Among the countless historically-good players on this year’s Hall of Fame ballot is former catcher Mike Piazza—or as I choose to remember him, the 1,390th overall (62nd round) selection in the 1988 draft.
Piazza made an immediate impact in his first full season in the major leagues, batting .318/.370/.561 with 35 home runs and 112 RBI in 149 games. His monster season at the plate also led to his selection as the National League Rookie of the Year.
Over the course of his 16-year career, Piazza, now 44 years old, emerged as the greatest offensive catcher in the history of his game. Appearing in 1,912 games with five different organizations, the right-handed hitter batted .308/.377/.545 with 344 doubles, 427 home runs and 1,335 RBI.
Piazza’s offensive prowess resulted in 12 All-Star Game selections and 10 Silver Slugger awards, and he appeared in the final MVP voting in nine different seasons.
In his first few seasons in the major leagues, Piazza’s defense was barely serviceable behind the plate. In fact, he led the league in passed balls in both 1995 and 1996 with 12. Oddly, he managed to post his career-best caught-stealing-rate (35 percent) as a rookie in 1993. After that, however, it was all downhill as his career caught-stealing-rate sits at a subpar 23 percent.
But are there any catching prospects with the potential to be the next Mike Piazza? Yes, and lots of them. In fact, a majority of minor-league catchers are only being developed at the position due to their perceived offensive upside.
So, here’s a look at five prospects with the bat to be the next great slugging catcher.
Selected by the Arizona Diamondbacks in the first-round pick of the 2012 draft, the organization opted to develop him as a catcher due to his strong arm and athleticism, as well as the value associated with his promising left-handed bat. As expected, the left-handed hitting Trahan showcased his advanced hit tool and plate discipline by batting .281/.422/.473 with 19 extra-base hits (five home runs), eight stolen bases and 48/40 K/BB in 49 games.
His defense is a major work-in-progress; the 18-year-old registered 11 errors and 18 passed balls in 40 games behind the plate. He demonstrated more than enough arm strength for the position—though it’s not reflected in his 24 percent caught-stealing-rate—but he will have to clean up his blocking and receiving skills to enjoy prolonged success.
At 6’2”, 185 pounds, Swanner is a physical catcher with a big bat. Since entering the Rockies’ system in 2010, the right-handed hitter’s production has steadily improved, although the amount of swing-and-miss relative to his age and experience is somewhat concerning. In his full-season debut in 2012, the 20-year-old batted .302/.385/.529 with 41 extra-base hits (16 home runs) and 101/38 K/BB in 88 games.
Swanner will need to work his tail off to remain behind the plate, as his performance behind the dish this summer won’t even be serviceable at higher minor-league levels. Beyond his 14 passed balls in 75 games at Low-A Asheville, Swanner threw out only 10 percent (13-of-133) of base stealers.
Beginning the season at Low-A Charleston for the second consecutive season, Sanchez eclipsed his full-season production from the previous season by posting an .870 OPS in 68 games. His loud bat ultimately earned him a promotion to High-A Tampa, where he furthered his strong season by registering a .766 OPS in 48 games.
Sanchez will need to keep raking because his glove certainly won’t carry him to the major leagues. Between both Class-A levels last season, the 20-year-old committed 16 errors with 18 passed balls in 91 games behind the plate, and would lazily pick at balls in the dirt far too often. Runners certainly aren’t afraid to test him either, as his 30 percent caught-stealing rate (45-of-149) will need to improve over the next several years.
Had it not been for a season-ending knee injury (torn ligament) in late June, d’Arnaud would have likely reached the major leagues. At the time of the injury, the right-handed hitter was batting .333/.380/.595 with 16 home runs and 59/19 K/BB through 67 games.
Unlike some of the other players on this list, d’Arnaud has developed into an above-average defensive catcher. However, his history of injuries is hard to overlook. Still, his bat is a huge commodity and will surely contribute at some point during the 2013 season.
Selected by the Seattle Mariners with the third overall pick in the 2012 draft, Zunino was regarded as the most advanced hitter in the class after a storied career at the University of Florida.
Assigned to Short-Season Everett to begin his professional career, the 21-year-old batted .373/.474/.736 with 10 home runs in 29 games and earned a quick promotion, jumping three levels to Double-A Jackson. Although he only appeared in 15 games at the more advanced level, Zunino still batted .333/.386/.588 and launched three home runs.
He’ll never be an elite defensive catcher; he has some poor blocking habits that may be minimized with more experience, but never gone. His catch-and-throw skills were impressive as a pro this past summer, as he gunned down 43 percent (12-of-28) of base stealers.