Perspective: Make room for All-Star catchers

Cal League has too many talented backstops to choose from

San Jose's Pablo Sandoval is tied for the California League lead with 44 RBIs. (Ben Platt/MLB.com)

By Lisa Winston / MLB.com | May 28, 2008 6:00 AM

An old baseball proverb says you can't have too much pitching, but apparently you can have too much catching. Or so it will seem for the fine folks who will be selecting the All-Star team for the Class A Advanced California League.

That job is going to be made all the harder because the Cal League's midsummer classic is a showdown against its fellow Class A Advanced circuit, the Carolina League. So instead of a game featuring as many as 50 players, allowing the league to invite pretty much anyone who's hitting over .250, the rosters are pared down to a single squad -- especially since the game forces the visiting team to fly its players across the country, with the Cal League guys coming to Myrtle Beach, S.C., for this year's extravaganza on June 24. That means with 10 teams from which to choose a 22-man roster, a lot of deserving players will be overlooked.

That was certainly the case in 2006 when glaring omissions included Diamondbacks prospects from Visalia such as Mark Reynolds, who was leading the league in homers and on a Triple Crown pace, and outfield phenom Carlos Gonzalez, who was among the Minor League leaders in RBIs at the time.

This year, the toughest decisions will come behind the plate. Through one of those weird quirks of baseball fate, many of the league's top hitters over the first two months of action have been catchers.

Let's say, for argument's sake, that the Cal League decides to name three catchers to its roster (though two appear to be the norm). It could probably also bring a fourth backstop to serve as designated hitter or perhaps even add one of these sluggers as a first baseman -- several of them have seen time there.

But there will still be a dilemma.

There are six players who in any other league would be locks for an All-Star slot, and even that group was made smaller by the mid-May promotion of Stockton's Jed Morris to the Double-A Midland RockHounds (A's). In a normal world, I'd say the lone guarantee in 2008 would be San Jose Giants catcher Pablo Sandoval. But then I remember Reynolds-gate.

That said, I feel pretty confident that fans in Myrtle Beach can look forward to watching the teddy-bear-esque Sandoval in person June 24 -- unless, of course, he's promoted to Double-A Connecticut or even Triple-A Fresno by then.

There are few offensive categories in which Sandoval is not among the Minor League leaders right now -- not just Cal League leaders, Minor League leaders. His superlative stats include a very impressive batting average (.381, sixth in the Minors), and now that Terry Tiffee has been promoted to the bigs, Sandoval is the Minors' leading switch-hitter in the category. He also ranks in hits (67, tied for sixth); doubles (19, tied for fourth); RBIs (42, tied for eighth); extra-base hits (29, tied for fourth); runs scored (41, tied for sixth); and total bases (114, 10th).

He's not an all-or-nothing guy, either. Sandoval has struck out just 25 times in 176 at-bats -- all from a kid who is just 21 years old.

The 5-foot-11, 250-pound Sandoval (see teddy bear description above), who also has pretty nice slugging (.648) and on-base (.439) numbers, is making his second trip through the Cal League -- but not because the Giants felt he wasn't ready to take on Eastern League pitching. Originally a catcher when signed as a 16-year-old in 2003, the Venezuelan-born Sandoval saw time at third base and even at first before moving back behind the plate full-time this season. With that in mind, the club decided to keep him at San Jose, where former big-league catcher Steve Decker took the helm after being an All-Star manager at short-season Salem-Keizer. Who better to tutor Sandoval on refining his defensive game?

Will he become a Gold Glove-winner behind the plate? Maybe not. But then neither was Mike Piazza, who can probably make reservations for a nice B&B in Cooperstown in five years.

That leaves us with these remaining candidates for a cross-country airline ticket to Myrtle Beach:

Jon Still, Lancaster JetHawks (Boston): The Red Sox prospect has been among the league's home run leaders since day one and is still in a first-place tie with 13 homers and 30 RBIs while hitting a more-than-respectable .288. His .571 slugging percentage ranks the 23-year-old Mississippi native among the league leaders. Still has also seen time at first base and catcher and could arguably take a corner spot if the league so desired. He had a taste of the Cal League down the stretch last year when he was promoted from Class A Greenville as JetHawks first baseman Aaron Bates jumped from Lancaster to Double-A Portland. Ironically, Still and Bates had been not only teammates but roommates at North Carolina State, from which Still was drafted in the fourth round of 2006.

Ed Easley, Visalia Oaks (Arizona): Diamondbacks farm director A.J. Hinch is a former catcher himself, so it's no surprise that he appreciated the potential of Easley, the D-backs' supplemental first-round pick out of Mississippi State. In his first full pro season after earning the Johnny Bench Award as the nation's top collegiate catcher, Easley is hitting .280 with four homers and 22 RBIs.

Carlos Santana, Inland Empire 66ers (Los Angeles Dodgers): Once one gets past all the cute comments about his name ("yeah, he's smooth," etc.), it must be acknowledged that the switch-hitting backstop can hit. He is batting .303 with four homers and 38 RBIs with 16 doubles, 31 walks and a .419 on-base average. A converted third baseman, he also has a cannon for an arm.

Mitch Canham, Lake Elsinore Storm (San Diego): A supplemental first-round pick out of Oregon State in 2007, Canham, like Easley, is making his full-season debut in the Cal League. Having led his college squad to the College World Series, he has big-time pressure experience and his plate discipline is off the charts -- he ranks among the Minor League leaders in walks with 35 and on-base average at .436. He is also a quintessential team leader.

Travis Scott, High Desert Mavericks (Seattle): The 23-year-old left-handed hitter has slowed a little in May after crushing the ball in April, but his .311 average, four homers and 21 RBIs in 30 games still make him one of the better-hitting backstops in the game. He's also got some pop, as his 13 homers and 48 RBIs in just 62 games for the Mavericks in 2007 can attest.

Finally, although he was promoted to Double-A Midland in mid-May and thus is no longer eligible for California League honors, I can't let this column go by without making a mention of Stockton catcher Jed Morris.

The 28-year-old Morris, who was originally drafted out of Nebraska by Oakland in the 36th round of the 2002 Draft, missed all of 2007 while battling leukemia. His comeback, though not as widely chronicled as that of Red Sox pitcher Jon Lester, has been just as impressive. Prior to his promotion to the RockHounds, he was among the Cal League leaders in nearly every offensive category, hitting .292 with seven homers, 32 RBIs and a .598 slugging percentage for the Stockton Ports.

Here is my solution for this catcher surplus dilemma: they usually bring enough pitchers for each to toss an inning. Why not cut a few of those pitching slots, let a few guys go two innings, and give those spots to a few more catchers? They've certainly earned All-Star status.

Lisa Winston is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.

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