From the end of spring 2011 and the regular college season, Florida’s Mike Zunino has been viewed as not only one of the best catchers in the 2012 Draft, but also as one of the best overall talents in this class.
The NCAA brought in new bats that many thought would limit offense at least a little (they did to a degree), but that didn’t matter much to the Gators talent. His .371/.442/.674 line displayed a solid walk rate and great power potential, although the dominant opinion is that his power should only be above-average as a pro. Zunino put up great numbers against strong SEC competition as well, so it’s not like he simply feasted upon weaker teams’ pitching staffs. Ultimately his long regular season combined with a long post-season run led to an underwhelming summer showing from the catcher with Team USA.
What you can take away from Zunino’s 2011 is that he can do a lot of things well, but not necessarily to the point of having a plus tool (aside from his hit tool possibly). Though that doesn’t blow you away, having 4 above-average tools makes for a great player, especially one who plays at a key defensive position.
For those teams that don’t stand a chance of selecting Zunino? It’s very possible that Texas Christian’s Josh Elander could be the back-up plan (if you ignore taking the best player available and draft based on position). Elander rode a strong spring display into his action with Team USA, only to run square into the starting gig when Zunino had to call it a day simply because he was worn down.
Though not nearly as awe-inspiring as Mike Zunino’s 2011 line, Elander’s .333/.426/.509 line was still worth quite a bit. He has a good idea of the strike zone already, even though he was never given a starting gig straight away, Elander had to earn it. During his time with Team USA he showed some of the more important skills for being a catcher; the ability to hold down runners and work well around the plate. On top of that, he’s shown the kind of power that doesn’t come regularly to backstops. Elander’s swing isn’t the prettiest, and there’s a lot of moving parts to it, but if he can continue to show a natural knack for putting bat-to-ball, then the TCU product may just convince someone to nab him in the first round.
That leaves us with one other catcher (maybe two) that could be valuable picks from the college ranks. Buffalo’s Tom Murphy is more of a dark horse candidate to go in the supplemental first or second round, as he’s got a number of offensive tools to go with the ability to stay behind the plate as a pro. The biggest selling point on why he can stay behind the plate is his overall athletic ability. Murphy has the raw physical tools and the mechanics to succeed as a catcher, but it’s that pure athletic ability that should allow him to make adjustment and evolve behind the plate.
Looking beyond his defensive talents, and onto his bat, Murphy appears as if he could be well above-average for the position. His swing is quick, something further highlighted by already great bat speed. Combine the two, and you have a bat capable of average and power production. The U of Buffalo product’s .384/.446/.626 line in 52 Mid-American Conference games showed that he could make a lot of quality contact, hit for power, and not strike out all that much (21 bb, 25 K). Admittedly the competition isn’t all that stiff in the MAC as far as baseball goes, but as a reference, 2010 first rounder Kolbrin Vitek hit .361/.450/.691 against MAC pitching his junior season.
Putting up similar numbers, but at a position like catcher, is something to pay attention to as we head towards June. If you’re looking for some other college catchers to keep an eye on, keep an eye on Miami’s Peter O’Brien, a potent bat-first catcher that may or may not stick behind the plate long-term. Beyond O’Brien, Kennesaw State’s Ronnie Freeman may be the next best all-around catcher, as he’s got a great bat and sold defensive skills behind the plate. Lastly, Purdue’s Kevin Plawecki has shown fantastic pure hitting skills in his two years in the Big 10, though his overall power ceiling may not be as high as some of the more well-known names.