Next Piazza? Mauer? Maybe this Texas prospect

February 23rd, 2020

SURPRISE, Ariz. -- Rangers power prodigy is 6-foot-5 and can hit a baseball hard. And far.

There is a reason why he is the Rangers' No. 2 prospect (No. 74 overall), the reigning SiriusXM All-Star Futures Game MVP and regarded by managers as the best power-hitting prospect in the Minor Leagues.

Huff hit a combined 28 homers at Class A Hickory and Class A Advanced Down East last season and maintained an average exit velocity of 91 mph. The MLB average was 88.1. Huff was in the same neighborhood as sluggers J.D. Martinez (91.3), Bryce Harper (91.3) and Mookie Betts (91.0).

His time is coming, but there is one question looming: Is catching really the best position for a 6-foot-5 player with that kind of offensive potential? Or do the Rangers hold out for what could be an increasingly rare and invaluable commodity in baseball: A catcher with run-producing potential in the middle of their lineup.

“I don’t think there has been any discussions about changing positions,” Rangers manager Chris Woodward said. “Obviously, we know the bat is a huge strength for him, but catching is a huge strength too. He’s got a chance to do what not a lot of catchers can -- that’s hit and do some major things on the offensive side.”

Not only did Huff impress with his bat last year, he also threw out 48% of attempted basestealers between his time at Hickory and Down East. Phillies backstop J.T. Realmuto led the Majors with a 47% rate.

“Sam has the ingredients -- mentality, game awareness, toughness and desire, coupled with his physical attributes -- to be a frontline Major League catcher,” Rangers assistant general manager Mike Daly said. “We will continue to develop him in this manner.”

Huff, who started 14 games at first base over the past two seasons, has no interest in switching positions. He has lofty ambitions as a catcher.

“I love catching,” Huff said. “I love it. I want to be a catcher in the big leagues. I want to do everything I can to work my tail off to become that catcher in the big leagues. Be the next Joe Mauer or the next Matt Wieters or Mike Piazza. Nobody thought they would be catchers.”

But if Huff wants to be a catcher, he must stay on top of his defense and working with pitchers. That’s still paramount, no matter what he does offensively. If Huff can’t handle the demands of catching, he could end up being a designated hitter.

“I need to show them how dedicated I am to catching,” Huff said. “They think I’m a hitter/catcher and I want to be a catcher/hitter. More along the lines of what I need to do as a catcher -- controlling these [pitchers] and letting them know I am here when they need me. I’m not thinking hitting 24/7.”

The Rangers aren’t concerned about having a tall catcher squatting behind the plate. The Royals' Salvador Perez is 6-foot-4 and has won five Gold Glove Awards. Mauer and Sandy Alomar are each 6-foot-5 and also Gold Glove winners.

“For a big guy, he moves around good. His hands, from what I’ve seen in the drills, are good,” said Rangers catcher Jeff Mathis, a 15-year veteran. “I have been impressed with him.”

Mathis, who mentored Jose Trevino and Isiah Kiner-Falefa last season, is part of Huff’s support group. Huff is not on the 40-man roster, but the Rangers wanted him in big league camp so he could work closely with Mathis, who was primarily brought in last year for his veteran presence and above-average defense. Their lockers are next to each other in the Rangers' clubhouse.

“He has been good,” Mathis said. “He’s a good dude. He wants to get better. He works hard. It's nice to have somebody young like that -- eager, wants to learn. He’s a pretty offensive guy from what it sounds like. I just want him to understand the importance of the defensive side and what that means, too.”

Nothing is set, but there is a good chance that Huff will be playing at Double-A Frisco in 2020. His manager there would be former catcher Bobby Wilson, who spent 10 years in the Majors, including the first five with the Angels, where Mathis was his teammate and former All-Star catcher Mike Scioscia was his manager.

Huff will get the same advance catching education that Wilson received.

“We have started doing some gameplanning stuff,” Wilson said.”Speed up that learning curve, so when he gets to the big leagues, he won’t be punched in the face with information. Make it easier for him to understand the numbers and what’s important. He’s getting a lot right now, but it’s good for him.”