Next Wednesday, November 20, Major League teams must decide whether to protect eligible players from the Rule 5 Draft by adding them to the 40-man roster. To read more about this process, check out Arizona Phil’s Rule 5 write-up. I’ll be previewing the Cubs decisions by way of some player profiles over the next week. Today, we start behind the plate.
It’s a flaw in the system, in my opinion, that Miguel Amaya is eligible for the Rule 5 Draft before his 21st birthday. But all 30 teams play by the same rules, and for the Cubs, it will not be a difficult decision to add Amaya, one of their top prospects, to the 40-man next Wednesday. For Amaya, this will mean that in 2020 he will use up his first minor league option season, and there will begin to be a pressure towards big league momentum that he’s not felt before.
But I think this is okay, because I think 2020 could well be the season that Miguel Amaya really, truly breaks out.
Yes, he’s already been the rare teenage catcher to succeed in the Midwest League, and the rarer 20-year-old to post a wRC+ above 100 in the Carolina League. And still, the results have not been such to convince people he’s a top 100 prospect, one of the future home run leaders at the backstop position.
Jacob is right to point out the muscle development, as that has been the most significant step forward for him in the last year. I noticed it in Spring Training, and the reports from the Arizona Fall League indicate he added more during the season. His swing is in great shape, while he doesn’t have elite bat speed, his bat control is plus and his finish really projects that future power.
At Prospects Live, Matt Thompson told a story of watching Miguel Amaya compete with All-of-Baseball-Top-5-Prospect Jo Adell in a batting practice power display. Things are inching a lot in that department at the right rate, even if the carryover hasn’t been seen in his slugging percentage:
Miguel Amaya’s SLG went from 403 in 2018 to 402 in 2019. From 12 homers to 11. Not a lot of power added, you might say. ISO went from 147 to 167, at least a sign of progress. But courtesy @MinorGraphs, we see a far more exciting story. Amaya consistently hitting the ball farther. pic.twitter.com/BJv2MAYLxr
— Cubs Prospects – Bryan Smith (@cubprospects) November 11, 2019
In 2020, Amaya will make the jump to Double-A, a notoriously hard transition that will hopefully be eased by the most hitter-friendly environment he’s ever played. The Southern League overall skews very pitcher-friendly, but Tennessee’s proximity to the Smokie Mountains makes it one of the league’s more generous stadiums for hitters. You don’t want to place too lofty of expectations on Amaya, who will still be far younger than the average player (he had just 2 PA in 2019 against pitchers younger than he), but I think a greater power showing is a reasonable expectation.
To achieve that, Amaya will have to lift the ball more often than he did last year. The native Panamanian saw his groundball rate go from 38.3% in 2018 to 45.8% in 2019, with drops coming from both line drive and flyball rates. He has a high infield fly ball rate (21%), which combined with the grounders, explains his .259 BABIP that suppressed a .235 batting average. What Amaya did show in 2019 was a greater understanding of the strike zone, with some awesome walk and strikeout numbers. His walk rate reached a career-high 13.2%, and he struck out just 16.8% of the time.
The good news is that defensively, things are ticking along nicely. Amaya’s strength is his arm over his body, with more success throwing runners out than blocking pitches. But most importantly, his pitchers absolutely love him. He commands the relationship, even with pitchers far older than him. Just read Scott Effross’ quotes in his interview with Evan Altman.
On Wednesday, Amaya will hit the 40-man roster, which qualifies him as Major League insurance if there are injuries in Chicago. While the Cubs will continue to take things slowly – Amaya rarely catches on back-to-back days – I do expect the urgency to pick up in 2020. If Amaya has a big season, could he be the third catcher on the roster in September, even with reduced roster sizes? It’s not at all inconceivable.
For me, it’s all about what we see in the power department. I’m ready for more ‘Miggy’ home runs at Wrigley.
Other Catchers Meriting Consideration
- Fresh off the best season of his career, one in which he helped stabilize the Triple-A Iowa lineup down the stretch, there is sure to be a spirited conversation about protecting P.J. Higgins from the Rule 5 Draft. In 2019, Higgins hit as many home runs (10) in 108 games as he’d hit in his 365-game minor league career before that. In 36 games with Iowa, he homered more times (5) than he had in three seasons at Old Dominion (4). So, this is another example of needing to weigh the juiced ball effects on numbers. Overall, Higgins hit .281/.349/.416 across AA and AAA, and more impressively, threw out 23-of-56 baserunners (41.1%) while balancing a lot of time at third and first base.
- I can see both the case for and against Higgins. On the one side, I doubt the Cubs love the idea of carrying four catchers on the 40-man roster all season. On the other, Higgins’ development has been a real success story in the system. He’s a good, smart, contact-oriented player that I don’t think would be overwhelmed by the Majors. But with a bench ceiling, might it be worth the risk to expose him for the draft and ask him to produce one more time?
- I think we’ll see Higgins left off the roster, and one of the reasons is because the Cubs were able to retain Jhonny Pereda before he reached minor league free agency. I wrote about Pereda a month ago, and I think the Cubs comfort level in Pereda will make the worst case scenario with Higgins (that he’s drafted in the Rule 5) more palatable. Either way, they’ll still have a capable catcher for Iowa. But, by the way, Pereda is also Rule 5 eligible.
- There are factors we don’t know at play here, too. How does the possibility of Willson Contreras being traded work into these decisions? Has Amaya been a part of trade talks? As a lesser important point, will free agent Taylor Davis be returning to Iowa, making the Higgins risk even less? These are all factors the Cubs are weighing on Waveland.