Royals prospect John Buck
The Royals plan to throw their newly acquired catcher into the fire, but Buck's upside is worth the gamble.
Kansas City Royals
Position: C Height: 6-3 Weight: 210 Born: 7/7/80 Bats: Right Throws: Right
John Buck was drafted by the Houston Astros in the seventh round of the '98 draft out of high school in Utah. He emerged as a prospect with a strong season in 2000, hitting .282 with 33 doubles and 10 homers for Michigan in the Midwest League, then followed that with a 22-homer season in 2001, emerging as one of the best catching prospects in baseball. He slumped in 2002, due in part to a hand injury, and had a difficult time against Triple-A pitching in '03, though he missed half the season with more injuries. Healthy again in '04, he got off to a hot start, then was included in last week's Carlos Beltran-Octavio Dotel deal, coming to Kansas City to take over the starting catcher role.
Buck is a large, physical, muscular player. His swing is relatively short for a power hitter, and he does not strike out excessively, generally making very good contact. He'll go through phases where he tries to pull the ball too often, and it seems unlikely that he'll ever hit for a great batting average. But he will kill mistake pitches, particularly fastballs, and projects 15-20 homer power in the long run. His plate discipline is inconsistent. At times he works the count very well, and when he does that he's shown the ability to hit for both average and power. Other times he is too impatient and gets himself out. He's shown better strike-zone judgment this year, and as a result his production has improved. Buck hits the ball hard, and due to his lack of speed is vulnerable to the double play. Buck's defense has improved greatly since he was a raw high school backstop. He is very mobile for his size, usually blocks the plate well, and has a strong arm. His release is sometimes a notch slow, which inhibits his ability to throw out runners despite his arm strength. He handles a pitching staff well, and coaches praise his leadership skills.
Buck has been a low average hitter since reaching Double-A, though both his '02 and '03 performances were slowed by health problems. Physically sound in '04, he was tattooing the ball at New Orleans. Although the PCL is a very good hitter's league, New Orleans is not an easy park to hit in, particularly for power. His numbers over the last few years project him to be a .240-.260 hitter at the major-league level with 10-12 homers in a full season, not great numbers, but at age 23 (24 next week) he still has development time left. He's looked overmatched in his first two major-league games, particularly against breaking balls.
A very sore left hand in 2002 made it hard for Buck to turn on the ball properly and inhibited his production. He broke the hand in June of '03, and while he came back in August, he still couldn't grip the bat well and wasn't fully healthy until this spring. The hand injury was considered a fluke thing, though symptomatic of the kinds of nagging injuries to which catchers are vulnerable, and which often prevent young catchers from developing properly at the plate.
What to expect
Buck is one of the better young catchers around, and with Benito Santiago on the DL, he has a clear shot to establish himself in Kansas City over the next two months. The Royals see him as their "Catcher of the Now" as well as their "Catcher of the Future." He will be able to handle the job defensively. Whether he becomes a star, a solid regular, or merely adequate, will depend on what he does with the bat. Young catchers are almost as risky as young pitchers. Buck needs to control the strike zone and avoid further injuries. If he develops as anticipated, the Beltran trade will be a success. If he stalls, the Royals will be in trouble.
John Sickels is the author of The Baseball Prospect Book 2004, which can be ordered through his Web site, Johnsickels.com. His other book, "Bob Feller: Ace of the Greatest Generation," is also out, and can be ordered through online book outlets or your local bookstore. He lives in Lawrence, Kan., with his wife, Jeri; son, Nicholas; and feline friends Toonces and Spot.