It looks like the Giants are going to move Pablo Sandoval from catcher to either first or third base, with general manager Brain Sabean telling BA correspondent Andy Baggarly in November that Sandoval could get the majority of playing time at third.
But should the Giants totally abandon Sandoval’s development behind the plate?
Over the last couple of weeks, we’ve seen that Sandoval has ranked as one of the game’s best at erasing base stealers the last two seasons and only committed nine passed balls per 120 games in 2008. And that’s despite playing only one game at catcher between 2005-2006, as the Giants moved Sandoval from catcher after 33 games there in the Rookie-level Arizona League in 2004 before re-converting him to a backstop for 2007.
Yet Sandoval spent time at first and third base in his big league callup in 2008, is playing exclusively at first base this winter in the Venezuelan League (where he has lambasted the league with a .396/.449/.677 line in 214 plate appearances) and appears likely to be headed to a corner infield spot in San Francisco in 2009. So why the rush to move Sandoval away from catcher?
Sandoval, 22, is listed at 5-foot-11, 245 pounds, and having seen him in person, that looks accurate. He’s not tall, but he has a very thick build. If you trust the accuracy of height and weight information (and if this is any indication, maybe we shouldn’t), then there has never been a starting catcher who has weighed at least 245 pounds.
That doesn’t mean it can’t happen.
Before 6-foot-4 Cal Ripken Jr., there were only a handful of shortstops in baseball history who were at least 6-foot-3. Since then, Alex Rodriguez, Derek Jeter, Troy Tulowitzki and Hanley Ramirez have come along.
Scouts say Sandoval has trouble physically crouching down low enough to get into proper catching position, and his size limits his agility. Yet so far he seems to have been able keep the ball in front of him. Was it the pitching staff in high Class A San Jose making him look good? Sandoval and Jackson Williams each caught around 50 games for San Jose, yet Williams committed 11 passed balls compared to Sandoval’s four. That’s not a very good way to isolate the effect of the pitching staff, but it’s something.
One of the other problems Sandoval’s size presents is the strain it puts on his body. Starting behind the plate for a full season takes a toll on any catchers’ knees, and Sandoval’s size means his knees might take more of a beating than usual.
"He could catch, but he’s not going to do miracles there," said one scout. "He might develop into an average major league catcher, but my concern is how well he keeps himself in shape. He can play third base a little bit, but his range is going to be limited because he’s going to get bigger, and as his body matures, he’ll be a heavyset kind of guy.
"He’s a good offensive player, but if he plays first base, he could be a great offensive player," the scout added. "If he goes to catch, that’s probably going to hurt his offense. He could pull it off, but I just have the feeling that it might hurt his chances on offense because it gets tiring squatting and getting up all the time; it’s a very demanding position. But the guy can definitely hit."
Bengie Molina is under contract through 2009, and Buster Posey, the fifth overall pick in the 2008 draft, could be ready for the majors by some point in 2010 if all goes well. If Posey can take over at catcher by mid-2010, then it seems like an easy decision to move Sandoval to first or third. But that’s a Utopian scenario.
The Giants obviously believe in Posey, so I can understand their line of thinking. But what if Posey struggles in his pro debut? What if he doesn’t turn out to be as good as advertised?
Molina has averaged 121 games behind the plate the last three seasons, and he turns 35 in July. Why not let Sandoval catch 40 or so games in 2009? It would ease him into the role of catching a big league pitching staff, keep his knees fresh enough to catch and play first base and give him the opportunity to learn from Molina for a year.
If Sandoval doesn’t catch at all in 2009 and Posey has so much as a hiccup in his development this season, then Sandoval would be a year removed from catching and the Giants would be without a catcher heading into 2010. Why burn that bridge? Sandoval seems versatile enough—heck, he can throw righthanded and lefthanded, and he’ll even snap off a curveball from the left side—to give Giants manager Bruce Bochy some flexibility with his roster.
Rather than giving those 40 games when Molina’s on the bench to a backup catcher with a .700 OPS, it might be worth giving those plate appearances to Sandoval, give him the opportunity to continue his catching development at the big league level, and re-assess the organization’s catching situation after the 2009 season.
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