Take a gander at some of the names of players who have been catchers at The XM Satellite Radio Futures All-Star Game in recent years, and the list is pretty impressive. Kurt Suzuki, Neil Walker and Russell Martin are just some of the backstops who have stepped onto the big stage and let the world see what only Minor League fans had seen until that point.
When the following group of youngsters takes the field on July 8 at AT&T Park in San Francisco, they will have their chance to shine and steal the spotlight from their big-league counterparts, if only for a few hours. This group of catchers could be as varied and diverse as any group the Futures Game has seen. They represent three leagues at two levels and have proven that they can handle the bat as well as the duties behind the plate.
So, a closer look at the quartet who'll be on the field for this year's game:
Robinzon Diaz, World Team, New Hampshire (Double-A, Blue Jays):
When the Blue Jays signed the then 17-year-old Diaz as an undrafted free agent from the Dominican Republic, they were aware of his potential both at the plate and behind it. Now 23 and having worked his way up the organizational ladder, Diaz has more than proven that Toronto's faith in him was justified.
When Diaz was named to the World Team roster, it was simply another in what has become a long line of accolades. He was an Appalachian League All-Star in 2003 after winning the batting title (.374) on the Short-Season circuit. He followed that up by earning a place on the South Atlantic League All-Star team in 2004, the year he hit .287 and drove in 42 runs while playing for Charleston.
Diaz made the jump to the Florida State League in 2005 and was named to the All-Star team yet again, this time hitting .294 with a career high 65 RBIs. He went back to Dunedin last season to work on his defensive skills and because the Jays had Curtis Thigpen blocking his path at Double-A New Hampshire.
Thigpen has since moved onto the Major Leagues, giving Diaz the opportunity to play every day in the Eastern League. He has responded by hitting .317 through 56 games with two homers and 19 RBIs. His .987 fielding percentage over that time period also would be a career best if he continued at this pace.
Max Ramirez, World Team, Kinston (Class A, Indians):
The Braves signed the Venezuelan native as an undrafted free agent in the fall of 2002. He played in the Dominican Summer League for two seasons, earning a berth on the All-Star team as a third baseman in 2003. He remained at third base in 2004 while playing in the Gulf Coast League before moving behind the plate in 2005 upon reaching the Appalachian League.
Ramirez seemed to favor the switch because he went out and earned a share of the Appy League's Most Valuable Player Award that summer, hitting a career-best .347 with eight homers and 47 RBIs. He remained behind the plate last season, as well, but of the 117 games in which he appeared, only 57 of those appearances came as a catcher.
Complicating matters was a midseason trade that sent him from Atlanta to Cleveland. The Braves received closer Bob Wickman, while the Tribe picked up a potential bat, though Ramirez's future behind the plate remains somewhat murky. Despite the trade, Ramirez still managed to hit .292 and collect career highs in hits (115), homers (13) and RBIs (63).
Ramirez is looking to surpass those totals this season after moving up to the Carolina League, where he was hitting .301 with 10 homers and 41 through 55 games. He's always been a patient hitter but this season, he seems to have been able to improve on his strikeout-to-walk ratio. He had 44 strikeouts to 43 walks through 192 at-bats, which should allow him to surpass the career-high 54 walks he drew last season.
J.R. Towles, U.S. Team, Corpus Christi (Double-A, Astros):
The injury bug hampered Towles for much of his first three professional seasons, but this year he seems to have found the right formula for staying on the field. He began the year in the Carolina League and was bumped up to Corpus Christi of the Double-A Texas League last month.
The promotion, which at the time didn't seem logical considering Towles was hitting .200 in 26 Carolina League games, has been cause for celebration because he has simply begun hitting since joining the Hooks. He was hitting .299 through 87 at-bats with three homers and 10 RBIs.
Towles, who was twice drafted by Oakland (2002-03) before the Astros grabbed him in the 20th round of the 2004 draft, is strong defensively and usually gets kudos for the job he does behind the plate. But because he's been bogged down with a series of nagging injuries -- finger surgery then tendinitis in his knee -- Towles isn't as far along in his development as the Astros would like.
Earning a spot on the Future's roster, however, is a nice way to pad his resume and to acknowledge the fact that he's remained healthy even if he only recently began hitting. If Towles is continue up Houston's organization ladder, and staying healthy is a key, than this game could serve as a springboard.
Bryan Anderson, U.S. Team, Springfield (Double-A, Cardinals):
Anderson is probably the most highly touted of the four catchers named to this year's Futures Game. The former fourth-round pick (2005) has the least amount of experience among the group yet seems to have the biggest upside and he's showing much of it this season in the Texas League.
Anderson was hitting .325 through 53 games, good for third in the Texas League batting race. That's not surprising, though, since he hit .331 with Johnson City of the Appalachian League in 2005, which would have been fourth in the league had he qualified. He fell 26 at-bats shy.
He then hit .302 last season in the Midwest League, collecting 51 RBIs. Anderson already has 31 RBIs this season and figures, barring injury, to surpass last season's total. His bat has also helped him get into some Major League games during Spring Training in each of the last two seasons.
Defense may be the only part of Anderson's game that could be labeled suspect, and that may even be too strong a description. His nine passed balls were tops among Texas League catchers (through Friday), while his five errors were second. While he isn't mechanically the best catcher the Cards have in their system he could be the one with the most offensive potential.