Currently, the Nationals have three catching prospects that have big-league impact potential. However, only one can be the starting catcher of the future. Let’s take a look at them here.
Wilson Ramos, hailing from Valencia, Venezuela, started the season in the Minnesota Twins organization, and came to the Nats in the Matt Capps deal. Baseball America ranked Ramos as the #2 prospect in the Twins system before this season, and #58 on their top 100 (#6 among catchers). He had just come off of a stellar stint for the AA New Britain Rock Cats, hitting .317 and slugging an impressive .454, despite having just over 200 at-bats due to injury. In their scouting report, they cited his tremendous power and home run potential, as well as his rifle arm that threw out nearly half of all baserunners who attempted to steal against him. They listed injury and staying in shape as their concerns, however the bottom line was that those could be overcome.
Ramos started the year in AAA with the Rochester Red Wings, and disappointed many Twins fans with lackluster performance. His batting average was a pedestrian .241, and his OPS was a measly .625. Ramos did make his big-league debut this season, but not to the fanfare that many other top prospects are accompanied with. He only appeared in seven games, but showed promise with his bat, albeit with a WAR of only 0.2 (one tenth of a point above Jeff Francouer…). Minnesota capitalized on this cup of coffee when shopping him, because when you have Joe Mauer, any catching prospect you develop is probably ending up as trade bait.
After the trade, Ramos reported to the AAA Syracuse Chiefs. So far, in his second uniform in the International League, he’s hitting a much-improved .321 through 14 games, and slugging a fine .500. Maybe it’s the change of scenery that benefited him. Next year, Ramos will probably get plenty of opportunity to win the job from Ivan Rodriguez in Spring Training, and in all likelihood will split time with him while being mentored by the veteran. If Ramos impresses next year, then I’d say that he has the spot locked up for the next few years.
The next prospect with a chance to win the job is Derek Norris. Norris has a thankless job – the prospect ranked below Stephen Strasburg in the Nationals organization! Like Ramos, Norris was the #2 prospect in the Nationals system, and the highest rated position player. Baseball America also ranked him #38 in their top 100, 4th among catchers (only being Jesus Montero, Buster Posey, and Carlos Santana). Coming off of a .286-23-84 season for the Class A Hagerstown Suns, Norris showed the Nationals organization that even though he was in the low minors, he had a lot of skills to bring to the table. A dangerous contact hitter with the plate discipline of a Zen master, he also covers the plate well, and throws out 36% of baserunners attempting to steal. Norris showed that he could rake at the A level, so he was promoted to the A+ Potomac Nationals to start the season.
Health concerns have gotten to Norris this season, making him somewhat similar to Ramos. Offseason removal of his hamate bone caused him to miss the beginning of the year with soreness, and he was hit by a pitch in the head on May 22nd, missing some more time. When he has been on the field, he’s hit a pathetic .220, with only a 1.03 to 1 BB/K ratio, showing that his greatest assets have been impacted negatively by these injuries. Norris may end up having to repeat the level next year due to this.
One negative aspect of his play that I haven’t even mentioned is defense. The reason he stayed at one level for all of 2009 was so his defense and receiving could improve, and he committed a sloppy 18 errors. He also let 28 passed balls get by him, a number that shouldn’t be seen in professional baseball. Norris needs to spend a lot of time working with the Nats’ minor league catching instructor during minor league camp next spring, because if he wants to even make it to the majors he’ll need his defense to become at least passable. If he wants to still be considered among the Nationals’ elite prospects, Norris will have to have a monster comeback season at the plate in 2011, plus a rapid improvement in defense. Now that Ramos and Bryce Harper are in the system, Norris has a fire lit right where it motivates you, and this next season could potentially be do-or-die for him.
The final catching prospect that I’m going to cover is Bryce Harper. We all know about the 500-foot bombs he launched out of Tropicana Field, and his perfect swing, but nobody knows how he’ll do professionally. Regardless, he’ll be the Nationals’ top prospect for 2011, and also in Baseball America’s overall top 10. His career will probably start in class A, either with Hagerstown or Potomac, moving quickly. His pro position is a bit of a mystery, seeing as he can play catcher, outfield, and first base. It all depends on how Director of Player Development Doug Harris and his staff see him contributing to the big club best. Wherever he plays, it’s safe to say that Harper could be in the big leagues as early as September 2011, and a regular sometime in 2012.
In conclusion, I think that Wilson Ramos is the catcher of the future for the Nationals. He has all of the tools necessary to succeed at the major league level, can take the job in less than a year, and has a good track record in the high minors. He has more experience and better numbers than Derek Norris, and the team payed a high price to get him. Look for Ramos to be calling games at Nationals Park for many years, and look for Derek Norris to be either a backup with some pop, a throw-in in a trade, or a DH for a power-starved AL team.
This leaves Bryce Harper. My plan for him (although Doug Harris may think different) is to move him to the corner outfield. It definitely suits his 6-3, 215 body type more, and his power profiles perfectly. Either Josh Willingham or Roger Bernadina would have to go to make way for Harper. Bernadina isn’t really a prototypical starter and could end up being the fourth OF, but Willingham probably could be moved for pitching. Either way, an outfield of Bryce Harper, Nyjer Morgan, and Willingham/Bernadina would be a pretty good outfield for an NL East contender. Plus, having Bryce Harper, Adam Dunn, and Wilson Ramos hitting 3-4-5 in a lineup would be monstrous.
There you have it, the solution to the Nationals’ catcher woes. If only Mike Rizzo were reading this…
This was written by MagicSox