July 1, 2008 4:57 PM
McKenry gunning for the bigs
The basic questions you should ask of any position prospect: "Can he hit? How often and how far?" are counterbalanced by a set of questions specific to a catcher: "How does he handle the pitching staff and call a game? How does he hold down the opponent's running game?" And much like shortstops, if the answers to that second set of questions are strong enough, a multitude of flaws on the offensive side may be overlooked.
Ideally, of course, you would have a player that combines strong traits on both sides of the ball like a Johnny Bench or Pudge Rodriguez, but those are the rarest of breeds, as their Hall of Fame (likely in Pudge's case) careers indicate.
Even above average two-way players such as the Dodgers Russell Martin don't come around very often. Instead, teams will typically be satisfied by just finding catchers that can play at the MLB level to begin with.
Sometimes that can take awhile. Looking in the NL West this year gives a couple of good examples of this, the Giants' Steve Holm made his major league debut at the age of 28 after taking seven seasons just to get through the AA level. The Padres' Luke Carlin who debuted against the Rockies in May at the tender age of 27 had a similarly long, slow slog through the minors.
The Sky Sox's Edwin Bellorin seems poised to have a similar wait for his shot and could replace Yorvit Torrealba on the Rockies roster when the latter's contract expires after the 2009 season.
With all that in mind, a look at the catching in the Rockies system shows one player that may figure to challenge Bellorin for playing time at that point. With an arm that's throwing out nearly 50 percent of would be base-stealers at Modesto, Michael McKenry is literally gunning for the chance, and with an exceptional month of June at the plate as well, he could be looking to make that statement sooner than we think.
At the plate, McKenry was batting only .218 in April and did just a little better in May, but he has improved in all of the important areas as the season has progressed, dropping his strikeouts while raising his walk rate. He's also hitting with both more power and a higher average. McKenry will likely come down off the peak that he's at right now -- he hit .395/.500/.605 in June -- as there was an out-of-the-blue spike in his line drive rate (from 12 percent to 25) that says this run is unsustainable at its current pace.
Still, there's likely an underlying advance in his progression as a hitter that's driving the charge, so don't expect a complete drop to his previous poor level of production.
Even with all of his early struggles, McKenry leads the Modesto team in home runs and extra-base hits, so the power that he showed in Hawaii seems to be blossoming again. Part of the reason for the surge is an improved approach against left-handed pitchers, which had been plaguing him the first two months of the season, but he's also just squaring up on the ball better, as his first two months saw him getting underneath on his swing more than he had when he had been successful in the past last season at Asheville and the Hawaii Winter League.
Again, though, with catchers, the offense is only half the equation. And with McKenry, the defensive half is particularly strong. He has the best caught-stealing percentage among starting catchers (24 out of 49) at the advanced A level, and within the California League, he has the best rate of prevention (how often runners attempt to steal) among starters.
To put the respect given to his arm in perspective, consider that the average starting catcher in the California League will see one stolen base attempt every 6 1/2 innings. McKenry sees one every nine, and with just one error you can tell his arm is as accurate as it is strong. While his seven passed balls seems a little high, the pitching staff at Modesto, which includes one knuckleball starter and a collection of nasty sinkers and sliders, gives him some leeway there.
As for handling that staff and his pitch calling, you can't really argue with the results that Modesto's staff has had, as they've been the second best run prevention unit in the California League. If the catcher does play a role in this, McKenry has shown an ability to adapt this season, as pitchers who started the year struggling, particularly someone like Keith Weiser, who can't get by on stuff alone, have seen improvement.
In sum, the picture that's starting to emerge with McKenry is that the defense is the engine that's driving this cart, and the offense just needs to be at a passable level for him to be a major league caliber talent. Is it? Right now, it's looking good.
To make comparisons to catchers who have passed through Modesto on their way to the bigs, while falling short of the monster seasons that Chris Iannetta and AJ Hinch had while there, McKenry's right in line with others that have made the majors such as Miguel Olivo.
Comparing him to other catchers at his age and level shows him to be in decent shape as well. While the Orioles' Matt Wieters laps everybody as a potential two-way star, McKenry fits safely in a second tier. For instance, the Padres Mitch Canham is the same age at Lake Elsinore, and while Canham's overall offensive line is better (.295/.414/.459) McKenry has hit almost as well lately and has much more value on the defensive end (Canham's allowed a whopping 95 steals in 115 attempts against him). Right now, I'd estimate McKenry to be ready for the MLB by spring 2011.
Colorado Springs: Ian Stewart homered in three straight games at Portland over the weekend and now has a slugging percentage over .600 both at home and away from Security Service Field. He has shown an ability to greatly improve with extended exposure to a level, so don't get too discouraged by his high strikeout rate while with the Rockies.
Mark Redman and Glendon Rusch each had bumps on their roads back to the Rockies, Redman, though effective, was inefficient and lasted only five innings in his start Sunday, while Rusch allowed four runs and couldn't get through the fifth Monday night.
Tulsa: Dexter Fowler continues to maul the Texas League, hitting .373/.417/.569 over the month of June. Fowler, along with pitchers Casey Weathers and Ryan Mattheus will represent the U.S. in the Futures Game held in conjunction with the All-Star Game at Yankees stadium in a couple of weeks. Fowler wrote a journal entry about that and a couple of Texas League honors last week for MiLB.com.
Modesto: Jhoulys Chacin makes his Nuts debut tonight after being called up from Asheville, Chacin finished with a 1.86 ERA for the Tourists and a league leading 66% groundball rate. First baseman Michael Paulk hit .330/.391/.467 for the month of June, as he too has been raising his production from a slow start.
Asheville: Without Chacin, the Tourists will have to rely on Robinson Fabian to improve on his initial performances with the club. Last night's six inning effort allowing just two runs was a good start. Everth Cabrera's last ten games have been either feast or famine. In five of the games he had one hit in 21 AB's with 10 strikeouts, while in the other five he had 15 hits in 23 AB's with three strikeouts, four doubles, a triple and a homerun. All told, the .364 average had him come out ahead.
Tri-City: Juan Nicasio already leads the Northwest League in strikeouts with 24 after three starts and his 1.17 ERA is third among starters thus far. Patrick Rose is hitting well, with a .317 average in some tough environments, and 2008 second round pick Charlie Blackmon is heating up as well with nine hits in his last seven games.
Casper: Kane Simmons was rated by Baseball America as the fourth best Independent League prospect in 2007, and his past week with the Ghosts gave some indication as to why. Simmons had ten hits, seven of them for extra bases in 27 AB's. It's pretty clear what the left hander's kryptonite is, however. While Simmons is hitting .474 off of right hand pitching, he's only at .125 versus southpaws.