Starting this week and then continuing every week until the start of the season I will go through what I consider to be the top 5 prospects at each position in the Royals farm system.
It’s easy to see that the catching depth for the Royals is limited. Like the system as a whole, the majority of the catching talent is in the lower levels with several years left to go before many of these prospects can think of playing at Kaufman Stadium. The lack of talent in the system can be greatly attributed to the fact that this past years draft was the first time since 2005 that they drafted a catcher in the top 10 rounds. In that draft, they selected catchers in the 8th, 9th and 10th round and of those selections only Kiel Thibault has seen significant time at the AA level or above. The Royals, however, have had success signing international players at this position and that is very evident with the top 2 catchers in my rankings.
#1 – Jose Bonilla
5’10 – 180 lbs.
The Dominican Republic product was signed in September 2006 and had a sip of coffee with the Surprise Royals in 2007 where he saw action in three games and went hitless in five at-bats.
Bonilla broke out this past season as he was named the offensive player of the year for the Surprise Royals where he hit .357 in thirty four games and finished with nine doubles, three triples, five homers and twenty four RBI’s. Bonilla also flashed some speed as he was flawless on the base-path stealing five bases. Like most young players Bonilla (20 years old) will have to work on getting more walks as he only walked in 4.3% of his plate appearances. Regardless, Baseball America was impressed enough with his performance to list him as the 13th best prospect in the Arizona League.
This past fall Bonilla was invited, along with eight other catchers, to participate in the instructional league at the Surprise facility. Bonilla’s likely destinations to start the 2009 season will be with the Burlington Royals or in Idaho Falls.
#2 – Salvador Perez
6’3 – 175 lbs.
Perez certainly showed his offensive prowess this past season but his play behind the plate is the aspect of his game that at this point is most promising. In 2006, the Royals signed Perez for $75,000 which many now consider a bargain since he had a growth spurt that fall/winter.
Perez, now 19, started the 2007 season in Arizona and although his offensive numbers were not spectacular his defense certainly was as he led all AZL catchers in assists and finished second in the league throwing out base-runners at 48.1%. He ended the season with eighty six at bats and had a .244 AVG with ten RBI’s and three doubles. The right-hander had impeccable results against lefties as he hit .368 against them but his numbers versus right handed pitchers came back to reality as he was limited to a .209 average.
Perez started the 2008 season with the Burlington Royals and in thirteen games he finished with the following stats - .325 AVG / .404 OBP / .779 OPS. After an injury to Idaho Falls Chukars catcher, Sean McCauley, he finished the season in the Pioneer League. While there he continued his solid pace at the plate and had a .395 average in twelve games. Through two seasons one can conclude that his power is limited as he has only one home run in 170+ at bats but you must also remember that his glove and arm will keep him ascending through the Royals system.
He finished the 2009 season as the youngest player on the Chukars roster and was recently named the best defensive catcher in the Royals farm system by Baseball America. Since Perez is so young he will more than likely start the 2009 season at extended spring training but I expect to see him with the Burlington Bees before the season is over.
#3 – Sean McCauley
6’2 – 170 lbs.
It was thought that prior to the 2007 draft, Sean McCauley wanted to be picked in the 10th round or higher for him to forgo a scholarship offer from Western Carolina. When the Royals selected the Manassas, Virginia product in the 12th round they immediately hopped on the phone and offered him what equated to be sixth round money and McCauley quickly signed. In Baseball America’s draft recap, McCauley earned high praise as they listed him as the Royals best defensive player taken indicating that he has a plus arm with 1.9 second “pop times” from behind the plate to second base.
The Royals sent McCauley to the Arizona League in 2007 where he had the following stats in eighty four at bats - .286 AVG / .375 OBP / .851 OPS. He knocked two balls out of the yard and had thirteen RBI’s. He struck out nineteen times while walking ten times and had ten extra base hits.
After extended spring training McCauley went to Idaho Falls for the 2008 season and posted the following numbers - .278 AVG / .347 OBP / .732 OPS in 169 at bats and finished with a .983 fielding percentage. McCauley ended up winning the Chukars “Player of the Year” honor even though he missed the end of the 2008 season with a leg injury. He earned high praise by his manager, Jim Gabella, who had this comment in an article by insidenova.com in mid-August, “It’s amazing the progress he’s made offensively and defensively. I really haven’t seen a catcher in our system that blocks balls like he does or throws people out like he does. Offensively, he’s starting to come into his own.”
McCauley recovered enough to take part in the Instructional League with fifty nine other Royals prospects this fall and it has been reported that the Royals have him on a strength program to build upon his frame over the winter. He will turn 20 in May and figures to start the 2009 season with the Burlington Bees in the Midwest League.
#4 – Brayan Pena
5’11 – 210 lbs.
The next catcher finished the 2008 season with the following minor league baseball stats - .303 AVG / .373 OBP / .835 OPS. With numbers like this one might think, how is he the #4 catching prospect? The only problem with Brayan Pena is that the “prospect” tag is quickly fading away as he turned 27 in January.
Pena, a former Cuban national player, burst onto the scene in 2001 after being signed as a non-drafted free agent in 2000. While with Danville in 2001 he earned an all star appearance and showed good plate awareness by hitting .370 and had an OBP of .440. In 2001-2005 it became quite apparent that he could hit for average but his power was limited as he hit only seven home runs during that time. In the 2005 season, Pena got his first taste of the big leagues after posting a .326 average with the Triple A, Richmond Braves. That same year in thirty nine at bats with the Atlanta Braves, Pena hit only .179 and struck out seven times in thirty nine at bats. Pena then spent the next two years bouncing between Richmond and Atlanta and proved to be a AAAA player as in 2006 he hit .302 with Richmond and .268 in Atlanta while in 2007 he again pounded the ball in Triple A finishing with a .301 average but when in Atlanta he hit only .212.
After getting fourteen at bats with the Atlanta Braves to start the 2008 season he went onto the 15 day disabled list with a mild back strain. The Braves welcomed him back by designating him for assignment on May 23rd which then led to the Royals picking him up off of waivers on May 30th. He never saw time with the big club after that point as they immediately sent him to Omaha where he played in sixty games. On November 3rd, the Royals added him onto the 40 man roster making him unavailable for the Rule 5 draft.
After a solid showing in winter ball action, Pena will go into the 2009 season as a good insurance policy should Buck or Olivo get injured but it is obvious that Pena is not fit to play an everyday role in the majors.
#5 – Mauricio Matos
6’0 – 185 lbs.
There is a litany of unproven catchers to choose from in the bottom levels of the Royals farm system to fill this slot, so I went with the Royals 2008 10th round selection out of the Bronx.
Matos, 18, jumped onto the scene in his senior year and led his high school to the semi-finals of the NY Public School Athletic League. He quickly proved his desire to be a major leaguer as he missed one of the semi-final games to attend a pre-draft workout with the Royals. After being one of the last Royals draftees to sign ($150,000 bonus) he reported with the Surprise Royals. Sharing time with several other backstops he finished with a .269 AVG in 78 at bats.
It has been reported that a very young age Matos already has a great aptitude for the game. Like McCauley, Matos will have to build on his frame as he currently lacks the ability to drive balls but as scout Allan Simpson suggested he has solid mechanics and with a workout program he projects to have power.
As one of the youngest prospects in the Royals system (he’ll turn 19 in September) expect to see Matos spend the summer in Arizona refining his craft before continuing his professional career with the Surprise Royals.