Before Ron Santo stepped foot onto a big league ball field, he was told by the head scout of the Chicago Cubs that he would never make it as a third baseman in the Major Leagues. The scout added that he might have a slight chance as a catcher. Santo signed with the Cubs anyway. During his first spring training, he was moved to third because the team already had too many catchers. By the time Santo retired, he had earned five Gold Gloves at the hot corner. He is widely regarded as the best Cubs third-baseman of all-time. (Although, Aramis Ramirez might have something to say about that.)
A young catcher is comparable to a rookie quarterback in the NFL. The position is unique and hard to develop. They have to field and hit like every other position player, but a good signal caller also knows how to work a pitcher. In the Majors, the catcher operates as another coach on the field. The skilled ones call the game and guide pitchers through tight spots. They pick up nuances from the other team and relay that to the boss. The position requires intelligence and a manager’s understanding of the game.
In youth leagues, catchers are not taught game management. Even at the college level, coaches signal pitches from the bench. As a result, most catchers must spend additional time in the minors before they are ready for the bigs. Offense suffers due to the defensive demands of the position. Catching is physically challenging too. It takes a toll on the body, shortening the careers of most. Maintaining longevity and offensive production is arduous. There is a long list of former catchers that were moved because their bats were too valuable, e.g. Craig Biggio, Carlos Delgado, and Dale Murphy. What if the Cubs had left Santo at catcher? Would he have been the same player? It’s doubtful, at least from an offensive perspective. He may have never played a game in Wrigley Field.
I was saddened to hear of Ron Santo’s death earlier this week. He was a true ambassador for the game of baseball and his exclusion from the Hall of Fame by the BBWAA is shameful. Ron Santo will be missed.
I’m not declaring Nolan Arenado the next Ron Santo, far from it. The Rockies can only hope that Nolan emulates Santo’s career. Their beginnings are similar. Prior to the 2009 draft, most scouts had Arenado — a thick legged kid with a big arm — pegged as a future catcher. His underdeveloped build caused many evaluators to mislabel the young Californian. Few saw his potential as a third baseman. One scout wrote that Arenado had a build like a Molina brother or Yorvit Torrealba, even though he is three inches taller than those guys. Fortunately for Nolan, he was drafted in the second round by the Rockies, a team that saw him as a three bagger.
Arenado played shortstop at El Toro High School in Lake Forest, California. Highly-rated Yankees prospect Austin Romine attended the same school. I haven’t been to Lake Forest, but I’m picturing a town like Agrestic on Weeds. As one would expect of a second round draft pick, Nolan was a dominating high school player. He hit over .500 in his senior season with only one hitless game.
The biggest knock on Arenado is that he doesn’t run well. As a result, many pre-draft reports incorrectly labeled him as a poor athlete. This was a disservice to a kid that was athletic enough to play shortstop for one of Southern California’s best prep squads. Nolan grew up playing soccer, resulting in decent footwork. He has soft hands, and, as I previously mentioned, a big arm. He certainly has the tools for third. However, if Arenado makes it to the Majors, it will be because of his bat.
Nolan is already a big guy — 6’2″, 205 lbs — and his strength is still developing. After two successful minor league seasons, he projects as a power-hitting corner infielder. No one in his right mind would move Arenado to catcher now. He has a quick bat. His short path to the ball allows him to easily square up pitches and hit line drives. Even though his walk rate is low, Arenado is not a hacker. He takes pitches and his eye should improve as he ascends through the minors.
Last year, Baseball America rated Arenado as the tenth best prospect in the Rockies’ system. This year, he should make the top five. In his first full minor league season, Nolan hit .308/.338/.520 for Single A Asheville. More importantly, he showed signs that he will develop power as he continues to grow and gain strength. He hit twelve homeruns, after hitting only two in 2009. Even more impressive, Arenado produced forty-one doubles. According to Mike Newman (http://scoutingthesally.com), the young Rockie was arguably the most advanced hitter in the South Atlantic League last season.
Nolan’s bat is why the Rockies were wise to put him at third. He appears to be on a fast track and learning the intricacies of catcher would slow him down. Plus, the Rockies’ system is already log-jammed with quality back stops — much like the Cubs when they acquired Santo. At third, Nolan can improve on defense and focus on his development as a hitter.
It will be interesting to see how far Nolan advances in 2011. At the very least, he will start the season in High A Modesto, but he could open the year in AA Tulsa. Other than Travis Metcalf (Colorado Springs), the organization is thin at third. Either way, the Rox will make sure that Arenado gets his opportunity. Remember his name.