Catching a glimpse of the Futures
Four backstops look to step to the forefront in Motown
The 2005 XM Satellite Radio All-Star Futures Game catchers provide some interesting juxtapositions.
At 26, Josh Willingham is the oldest player on the roster, while Miguel Montero is just 21 years old. The former has already had his first taste of the big leagues, while the latter is just getting his first crack at Class A ball. Willingham and Russell Martin are former infielders who have only been converted to catcher within the last few years. Ryan Garko is doing his best to keep from being converted from his long-time receiving position.
But while there may be a lot of differences between the Futures Game catchers, one thing they all have in common is that they're amongst the best young backstops in the world.
Here's a closer look at the four players who will be calling the signals at Detroit's Comerica Park on July 10:
Ryan Garko, US Team, Buffalo (Triple-A Indians)
The former Stanford star started his professional career at the age of 22 after being selected by the Cleveland Indians in the third round of the 2003 draft, and his rise through the Indians system has been nothing if not meteoric.
After a requisite stint in the short-season New York-Penn League in 2003, the 6-foot-2, 225-pound backstop barreled his way up the ladder in 2004, stopping at Class A Kinston and Double-A Akron just long enough to prove that he didn't belong there. He finished the season at Triple-A Buffalo, where he hit .350 (7-for-20) in five games.
All told, Garko had hit a combined .330 with 33 doubles, 22 home runs and 99 RBIs, and was named the Indians Minor League Player of the Year. And he's followed that up by being named to the 2005 International League All-Star team and the Futures Game U.S. Team.
With such a quick ascent, it seems that even Garko may not believe what he's accomplished.
"I just never really thought that I'd be playing in something like this, even as I watched it last year when a couple of my teammates -- [Michael] Aubrey and [Fausto] Carmona -- were in it," said Garko. "To me, it's a pretty big deal. Not too many players get this opportunity. I mean, there are only four catchers in Minor League Baseball who are chosen, so to be selected, you're in pretty elite company."
Russell Martin, World Team, Jacksonville (Double-A Dodgers)
This Canadian-born catcher may not have the eye-popping offensive numbers of some of the other Futures Game representatives, but he's one of the most prized prospects in a very deep Los Angeles Dodgers farm system, as evidenced by his inclusion on the team's 40-man roster. The 22-year-old was also sent to the Arizona Fall League in 2004, where he turned heads with his offense and defense and was rated by Baseball America as the eighth-best prospect in a league full of prospects. All this, despite the fact that he's been catching for just over two years.
"We converted him to catcher a few years ago and he's taken to it very fast, he really loves to catch," said Dodgers Director of Player Development, Terry Collins. "He's become one of the top receivers that I've been in around in a long time."
One thing scouts love about Martin is his plate discipline. In his first three seasons, he accumulated 130 walks while striking out just 109 times. Through the opening half of his first season at Double-A this year, the former 17th-round pick had drawn 44 walks to 31 strikeouts, which in combination with his .313 average gave him the second-highest on-base percentage in the Southern League, at .444.
Miguel Montero, World Team, Lancaster (Class A Diamondbacks)
If there's one player that no one would have pegged to be on the 2005 Futures Game roster before the season began, it's probably Montero. The 21-year-old Venezuelan -- who will turn 22 the day before he plays in the Futures Game -- showed up on few, if any, top-prospect lists prior to the 2005 season. In his first four seasons, the 5-foot-11 lefty hit .266 with a combined 19 homers and 122 RBIs in 267 games, with a slugging percentage of .399 and an on-base percentage of .339.
And although Diamondbacks officials claim to have seen a breakout year coming, not even Montero's most ambitious proponents could have foreseen what he's done to California League pitching in 2005. Through games of June 22, Montero was leading the Minors in hits (107) and runs (61) while ranking fifth in homers (21) and second in RBIs (75).
"We saw him really coming around last year and then again during Spring Training, so he's not just been doing this for three months," said Diamondbacks Assistant General Manager, Bob Miller. "But no, I don't know of many catchers to lead all of Minor League Baseball like Miguel is."
Josh Willingham, US Team, Albuquerque (Triple-A Marlins)
Not only is Willingham the oldest player on the 2005 Futures Game roster, he is older than any player from the 2004 roster, and older than all but one player (Stephen Smitherman) from the 2003 roster. But while the 26-year-old may be the least likely Futures Game player to be mistaken for a bat boy, he is certainly not the least likely to end up in a big league uniform.
"He got a little taste last year and he could be [in Florida] at any time," said Marlins Vice President of Player Development and Scouting, Jim Fleming. "He's ready for the big leagues, and his numbers this year are proving that. It's just a matter of getting the opportunity and taking advantage of it."
Willingham -- an All-American shortstop at University of North Alabama -- got a brief look in 2004, making the jump from Double-A Carolina to Florida for an eight-game stay while Marlins catcher Mike Redmond nursed a stiff back. This year, he's taking the opportunity to fatten up on Triple-A pitching while waiting for his next call-up. Through games of June 22, Willingham was leading the Pacific Coast League in home runs (19) and slugging percentage (.714) while ranking seventh in batting (.337). The first-time Future Game selection also has a keen batting eye, ranking third in the PCL in walks (44) and second in on-base percentage (.469).
Also a PCL All-Star, Willingham will rack up the frequent flyer miles in July. He'll fly from Albuquerque to Detroit for the Futures Game on July 10, then from Detroit to Sacramento for the Triple-A All-Star game on July 13 and on to Memphis for the first game of the second half on July 14.
Jason Ratliff is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.