Sep 022013
Phillies catcher prospect Sebastian Valle

Phillies catcher prospect Sebastian Valle

A prospect’s stock can be volatile.  Over the course of a season, injuries or poor performance can have a prospect quickly go from potential star to longshot to used car salesman.  Growth, mechanical or mental adjustments can also help a prospect emerge.  Teams can have long-term plans all they want, but the reality is that if any part of those plans are counting on a minor leaguer fulfilling his potential, something could go wrong.

Nothing has exemplified this more than the Phillies’ catcher situation in 2013.  Carlos Ruiz has been solid for them for seven seasons, but he’s a pending free agent and will be 35 years old.  Now would be the perfect time to move on from an aging player at a demanding position and break in a younger player that has been developing.  At this time last year, it seemed like this would be a realistic possibility for them.  Now, not so much.

Tommy Joseph is probably the player they hoped to pencil in for 2014.  His offensive performance throughout his career was really just so-so, but both the Giants before the trade and the Phillies after felt he was making enough progress to keep advancing him a level every year.  That progress was put on hold in the first week of May when a foul tip off his mask concussed him.  He only had a .622 OPS at that point, but it was only 20 games and could’ve turned it around at any time.  Twice he began rehab assignments to return to the IronPigs, but the performance was horrendous and resulted in him being shut down both times with concussion symptoms.

He hasn’t played since July 11th, and his season is over.  Last month, Matt Gelb reported that this was the third concussion of his career, and his days behind the plate could be over.  That would be the best decision for his life, but on the diamond, it significantly lowers his value.  Obviously not playing catcher would prevent him from replacing Ruiz, and he probably doesn’t have the athleticism to play anything besides first base.  His career OPS is .717.  This is a few points above the major league average for a catcher but significantly below the league average for a first baseman.

Fortunately, the Phillies had another option.  Like Joseph, Sebastian Valle never dominated the minors, but he continued advancing every year.  That was until 2013, when they chose to assign Joseph to Triple-A and have Valle go back to Double-A.  His statistics cratered.  His OPS is a disaster at .605, and as far as I can tell, his season high in average was .235.  Maybe he’s a victim of a low BABIP- .233.  His walk rate is actually higher than usual, and his strikeout rate is lower than last year.  I think it’s more likely that he’s just making a lot of weak contact though.  His performance was poor enough that he fell behind another player on Reading’s depth chart.

That player was Cameron Rupp.  He was a third round pick from the Texas Longhorns in 2010, and he first got into a Phillies top 30 prospect before this season.  In a way, he’s actually a lot like Joseph and Valle.  He’s a low contact, pretty low on-base player, but he can hit the occasional homer and handle himself behind the plate.  He started catching more than Valle at Reading which shows the Phillies were more interested in furthering his development.  Once Joseph went on the DL, Rupp got the call to Lehigh Valley where the 24 year old continued to hit decently.  He’ll almost certainly be added to the 40 man roster this off-season.

He’s not a future starter though, and the Phillies worked to address the depth further in the draft, using their second round pick and two of their first five on catchers.  The first was Andrew Knapp from Cal, considered to be the best college catcher in the draft, although it was a weak crop.  He transitioned to pro ball nicely, currently posting a .760 OPS with an 8.5% walk rate and 23.4% strikeout rate.  He should be ready to advance to Clearwater next year.  He’s not a future star, but if he reaches his potential, he could hold down the position.

The second catcher they drafted was Jake Sweaney from a California high school.  His performance in the Gulf Coast League was atrocious, posting a .448 OPS with a 37.3% strikeout rate.  His offensive ceiling is higher than Knapp’s, but his pro debut confirmed the pre-draft reports; he needs a lot of work.  He’s obviously not a solution any time in the short-term.  The Phillies think there’s a chance he becomes a long-term solution, but they’ll need to be patient.

A catcher Sweaney split time with in the GCL might be the best prospect at the position in the organization: 17 year old Dominican Deivi Grullon.  He got a $575,000 bonus in last year’s international signing period, and he came straight to the U.S. and performed well.  A late season surge helped him finish with a .697 OPS with a .273 average and 7.6% walk rate and 13.6% strikeout rate.  That’s a solid season at the plate, but where he could really make his money is behind it.  He has a plus-plus arm and very good receiving skills.

Grullon probably has the highest ceiling of all catchers in the system, but aside from Sweaney, he’s also the furthest away.  He could be the long-term answer the Phillies want, but not in 2014, 2015 or 2016 even if everything goes well.  This leaves a pretty sizable gap between now and the time Grullon may be ready.  The Phillies probably thought they had the depth for those years and beyond, but a number of factors this year have them searching for new answers.

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Scott Grauer writes for PSC and Bus Leagues Baseball – check him out!