O's know rushing catching prospects is tool of ignorance

August 24, 1994|By Tom Keegan | Tom Keegan,Sun Staff Writer

No position is as tough to learn, as taxing to play on a daily basis, as difficult to scout.

No wonder baseball's decision makers commit so many errors when it comes to evaluating catchers.

Baseball brains repeat the same mistakes over and over in regard to catchers.

First, teams tend to draft catchers too high. Second, ballclubs tend to give up too soon on prospects, thus enabling a competitor to reap the benefits of their investments.

A study of history repeatedly shows teams desperate for catching bypass sure things in the draft to gamble on catchers, only to regret it.

In 1966, Steve Chilcott was the first player chosen in the second June draft. Reggie Jackson went second.

In 1971, the Chicago White Sox made Danny Goodwin the first player selected in the draft. He didn't sign, which allowed the California Angels to make the same mistake four years later.

In 1985, the Milwaukee Brewers selected B. J. Surhoff with the first overall pick, leaving Will Clark for the San Francisco Giants.

In 1989, a power-hitting first baseman from Auburn University felt certain the closest major-league team would use its first-round pick to choose him. Instead, the Atlanta Braves selected Tyler Houston, a high school catcher from Las Vegas, with the second overall pick in the draft. Five selections later, the White Sox chose Frank Thomas.

In 1991, scouting director Gary Nickels' first draft, the Orioles selected outfielders Curtis Goodwin, Alex Ochoa and Mark Smith, and pitchers Rick Krivda, Vaughn Eshelman and Rick Forney, all major-league prospects to varying degrees. The Orioles' second-round pick that year? Since-released catcher Shawn Curran.

In part, a shortage of catching talent causes teams to overdraft catchers. To some degree, scouting directors are forced to look for catching because their bosses gave up too early on not-yet fully matured prospects.

Catchers bloom late. Just ask Mike Stanley, or Mickey Tettleton, or Brian Harper, or even Rick Dempsey, all of whom were dropped by their original clubs before achieving American League success.

The Orioles have been telling themselves that a lot lately to feel better about their farm system's seemingly barren catching crop. No one catcher stands out and projects as an everyday major-league player.

Four catchers have shown promise. Rochester's Greg Zaun (Dempsey's nephew), Bowie's Cesar Devarez, Frederick's B. J. Waszgis and Bluefield's Michael Gargiulo have various strengths, but no one offers the complete package.

A blend of Zaun's receiving skills, Devarez's arm and base running, and Waszgis' bat would form a can't-miss catching prospect. Unfortunately for the Orioles, it doesn't work that way.

A mixture of Zaun's bat, Devarez's injury history and Waszgis' defensive (li)abilities would form a candidate for the local tavern's softball team. Fortunately for the Orioles, it doesn't work that way.

Zaun, a switch-hitter with an average arm, ranks third in the organization on the depth chart behind Chris Hoiles -- another late bloomer -- and Jeff Tackett.

"If something happened where we needed another catcher, we would feel comfortable bringing him up," Orioles assistant general manager Doug Melvin said.

Zaun, 23, has thrown out 40 percent of the runners attempting to steal on him and has been hot at the plate of late. His batting average languished in the .160s in May, the result of a 15-for-107 drought, but he has raised it to .237 with six home runs and 40 RBIs. In his past 34 games, Zaun is hitting .318 with five home runs and 25 RBIs.

Regardless, his bat remains a concern. He also is on the small side for a catcher at 5 feet 10, 170 pounds. But he has quieted durability concerns by playing in at least 100 games in each of the past four seasons. He usually hits better in the second half of the season than the first, a sign his body can withstand the pounding of a long season behind the plate.

Durability remains a question mark for Devarez, 24, who was having his best season until it was ended recently by a wrist injury. Devarez has played as many as 100 games in a season only once.

HTC A .234 career hitter with 10 home runs before this season, Devarez hit .313 with six homers and 48 RBIs for Bowie, reaching career highs in all three categories.

Next to Tackett, Devarez has the best arm among the organization's catchers. He routinely throws out more than 40 percent of the runners attempting to steal.

"We like Devarez behind the plate because no one will run on him," said Reid Nichols, coordinator of minor-league instruction for the Orioles. "And he's an above-average runner, for anyone, not just a catcher. He could work on his framing pitches. He's come a long way, but he still has a few rough edges."

If Zaun is the Orioles' top catching prospect, then Devarez is a close second. Neither man has a bat as powerful as that of Waszgis. He is batting .281 with 20 home runs and a Carolina League-leading 93 RBIs.

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