First Pitch: Another Starting Catching Prospect Emerging?

Last year we saw Eric Fryer go from high-A to the majors in the span of one year. He made his debut at the Double-A level at the beginning of 2011, and ended up in the majors by mid-season. A big reason for the promotion to the majors was out of desperation. The Pirates had so many injuries to their catchers that they needed Fryer for 26 at-bats.

He got off to a hot start in Altoona, with a .345/.427/.549 line in 113 at-bats. He didn’t fare so well with Indianapolis, posting a .203/.333/.314 line in 118 at-bats. But he was still moved up to the majors, where he had a .269/.345/.269 line in 26 at-bats.

Over the off-season the Pirates designated Fryer for assignment, clearing room on the 40-man roster. He cleared waivers, and was outrighted to Triple-A. Despite being outrighted, and despite every team in the majors passing on a waiver claim, we had him ranked as the 41st best prospect in the organization in the 2012 Prospect Guide, and the third best catching prospect behind Tony Sanchez and Ramon Cabrera.

Fryer has great defense, highlighted by a laser arm. He’s athletic, to the point where the Pirates had him playing at third base during the Fall Instructional league. This year he’s starting the season as the primary catcher in Indianapolis. Despite his strong defense, he hasn’t had this opportunity in the minors. He’s always been blocked by a better prospect.

In 2008 he was behind Jonathan Lucroy on Milwaukee’s low-A team. In 2009 he only caught five games, as he was on the same high-A Yankees team as Austin Romine and Jesus Montero. Later that year he was traded to Lynchburg, where he received playing time until the end of the year, when Tony Sanchez moved up and caught every game. Fryer was behind Sanchez again in 2010 and 2011.

He’s got the defense to be a backup catcher in the majors. However, Fryer also has some offensive potential, to the point where he could make it as a sleeper candidate as a starter in the majors.

Fryer needs more time hitting in Triple-A before he could have a shot at that. He didn’t get much time last year, and came in to the season with 144 at-bats above the Double-A level. So far he’s off to a hot start in Triple-A, going 9-for-20 with four doubles. He’s got hits in all five of his games, including four straight multi-hit games.

Tony Sanchez is still the catcher of the future, and the Pirates have some interesting options in Ramon Cabrera and Carlos Paulino. But don’t count out Fryer. He already has the defense. If he continues getting it done with the bat, he could find himself back in the majors, and this time it wouldn’t be out of desperation.

Links and Notes

**Pirates lost 4-1 to the Dodgers. Game story here.

**Prospect Watch: Josh Bell hits his first home run.

**Justin Wilson had a complete turnaround from his first start of the season.

**Charlie Morton is likely to return to the rotation this weekend.

**The Pirates signed Rick VandenHurk.

**Pirates Notebook: The bats need to step up.

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About Tim Williams

Tim is the owner and editor in chief of Pirates Prospects. He is a credentialed media member with every team in the Pirates’ system, including the Pirates themselves. He’s a regular guest on Extra Innings on 104.7, and makes regular appearances on ESPN 970, 93.7 The Fan, and TribLIVE Radio in Pittsburgh, as well as ESPN 1430 in Altoona and ESPN 1450 in State College.
  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_VG2DTCDBCSAPFH4V5EKVJ4RJQ4 Steve

    I’ve been pulling for Fryer for a while now.  He finally has a shot at being the primary backstop, and I am curious to see how he does.  He has to be 3rd on the overall depth chart right now.  

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Andrew-Smalley/100001279428589 Andrew Smalley

    In my eyes, this is a pretty overly optimistic take on Fryer’s potential. I think he would make a fine back-up, just like many catchers in the upper stages of the minors would.  All those players have is defense capability and not the bat to profile as a starter. Fryer is in the same mold. It should have been pointed out that Fryer has been old-ish for all the levels that you cite, Tim. While his defense allows him to be a reserve (play a day or two a week), his offense doesn’t allow much projection.

  • http://www.piratesprospects.com Tim Williams

    I’ve always been higher on Fryer than most, so it would make sense if this appears to be overly optimistic.

    As for his age, he is 6 days younger than Matt Hague.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Andrew-Smalley/100001279428589 Andrew Smalley

    His age relevant to Hague is irrelevant.  His age relevant to each stage of his Minor League career, however, is relevant. During those stops, he was old for his level.

    Plus, I agree w/ your general sentiment re: Hague.  He’s a bench option, not enough to be a starter.

    I just think Fryer (like Hague) is one of those ‘prospects’ whose flaws (re: his bat) make him more of a depth option. His MiLB career is more indicative of not being age-appropriate rather than ‘hitting at each level’.

    Obviously, I hope you’re right (which you often are) and I’m wrong (which I often am).

  • http://twitter.com/stefanhack Stefan Hacker

    I see that Fryer plays LF today. How versatile is he?

  • http://www.piratesprospects.com Tim Williams

    That’s not my opinion on Hague. My opinion is that he could be a starter, but has a ceiling of an average first baseman. I think he’s comparable to a Casey Kotchman/James Loney type.

    Also, I’ve never really bought in to the “age appropriate” argument. If a guy is repeating a level, then maybe. But what is it about age that adds skill? Fryer was 25 when he first jumped to Double-A. He had a great season. Why does his age matter? What about his age made him dominate in his first attempt at the Double-A level?

    I think if a guy has played at the level, or higher, and comes back, the age argument could be used. I’d use it for guys like Brandon Boggs and Jeff Clement. But not for guys like Fryer who are just starting off later than most players. In that case, I think age is irrelevant when you’re evaluating an individual season.

    As far as peak years go, there is a concern. But I don’t think that concern exists yet for a 26 year old in Triple-A. And I’m not saying Fryer is going to be some sort of star. I think he’s a good backup option, and I think he could do enough with the bat to warrant being a starter. It really doesn’t take much to make that jump. Most catchers don’t put up much more than a .700 OPS.

  • http://www.piratesprospects.com Tim Williams

    He’s very athletic, and has played left field in the past. As I mentioned, he also played third base during instructs.

    He started playing left field in 2009 when he was on the same team as Romine and Montero.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Andrew-Smalley/100001279428589 Andrew Smalley

    It matters for several reasons, including peak years, but also because it is indicative of a ‘slow-mover’ through the systems. In Fryer’s case, the evidence is supported.  He spent 3 years in versions of A-ball, two seasons at A+ for two different organizations. So, he did repeat the level. And, he had 3 years of college. College guys should not only dominate A-ball (he didn’t) but they should also move pretty fast through them (he also didn’t).

    Age in his case is indicative of not dominating at levels he was experienced for. Age matters, not only for peak-years.

  • wtmiller

     IMO, age is important because it’s a strong factor in physical development.  I think it actually does matter a lot if a guy is a couple years older than the norm at a particular level, even though he’s just getting his first crack at the level.  Hitters generally peak right around age 27 regardless of how long they’ve been in the majors.  It logically follows that age 27 is the typical peak age more because of the typical physical development (some mixture of strength, reflexes, eyesight, etc.) than because of the typical amount of experience at that age.  If I’m right, then it really doesn’t matter much whether Fryer’s been in AAA for three years or three months.