Part 18 in a season-long series projecting a hypothetical 25-man roster made up solely of prospects from the Texas Rangers' Minor League system.
Scott Servais knows as well as anyone, as the Rangers senior director of player development and one of the key figures in helping Texas establish one of baseball's best farm systems, how important and yet difficult it can be to build depth as an organization at the catching position. As a veteran of 11 big league seasons behind the plate himself, Servais has a keen understanding of what it takes to get to the Major Leagues as a catcher and stay there.
Rangers area scout Gary McGraw had a pro career of his own, a six-game stint as an outfielder with the 1982 short-season Idaho Falls A's club that staged the debut of a 17-year-old third baseman-outfielder named Jose Canseco. McGraw is in his 22nd year scouting college and high school players, charged with the task of finding kids who will advance further than he had the chance to -- players who may not have the uniquely special raw talent that Canseco had, but something else that may separate them from the pack and give them the best chance to succeed.
McGraw was responsible for finding Canadian catcher Kellin Deglan and recommending that Texas draft him, and the former catcher Servais is in charge of the development program designed to make Deglan into a candidate to catch in the big leagues. Both are optimistic about the 19-year-old's future.
In Servais's six seasons with the organization, he's seen Texas make strength at catcher a priority. The club has gone to Venezuela, Mexico, Colombia and even Australia to find young catchers recently, has keyed on them in trades, and has used premium Draft picks in a relentless effort to develop young catching, which Servais says "may be the biggest challenge in the game."
Jamey Newberg's hypothetical 25-man roster made up of Rangers prospects
A couple years ago, catcher was a developmental position of strength for the Rangers. But for various reasons the club's young backstops weren't able to establish themselves in Texas, and last year the Rangers ended up trading for two veterans -- Matt Treanor and then Bengie Molina -- who would carry them through the pennant race and into the postseason.
Midway through the 2010 season, Texas spent one of its two first-round picks on Deglan, a high school catcher, but that description might be a bit misleading. R.E. Mountain Secondary School in British Columbia has a badminton program, and hockey and soccer and cross-country teams. But it doesn't have a baseball team.
That didn't prevent the Rangers from developing a book on Deglan. McGraw estimates that the organization saw him play 30 or 40 times over a three-year span leading up to the 2010 First-Year Player Draft, both with the Langley Blaze of the wood-bat British Columbia Premier Baseball League (which had produced Justin Morneau, a big left-handed-hitting catcher himself when drafted) and with the Canadian Junior National Team.
As the stage got bigger, the Rangers' conviction on Deglan grew stronger. When the Blaze traveled to Arizona in March 2010 to play in a junior college tournament, they also got in several exhibition games against Minor League Spring Training squads, including a group of Rangers farmhands in Surprise. In April, Deglan joined Team Canada on a tour of extended spring training programs in Florida, and the Rangers scouted him there, too.
That May, Team Canada headed to the Dominican Republic and took on several Dominican Summer League clubs -- including the Rangers -- days before the DSL season got under way, and days before Texas would select Deglan with the 22nd pick in the Draft.
"We got a pretty good feel for who he was," says McGraw, who saw him more than anyone else in the Rangers organization. "Kellin's a very driven young man. Even his bullpens were impressive, working on his framing and blocking techniques when nobody was watching. It bothered him to drop even one ball."
Texas believed in Deglan's feel for the game and his makeup, traits as important to a catcher's profile as the more measurable tools. McGraw notes that the older pitchers on Team Canada talked about how they loved throwing to Deglan, a "supreme compliment."
That's not to say Deglan doesn't boast an impressive set of tools -- he's a premium athlete who projects to hit for power and offers a strong and accurate arm with good hands and feet -- but catchers rarely come as quickly as Joe Mauer, one of Deglan's role models, or Servais, who was a big leaguer by his third pro season.
Deglan got his debut season started last summer in the Arizona League, where he played 10 games before the Rangers allowed him to rejoin the Canadian Junior National Team for the World Junior Baseball Championships in Ontario in late July. He was promoted to short-season Class A Spokane upon his return, and though he hit just .159 in 22 games, he showed enough that Baseball America ranked him as the 12-team circuit's No. 11 prospect at season's end. Deglan cut down 39 percent of runners attempting to steal between the AZL and Spokane, and the Rangers were encouraged by the progress he'd made over his first summer.
Texas assigned Deglan this spring to low Class A Hickory, where he's caught prospects like Luke Jackson, Cody Buckel, Justin Grimm, Roman Mendez and Nick Tepesch, each of whom has made significant strides this year. The Rangers, and Servais in particular, don't underestimate the role of the catcher in the progress that young pitchers make. "Kellin has had a great first year," Servais says. "His defense has been good and he continues to make accurate throws, but he's really taken a step forward in game-calling and recall to help our pitchers. He's learned a ton and is moving in the right direction."
The bat remains a work in progress -- he hit .321/.410/.491 in June but has hit .204/.290/.328 otherwise -- but McGraw notes that Deglan always held his own against older competition as an amateur, putting together good at-bats and not getting himself out. He believes the bat will come.
Still, what the Rangers expect most out of their catchers at the early stages of development is to work relentlessly to learn the nuances of the game's most demanding position, and that's something that Deglan has demonstrated from the day he stepped on the field as a first-round Draft pick -- and in the years leading up to that moment, under the Rangers' watchful eyes.
Jamey Newberg is a contributor to MLB.com. A Dallas lawyer, he has been an insane Texas Rangers fan since the days of scheduled doubleheaders, Bat Nights when they actually handed out a piece of lumber instead of a grocery store voucher, and Jim Umbarger. He has covered the Texas Rangers, from the big club down through the entire farm system, since 1998 on his website, NewbergReport.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.