* He is finally putting together a nice season as a 26 year old with Boston. Even so, Saltalamacchia is only hitting .247/.304/.471, for an wRC+ of 107. But the offensive bar for the catching position is so low, that his performance at the dish, coupled with some decent defense, has Salty on pace for a 3.5 win season in just over 100 games.
* I know this since I have drafted him pretty much every year since then in my AL-only league. Finally, vindication!
So if good catching prospects are rare, good catching prospects who can really hit are ever rarer. Now the Mets have actually been a bit spoiled in this regard. Of course there is Mike Piazza, probably the greatest hitting catcher in baseball history, but before that we had Todd Hundley, whose bat produced a pair of 4+ win seasons for the Mets. There was also the Kid, naturally, and even John Stearns was above average with the lumber when you look at the era and park he played in.
Recently, though, the organization has wandered through the wilderness, trying a bit of this and a bit of that to get some stability behind the plate. But it wasn't supposed to be this way. We were supposed to have Piazza's heir apparent already in the system. A catcher from the land down under, where the hits did flow and the bat did thunder.*
*Oh my god. I am so, so sorry. That sounded a lot cooler in my head.
Catcher at Work
Justin Huber signed with the Mets out of high school in 2000. In 2001, he began his professional career in the Appalachian League with Kingsport and mashed to the tune of a .943 OPS, a very impressive performance for a catcher who was two years younger than the league average hitter. While there were always concerns about whether Huber could stay behind the plate, he caught 32% of would be basestealers, and only allowed two passed balls. Respectable numbers to be sure.
The next season Huber was assigned to full season ball in the South Atlantic League. He continued to rake for Capital City, showing a mix of patience and power. The strikeouts continued to be a bit higher than you might like, but this was a 19 year old in A ball. The bigger concern was Huber's defense. He threw out 29% of basestealers, which isn't horrendous, but he allowed 16 passed balls. A late season promotion to St. Lucie brought more of the same, a mix of power and patience with some questionable defense.
Still, a catcher who can post a .850 OPS as a 19 year old in A ball is nothing to scoff at, and Baseball America ranked him as the 66th prospect in the game prior to the 2003 season. That put him nine slots ahead of David Wright, though in fairness this was right before Wright's breakout season,* and was good for fourth best among catching prospects. Baseball Prospectus liked him even more, rating him as the 34th best prospect in baseball.
*Scary to think the Mets had more top 100 prospects that year then they did prior to the 2011 season, even if three of them didn't work out so well.
But remember, there is no such thing as a catching prospect. Outside of Mauer, Victor Martinez has struggled with defensive issues (though the bat is all-star caliber and plays anywhere), and is basically done as even a part time catcher. Jeff Mathis has probably been the worst every day hitter of the last five years, excepting perhaps Tony Pena, jr., who was given far less at bats. The only other catcher on the list (we're not counting Jayson Werth, even at this point) is John Buck who has had one season where he was pretty good, mixed in with a bunch of below average ones. Werth's career has obviously been rock solid, but he never caught a game after the 2002 season.
So which way would Huber's career go? Obviously, we should cross Mauer off the list, as he was a generational catching prospect who already might rate among the top 10 backstops in the history of the game. Mathis probably seems unlikely, too, given his lack of anything resembling a bat and his strong, though probably overstated, defensive reputation. Oddly though, as prospects Huber and Mathis weren't all that dissimiliar. But we are looking at likely outcomes in the majors. So we have Martinez, the all-star bat who sticks at catcher long enough to rack up some prodigious WAR totals, Werth, who hits well, but never catches in the bigs, and Buck, whose bat and defense never quite coalesce into a major league package, despite being part of one of the most high profile deadline deals ever.
Unfortunately this series is called Mets Prospect Graveyard, so I don't think there should be any real surprise about how this one ends.
Still, at the time the Martinez path certainly seemed like a real possiblity, and Huber's 2003 season did little to dissuade such notions. Returning to St. Lucie as a 20 year old, Huber hit .284/.370/.514, and then .260/.350/.424 after a promotion to Binghamton. Huber DH'd regularly to keep him healthy and hit bat in the line-up, but he was still exclusively a catcher at this point. Unfortunately, he was not a very good one. He continued to struggle with his defense and with throwing out runners. For what its worth, his error and passed ball rate in the minors wasn't any worse than Piazza's, though there is no minor league base stealing data from that era for further comparison.
Baseball America dropped him off their 2004 list entirely, likely because they didn't think he could stick at catcher. They did rank him as the fifth best prospect in the Mets system, though. BP dropped him to 55, and Dave Cameron, now of fangraphs fame, predicted that he was likely to move to first base.
2004: A Terrible Trade Odyssey
Huber started the 2004 season in AA, though injuries limited him to just 88 games across three levels. Still, the results with the bat were good. Huber bumped his walk rate up while maintaining good power, knocking 34 XBH in the 88 games for a .270/.402/.473 slash line. He played a smattering of games at 1B, but at this point was still primarily a catcher. He was not to be a Mets catcher, though, as at the 2004 trade deadline, Huber was flipped to the Royals as part of a three team deal that landed the Metropolitans Kris Benson. This was also the trade where Jose Bautista was a Met for about five seconds before being shipped to Pittsburgh with Ty Wigginton.*
*Best part of that report, by the way, is Jim Callas blithely stating: "Bautista has a higher ceiling than Wigginton."
Any chance that Huber would stick at catcher long term was erased a month later, when he underwent season ending knee surgery. After that, he would never catch another game at any level. However, Huber's bat would continue to impress. Playing 1B in the Kansas City farm system in 2005, Huber regained some prospect luster, putting up a monster .326/.417/.560 line between AA and AAA.
Problem is, that was as a first baseman in some very nice hitting environments. Moving from one end of the defensive spectrum all the way to the other puts a lot more pressure on the bat to perform. There is a reason there are very few 1B prospects that are considered 'elite.' At the end of 2005, Huber got a cup of coffee with the Royals, but was clearly not ready for primetime Still, as a 22 year old he had crushed high minors pitching, and that was enough to make him the game's 84th best prospect according to Baseball America. John Sickels gave Huber a B+ and ranked him as the 3rd best player in the Royals system, and 36th best hitting prospect in baseball. Sickels had previously compared him to Mike Sweeney.
But unlike Sweeney, Huber never adjusted to MLB pitching. He hit well enough in AAA, but only got sporadic opportunities to face major league pitching. He was traded to the Padres, who gave him 67 ABs in 2008, during which he hit an anemic .246/.303/.390. Unfortunately, Huber was equally bad at AAA that year, and had to enter the wandering bat phase of his carrer. After spending 2009 with the Twins organization, and 2010 with the Hiroshima Carp, he is currently playing independent ball with the Somerset Patriots.
Huber left behind a .272/.349/.474 in a little under 1600 AAA plate appearances, and therein lies the rub. I hesitate to hang the AAAA label on Huber, as he's not your prototypical Quad-A slugger. The issue with Huber was slightly more complicated. The knee injury that forced him to move out from behind the plate raised the bar for his offensive performance. If there are very few catching prospects because of the defensive demands of the position, then there are equally few first base prospects because of the offensive demands of the position. Kansas City did try Huber in left field some, once it became clear Billy Butler was bound for first base, but the offensive bar is not much lower there, and the knee issues would have sapped Huber's range.
The best first basemen tend to generally end up there in the majors, not the minors. Albert Pujols, Jeff Bagwell and Mark Teixera, as examples, all were third basemen in the minors. You need to have a truly elite bat (e.g. Frank Thomas, Prince Fielder) to make it as a first base prospect. Part of this is self-selection. The best prospects tend to be the best athletes, and thus have been playing premium positions for their college or prep teams. All the pitchers were probably friday night starters or prep aces, even if they eventually end up as MLB middle relievers. If you are limited to 1B that early, as Huber was, you need to have a plus -> plus-plus bat. Huber simply didn't. He was just a very good hitter. That makes him a great catching prospect, but a fringy first baseman.
The Mets Have No Catching Prospects So...
It's going to be difficult to come up with a comparison for Huber, but his particular story is certainly applicable toa lot of the Mets current farm system. Now catcher to 1B is obviously the largest jump on the defensive spectrum. In 2010, the positional adjust ment for Albert Pujols was -11.8 runs, for Brian McCaan it was +7.7 (and that was in 23 fewer games) However, the Mets have a bundle of prospects whose value will be at least in part dependent on what part of the field they end up covering. OF Juan Lagares is the one of the more obvious ones to me. Like 1B, the corner outfield positions have a very high offensive expectation. I recently tossed off a Garrett Anderson ceiling for him, but I still doubt that he will have THAT much power in the majors, and if he doesn't, he better be able to play CF for longer than Anderson did. (worth noting that Anderson was also a below average offensive player for the balance of his career, walks matter people). It's not just catcher, finding any up the middle prospects that can stick there in the majors has to be the goal of any organization.
More guys toiling in indy ball? (Bill Pulsipher is also playing for Somerset) Fewer gratuitious shots at Juan Lagares? (I make no promises) More irrational comparisons? (Anderson did have over 2500 hits and 25 career WAR, mind you) All that and more? (Eh, I'll probably just be taking a look at Alex Escobar)