Today we are looking at two former top prospects whose major-league performances have left relatively few doubts about their capabilities: Casey Kotchman and Jeff Mathis. Unfortunately, that's about all they have going for them at the moment.
If you missed Part, here is the link. Extra credit if you spot the hidden popular music reference in the poll.
Casey Kotchman (1B)
Where He Was
Tom Kotchman, who scouted the southeastern US for the Angels, convinced the team to spend its #13 pick on his son in the 2001 amateur draft. Yet there were no complaints of nepotism as Casey's stock quickly rose in the minor leagues. He hit .281 with an astounding 17% walk rate as a 19 year-old in Low A. The California League, where he hit .348 / .434 / .531 in 2003, just wasn't a match for him. He was in Anaheim before long. The Angels called him up in May of 2004 and again in September, but his two cups of coffee were unproductive. He spent the balance of the season laughing at the competition in AA and AAA from the condescending height of a .371 batting average. Casey hiccuped the next year in Salt Lake, his .289 / .372 / .441 line not up to the usual level of humiliation he inflicted on minor league pitchers. However, he did hit .302 / .369 / .526 over the final two months of the season in an extended major-league call-up. While technically no longer a "prospect" by the end of 2005, Casey Kotchman was still one of the most promising young players in the game.
What They Said
Struggled in the early going in Triple-A, but finished on a good note...A possible comp for the future: Wally Joyner. #1 organizational prospect, Grade: A- (pre-2005) -- John Sickels
"He's such a good hitter and he's still developing. I think he'll easily hit 30-plus homers in the majors." #6 prospect overall (pre-2005) -- Baseball America (quoting a scout)
In addition to the health issues, the other big question with Kotchman is whether or not he will develop into a legit power hitter...Right now he looks like a first baseman in the Mark Grace/Keith Hernandez/John Olerud-mold -- a left-handed hitter capable of big batting averages, good plate discipline, and great defense, but with "doubles power." Of course, being the next Grace, Hernandez or Olerud isn't exactly the worst thing to be for a 22-year-old prospect. #7 prospect overall (pre-2005) -- Baseball Think Factory
Where Is He Now?
Seattle. But getting there was a complicated story. Kotchman was a long time securing a major-league job, despite the Angels' desperate need of a first baseman during 2004-2006. The organization stuck with Darin Erstad as long as possible, but Casey contracted his now-famous bout of mononucleosis in 2006 when injuries finally hobbled Erstad for good. (I didn't pity him; I had mono in high school, but my sad teenage self could only wish it had caught it making out.) Epstein-Barr virus notwithstanding, Kotchman turned around to hit .296 / .372 / .467 in 2007, walking more than he struck out and playing outstanding defense. Fangraphs indicates that he racked up 3.3 WAR in spite of a mid-season concussion. Concerns over his home run power appeared justified, as he hit only 11 of them, but 51 total extra-base hits in 443 AB talked the loudest.
2008 started well enough, although his patience mysteriously evaporated in favor of a make-contact-or-die strategy at the plate. He put up a .287 / .328 / .448 line before Tony Reagins turned him into Mark Teixeira. His walk rate recovered during his stint with Atlanta, but his overall productiveness at the plate deteriorated. The Braves flipped him for Adam LaRoche in mid-2009, landing Kotchman a spot on Boston's bench down the stretch. He didn't do a thing for them offensively, so they traded him to Seattle for Bill Hall during the off-season.
Right now, Kotchman is just one more bad hitter on a team full of bad hitters. He's batting just .215 / .288 / .345, and he lost his starting job to Justin Smoak until the Mariners sent Smoak back to AAA a couple of weeks ago. Casey is still struggling with the same issue that's dogged him since he first tried on a major-league jersey: weak contact. He pounds the ball into the ground nearly as often as groundout king Howie Kendrick, but he's even more susceptible to pop-ups. While he can still pick it, his overall performance this year is below replacement level. Kotchman has one remaining season of arbitration, but with Justin Smoak standing by, it's inconceivable that the Mariners will pay the $2.8+ million he's guaranteed to receive if they tender him a contract for 2011. He'll probably catch on in a platoon somewhere else, but his future is seriously in doubt. He should be in his playing prime at only 27 years of age, but Kotchman appears to have peaked early and quickly fallen off a cliff. It's an unusual career arc, but not unheard of (Bobby Crosby comes to mind). I hate to say it, but it's hard to see Casey Kotchman amounting to much more than a left-handed bench bat at this point.
Jeff Mathis (C)
Where He Was
Man, it's difficult to write this with a straight face, but Jeff Mathis was once a smoking hot catching prospect. After the Angels selected Mathis in the supplemental first round of the 2001 amateur draft, #33 overall, he proceeded to make Baseball America's Top 100 list every year from 2003 to 2006, peaking at #22 in 2004. He had a promising debut season at Cedar Rapid in 2002, but his bat showed inconsistencies as he moved up the ladder. Mathis stumbled from a quality .872 OPS at Rancho Cucamonga in 2003 to an uninspiring .703 OPS with the Arkansas Travelers in 2004. His prospects were down at the start of 2005, but a .276 / .340 / .499 line at AAA Salt Lake seemed to indicate that the Mathface was back. His offensive ceiling had clearly lowered, but hey, did you hear the he was supposed to be a quarterback at Florida State, just like Joe Mauer? Scouts praised Mathis as a gritty intangibles guy, evidently drawn in by his tall, agile physique, which is unusual for a catcher. I'll admit, he does look good in a uniform.
What They Said
Batting average is low for park/league context, but other numbers were solid. Looking more like a good regular than a possible future star, but still has lots of value. #6 organizational prospect, Grade: B -- John Sickels
"I've loved him forever. I think he's probably better defensively than offensively because of his intangibles. I love his makeup." #60 overall prospect -- Baseball America (quoting a scout)
Much like with pitching prospects there are so many things that can go wrong for catching prospects on the way from the low minors to the big leagues, including position changes, offensive stagnation, and injuries. While Mathis may never be a superstar...he has a starting job for this season and is ready to begin what should be a long career as an above-average backstop. I have some concerns about his ability to post good batting averages, but if Mathis can hit even .250 he has enough power, plate discipline, and defensive skills to be a very valuable player. #28 prospect overall -- Baseball Think Factory
Where Is He Now?
As it turns out, the only "makeup" Jeff Mathis has to love is the kind he keeps in his purse. His bat began to canker at AAA Salt Lake as he slowly transitioned to the majors during the 2005-2007 seasons. The Angels briefly experimented with him as Jose Molina's backup in 2006, but his total befuddlement in the batter's box all but punched Mike Napoli's plane ticket to Anaheim. By 2007 Mathis was reduced to a .244 / .295 / .376 batting line during his last stretch in the Pacific Coast League, a renowned hitter's paradise. Meanwhile, Mike Napoli was clubbing home runs at a rate historic for the Angels franchise. But when the Angels traded Jose Molina for a bucket of Gatorade in July 2007 only to see Napoli go down with an injury a few days later, Mathis got his first everyday job. As mere "defensive relief," however, news of his assignment was more whimper than bang.
It's hard to imagine a measure of defensive prowess that could have justified Mathis's cluelessness with the stick. Unfortunately, he's almost as bad behind the plate as he is beside it. A 23% caught-stealing rate, to go along with 31 errors, is just about the defensive equivalent of a .204 career batting average. Mathis owns both. Nevertheless, he's managed to retain his reputation as a gritty intangibles guy thanks to a fortuitous CERA and a willingness to take hits on plays at the plate. This is all so much grasping at straws, as just about anyone would look like a defensive wizard sharing time with Mike Napoli, probably the worst receiver in MLB. But Napoli can hit, while Mathis is bad at literally everything there is to be bad at.
Lightning seemed to strike twice when Mathis went 8-for-16 in the 2009 playoffs and followed up with an 11-for-34 streak to kick off 2010, but regression was inevitable, as two-thirds of Mathis's at-bats end with either a whiff or a weak fly ball. But these are simply details. There's no need to rehash the endless discussion abounding on this site over Mike Scioscia's puzzling mancrush on Jeff Mathis. It was shocking enough that he was tendered a contract, and even more shocking that he won his case in arbitration. 2010 may thankfully be the end of the line, as Mathis seems to be gradually losing his job to Bobby Wilson, who does not yet conclusively suck. I'll take that over a guy who's definitely proved it any day.
To be continued: I told you Part 2 would be pretty grim, but the biggest bust will come tomorrow in Part 3. Scariest thing is, it's not even Brandon Wood!