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rafael lopezIf we were to assess the strengths and weaknesses of this farm system (and we will do exactly that next year), one of the weaknesses would no doubt be at catcher. There is very little debate on that subject.

There is also very little debate that Double-A is effectively one phone call from the majors. If a player is doing well in Double-A, that player is considered to be on the list of options for the major league team even if the team opts to leave him in the minors for awhile for additional development.

The Cubs, who are weak in catching, had a catching prospect who did so well at Double-A Tennessee this year that he was named to the mid-season All-Star team. At first glance it seems that something is not adding up. This edition of Prospects Progress will take a look at Rafael Lopez, the catcher in question, with the goal of figuring out just what sort of prospect he is.

But before we get to the details, let’s recap the purpose of the Prospects Progress series. The goal here is not to re-rank the prospects (that comes next year) or to assess the strengths and weaknesses of farm as a whole (that also comes next year). The goal for this series is to take each prospect individually, study the progress made so far, and see what we can learn about the future for that player.

Rafael Lopez, C
Born: October 2, 1987
Acquired: Taken by the Cubs in the 16th round of the 2011 draft out of Florida State.

Season Summary

The value in Lopez depends almost entirely on which stats you prefer to look at. We’ll start with an easy one – age. Lopez was 25 this season (he turned 26 in October), and that is on the old edge of Double-A. On the other hand, given that he was drafted in 2011, spending an entire season in Double-A in just his second full season as a professional isn’t too shabby. At age 26 next season he’ll be considered on the older side in any league but the majors, but at least a part of that is due to when he was drafted. I can’t really argue with the pace at which he has moved through the minors, and I can’t really argue with the Cubs leaving him for a full season in Double-A. We should be cognizant of the age, but I don’t think this is a case where we should condemn him based on nothing but his birthday.

So let’s move on to the slash line (BA/OBP/SLG). Over 95 games and 367 trips to the plate Lopez posted a line of .247/.350/.392. How you view that line is going to vary depending on where you stand in the ongoing stat debates. If you think that batting average is still one of the best measures of a player’s ability at the plate you’ve probably dismissed Lopez already. On the other hand, if you’re in the on base percentage camp you are likely a little intrigued. I think we can all agree, though, that a slugging percentage of .392 is less than ideal from a catcher.

There is one other thing I should mention before we go any further. Lopez is a left handed hitter. He throws right handed, no worries there, but he hits lefty. And, at 5’9″ 190 lbs, I don’t think he is ever going to be a significant slugger.

Given that gap in his BA and OBP numbers it should come as no surprise that he walks 13.4% of the time. Even better, he only struck out 18.3% of the time. Add it all up and we are talking about a hitter who posted a wOBA of .344 and a wRC+ of 118.

That’s right, the catching poor Chicago Cubs have a Double-A All-Star catcher who posted a wRC+ of 118 and batted left handed. Surprise!

I like what I have seen of his work behind the plate as well. He appears to handle pitchers very well, and while his receiving could still use a bit of work, I think he should be above average in that department when he arrives.

That said, I am not all that high on Lopez. He has yet to make his first Bleacher Nation Top 40 list, and even though I am higher on his stock today than I have ever been he is no lock to make it when I write those articles next year. There is a lot to like with Lopez, but he is not a high ceiling guy. What we see now is pretty much what we can expect from him.

What Can We Expect?

Let’s start by talking about what Lopez is not. He is most definitely not a challenger for Welington Castillo‘s job behind the plate. He isn’t an impact bat, a future major league All-Star, and probably not a Gold Glove catcher either. He isn’t a major source of power, likely to hit for average, or anything resembling speedy on the base paths. (That said, in one game that I watched the opposing team worked harder to try to pick off Lopez than the rest of the Smokies combined. He was not taking excessive leads and his footwork looked fine to me, so I tend to doubt they thought they had an easy pick off candidate. I have no idea what they were doing, but they made easily 15 throws to first to try keep the catcher close while letting faster guys like Matt Szczur and Arismendy Alcantara run rampant on the bases. Go figure.)

But he is left handed, a patient hitter who can earn a walk, and one who does not give away too many at bats via the strikeout. His overall OPS is just .742, but that climbs to .811 against right handed pitching. As a back up catching prospect, even give the age concern, I like what I see. I’d like to see him get a taste of Triple-A before moving him on to Chicago, but I would not be at all surprised if the Cubs deem him ready to become Castillo’s backup by late summer. And, ultimately, I think that is his future. If he continues to maintain a quality BB%, a good OBP, and continues to improve his game behind the plate, then I think I think he will eventually earn a chance to become the second catcher for the Chicago Cubs.

Prognosis

Lopez should join Iowa as the primary catcher in 2014, if not immediately (thanks to all the minor league veterans the Cubs have signed) then soon thereafter. While in Iowa I suspect he will continue to post some pretty good numbers. It is possible that his patience and the tiny ballparks of the Pacific Coast League will combine to spike his SLG quite a bit, but should that happen it will almost certainly be just a mirage. Lopez is not a slugging catcher. He’s an on base percentage and good glove catcher. If those skills hold up in Iowa he should one day be a major league backup catcher as well.

  • MightyBear

    Gotta have quality backups especially at catcher.

  • Featherstone

    While it would be nice to a Buster Posey developing in the minors, having a steady back-up who gets on base and potentially could platoon with Castillo is quite valuable.

    Thanks for the write-up.

  • David

    Sounds like Gerald Laird 2.0

  • cub2014

    wellington hit .255/.315 in 2 years in
    tennessee so you never know. Castillo
    was also younger 21 & 22 compared to
    Lopez who was 25 so thats pretty
    important.

    • On The Farm

      So I take it as the comparison is pretty weak considering how young Castillo was at the time compared to a guy who is nearing his “peak” age.

  • On The Farm

    Speaking of catching prospects, does anyone know if they are still considering putting Amaya behind the plate?

    • Spriggs

      I think it lasted like one game at the Instructs this year and I believe someone reported that they aborted the plan (Muskat, I think).

      • On The Farm

        Shucks, I was hoping something might be there. Thanks Spriggs.

        • Spriggs

          So was I. I really like Amaya.

  • Napercal

    Thanks for the write-up. Any idea about his arm strength?

  • Chris

    Luke,

    How are you choosing your prospects to discuss? And how many are you planning on doing? Not including our Dominican and Venezuelan minor league teams, we have approximately 180 prospects in our system. Prospects Progress for each??

    • http://www.bleachernation.com Luke

      Not for each. I’ll cover most of the big names (like Baez and Bryant, who have already been covered), but I like to mix in some lesser know guys as well (like Lopez).

      I’d be happy to consider requests, though. I just ask you make them in the Minor League section of the Message Boards so I don’t loose track of those requests.

      • Chris

        Awesome! Outside of the top ~15, I would love reads on the following:

        Dillon Maples (fringe top 15)
        John Andreoli
        Tyler Skulina
        Shawon Dunston, Jr.
        Jacob Hannemann
        Rock Shoulders (I’m sure I’m not alone in that request)
        Dallas Beeler
        Matt Loosen
        Trevor Gretzky (I know he’s well below these other names in far of prospect ranking, but I’d be interested nonetheless)

        Thanks, Luke!

        • MightyBear

          So much for the message board.

          • On The Farm

            *READ:* “I’d be happy to consider requests, though.”
            *STOPPED READING* – to quickly generate a response.

            Seems to be happening a lot these days. Reminds me of when I was school. “Now children, make sure you read *ALL* the directions before beginning.”

            • hansman

              I DO READ!

              (after responding, reads the rest of what you wrote)

              Oh…

              • Chris

                You guys are dicks (J/K; BFF!!). I read what Luke said, but wanted to post here anyway.

                • hansman

                  So we are the dicks but you can’t follow simple instructions.

                  Nice. JK; BFF; ROFL; LMAO

                  • mjhurdle

                    OMG!!

                  • On The Farm

                    I am pretty up to date on all of this text lingo. LOL-Laugh out loud, OMG-Oh my god, WTF-Why the face?

                    • Hookers or Cake

                      WTF = Why the fish?

          • http://www.bleachernation.com Luke

            And after all that… the list still isn’t on the Message Boards.

  • Jose’s Eyelid

    Jeff Reed had quite a long Major League career with a similar skill-set.

  • MightyBear

    Whoa, Nationals signed Chris Young. That was somebody I thought the Cubs would be in on. Pretty cheap too. Here comes a Brett write up and the proverbial bashing of the FO.

    • Edwin

      crap. That was guy that would have fit in well with the Cubs, especially because they need a solid RH OF.

    • jon

      I believe they signed the pitcher, Chris Young, the outfielder, is still on the market.

      • MightyBear

        It was the pitcher Chris Young. My bad. Sorry.

        • Edwin

          I wonder if some Nationals fans had the same reaction, except opposite.

          “We signed Chris Young!” “No, wait, we signed Chris Young.”

          • hansman

            He needs to change his name to Giancarlo.

  • Jose’s Eyelid

    Didn’t the Nats sign the tall pitcher Young and not the lefty-crushing outfielder Young?

  • Chris

    Yes, it’s the pitcher. He was with them late last year, so it’s a resign.

    • Edwin

      Well that’s good news then. Thanks.

  • Dale Jr

    Tom spend sum damn money or I’m done get ur
    Finger outta ya ass for once

    • Cubbie Blues

      sum ≠ some
      ur ≠ your
      Finger ≠ finger
      outta ≠ out of
      ya ≠ your
      You also forgot to add a period at the end.

  • Cubbie RVA

    What are his splits? It seems like he would not play everyday, so perhaps he provides greater value against right-handed pitchers.

  • North Side Irish

    Jim Callis posted his list of Top 20 prospects from the AFL…Cubs Big 3 all appear in the top 13, but the comment about Soler and how “the day-to-day focus isn’t there” was a little disconcerting.

    http://mlb.mlb.com/news/article/pit/minnesota-twins-byron-buxton-chicago-cubs-kris-bryant-head-arizona-fall-league-top-20-prospects?ymd=20131120&content_id=64054236&vkey=news_mlb

  • TheRiot2

    If Lopez brings good defense to the Cubs as Beef’s back up then I don’t see the Cubs engaging in a Navarro signing.Outside of Navarro I don’t remember any good hitting reserve catchers in back up roles at the MLB level. It’s also unlikely Theo trades Welington too bring in another starting catcher either through trade or free agency.Your thoughts if any on a catching change.

    • TK

      I get really annoyed at folks who expect much significant offense out of a C. What we had last year was a tremendous C duo, and yet, somehow, people were still calling for a C upgrade. People don’t get tht generally C’s DON’T hit well.
      That being said, I see no reason at all to focus on the position at this point. Bringing in a FA C, or trading for one would be a waste of resources.
      With the growing mountain of talent we expect to arrive in the next couple years, we SHOULD be able to field a pretty good offensive team. So why worry about offense from C? We (the FO – not me) seriously need to divert our minds and all resources to pitching, particularly SP.

      • YourResidentJag

        Yeah, me too. If Wellington Castillo could be packaged with Shark to get a near-ready TOR and add to the return value of a trade, I’d do it without thinking twice.

  • Good Captain

    Thanks for the update Luke. I really enjoy your thoughts on Cubs’ prospects. Next year this time it might be interesting to see how the “conversion” prospects potentially change the picture.

  • Xoomwaffle

    Part of Lopez’ receiving issues are that he wasn’t a catcher until his 2009 college season. He came out of High School as a short stop and played at a Junior College for a year before he played at FSU. He made the switch in his first year at FSU, but he still hasn’t been at the position for all that long.

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