Prospect Phegley offers value on both sides of the ball
There is certainly reason for optimism regarding White Sox catching prospect Josh Phegley.
The right-handed-hitting Phegley, 5-foot-10 and 220 pounds, is a former 2006 Indiana Mr. Baseball, having played at Terre Haute North High School.
Not only was Phegley, ranked as the No. 16 prospect in the organization by MLB.com, an outstanding hitting catcher, he also pitched and earned three letters in football.
His high school baseball coach, Shawn Turner, indicated that Phegley threw out or picked off 33 runners while catching in his senior year. Turner also shared that Phegley went 8-1 as a pitcher in 2006, winning an important game in the Semi-State championship.
Phegley's outstanding performance at Terre Haute North earned him a place at Indiana University, where he continued to impress scouts and those involved in evaluating baseball prospects. In his freshman year at Indiana, Phegley played in 46 games, making 42 starts. He showed his strong and accurate arm by throwing out 35 percent of runners trying to steal.
Phegley became a finalist for the Johnny Bench Award, an extremely prestigious award for catchers. Among other accolades, Phegley was named an All-Big Ten selection. His .344 batting average, 17 home runs and 66 RBIs were the finishing touches to his collegiate performance prior to the 2009 First-Year Player Draft that June.
In the Draft, the White Sox selected him with their sandwich pick as the 38th overall selection in the first round.
Phegley's background prior to the Draft is most significant. He consistently showed his abilities as a complete player. Phegley could hit for average and he could play solid defense. Those two tools alone helped his overall evaluation as a player capable of offering value on both sides of the ball.
His time in the Sox Minor League system has been rather mixed. Phegley began his career hitting .224 in 52 games and 214 plate appearances for Class A Kannapolis in the South Atlantic League. He showed an ability to make contact, but he wasn't very patient at the plate. It may have been the first time Phegley didn't overwhelm the competition.
The 2010 season provided a major challenge for Phegley. He played only 48 games, but they were at rookie-level Bristol, Class A Winston-Salem and Double-A Birmingham. During that season, Phegley was diagnosed with ITP Syndrome, a blood disorder that attacks and lowers blood platelets and requires medical attention.
Phegley returned to action full-time in 2011, playing again for Birmingham before earning a promotion to Triple-A Charlotte in the International League. His elevation to that level continued his advancement in Chicago's system. Phegley experienced a bit of regression, but he was trying to come back from an extended period of time away from the game. He hit a combined .242 that season.
Last year, Phegley spent the entire season at Charlotte. He improved to a .266 batting average, hitting six home runs and driving in 48 runs in 421 plate appearances.
I scouted Phegley recently while he was playing for Charlotte. It was evident to me that Phegley has the tools and ability to contribute both offensively and defensively at the Major League level.
Phegley will present a challenge to opposing pitchers because of his ability to make contact. He doesn't have the quickest hands at the plate, resulting in bat speed that requires him to start his swing a bit early. Phegley's good hand-eye coordination does, however, help him get to the ball in enough time to make solid contact.
Using a very level swing, he is capable of hitting hard line drives to the gaps. As a result, he can be counted on to get his share of doubles, which helps him to drive in runs. The lack of loft in his swing plane may limit the number of home runs Phegley will hit, but some of the line drives he strokes will leave the park.
An aggressive hitter, Phegley knows the strike zone well, but he isn't very patient. He likes to swing at pitches he feels he can hit, even if they are very early in the count. The end result is a lack of walks -- which has an impact on Phegley's on-base percentage.
Defensively, Phegley has a very strong and accurate throwing arm. His arm strength is probably his best and most advanced tool. Last season at Triple-A, he threw out 46 percent of would-be basestealers, an extremely high number. Phegley's defense earned him a Rawlings Gold Glove Award. When I saw him play, he was a bit stiff in his overall movements, but he blocked balls in the dirt and his overall mechanics were solid. So far this season, Phegley has thrown out 56 percent of would-be basestealers.
Phegley is the type of catcher who will help shepherd his pitcher through an outing. He showed leadership and an aggressive approach behind the plate. Phegley is a grinder-type player who will do whatever is necessary to get the job done.
It remains difficult for organizations to find well-rounded catchers with the tools and skill set to succeed on both offense and defense at the Major League level.
The role of catcher is so demanding, the defensive requirements and responsibilities of the position sometimes leave less time for offensive preparation and development. But Phegley can hit. That's a major component that increases his overall value. From what I observed, Phegley will be able to hit Major League pitching. His success should increase over time as he receives additional exposure to breaking balls and high quality pitchers and pitching.
After the departure of longtime catcher A.J. Pierzynski, the White Sox have begun a transition of the catching duties to Tyler Flowers. That means Phegley will likely compete for a future backup role. He will be well prepared for the opportunity.
Bernie Pleskoff has served as a professional scout for the Houston Astros and Seattle Mariners. Follow @BerniePleskoff on Twitter. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.