MIAMI--Over the course of his 37-year coaching career, Turtle Thomas has worked for some of college baseball's most storied programs--Miami, Louisiana State, Arizona State, Georgia Tech and Clemson. He has been a member of 14 College World Series coaching staffs.
But even with that resume, Thomas knows catchers like Aramis Garcia don't come around very often.
"Almost never," said Thomas, who is in his seventh year as Florida International's head coach. "That was Charles Johnson back in the day at the University of Miami."
Garcia, FIU's junior backstop, has been one of college baseball's most offensive catchers throughout his career. He hit .321/.378/.522 with 11 homers and 51 RBIs as a sophomore, and he's off to a torrid start this spring, hitting hitting .484 (15-for-31) with 11 runs, nine RBIs and one homer through nine games. He has helped the Panthers get off to a 9-0 start.
"I definitely feel good," Garcia said. "It’s a blessing to start out the way that I’ve started. I’m just really not trying to do too much right now, just trying to keep things simple. When I step into the box, I know that I’m in control--until you get to two strikes, then you just fight off. I just try to keep things simple and make hitting as easy as possible."
Garcia makes hitting look easy, with a nice righthanded stroke and a mature approach. At this stage in his development, scouts like his bat better than his defense behind the plate.
"Right now, you’re buying more of the present bat than present defense," an American League crosschecker said. "And he’s got raw power in batting practice, you’re banking on the power to come. Yes, he has a line-drive stroke. For me, he’s best to right-center--not much pull in the game."
Garcia certainly looks the part of a power hitter. He said he was 6-foot-2, 195 pounds out of Pembroke Pine Charter High School--about a half-hour north of FIU's campus--and his lack of physicality was one reason he was lightly recruited.
"I knew there was definitely room for improvement. This year I came in at 6-2, 220," Garcia said. "We have a great strength and conditioning program here, and I've really taken advantage of it. I really love challenging myself in the weight room."
He said FIU's "speed school" has helped him maintain his agility even as he has added weight. The crosschecker said his feet "aren't the quickest," and that he'll need to get more repetitions behind the plate to improve at staying in front of balls in the dirt. Garcia has arm strength, but he doesn't have the quickest release, the scout said.
But Thomas is convinced Garcia has what it takes to catch in the big leagues.
"He’s got the arm strength to play in the major leagues. He’s got a cannon for an arm," Thomas said. "He’s a good receiver, a good blocker. He communicates well with his pitchers in the dugout, during the game. He has the great body language to throw to. He's got a good setup behind the plate. He’s got the skills to be good back there and to play this game for a long time."
Garcia also has special makeup. Thomas said he is a great student with a 3.6 or 3.7 grade-point average, and he is motivated to help his team, not just himself.
"Ever since I've gotten here, I really wanted to take this team to a regional," Garcia said. "And I really think this is the year to do that, and beyond."
This figures to be his last chance to make the postseason, because Garcia could be drafted in the top three or four rounds this June. Thomas will enjoy having Garcia around while he can.
"He’s a no-doubt all-around package as a player and as a person and a student, which makes it so special," Thomas said. "You really like the years that he’s here as a player, because you understand you’ve got somebody really special there."