When the Orioles drafted three high school catchers among their top seven picks in the 2013 draft, they knew it was going to take time to develop the trio and for them to advance through the farm system.
So far, the process is going quite well for Chance Sisco, taken in the second round (61st overall) in 2013; Jonah Heim, taken in round four (129th overall); and Alex Murphy, selected in round six (189th overall).
Sisco won the South Atlantic League batting title this season at Single-A Delmarva, batting .340 and is the club’s No. 4 prospect, according to Baseball America. Murphy has shown a decent bat, as expected, and Heim is the most advanced of the three on defense.
In the 19-year-old Heim, the O’s have a switch-hitting catcher with offensive potential who shows solid defensive skills across the board with above-average arm strength.
In fact, Heim showed pop times consistently in the low 1.9s (major league average is around 2.0) on his throws to second base in the Gulf Coast League and at short-season Single-A Aberdeen in 2014. He shows other solid blocking and receiving skills, and he impressed his skipper at Aberdeen, Matt Merullo, a man who spent six seasons as a catcher in the major leagues.
Sometimes, with a young catcher, there are plenty of aspects of their defense that might need improving or tweaking. Merullo said that is not the case with Heim, who will turn 20 on June 27.
“There is really nothing to fix or retool,” Merullo said. “Everything mechanically is solid. He has a plus arm and we saw it every day. He could be an All-Star guy if he swings the bat. He is still just so young, you think about what he will look like at 26 or 27. He just needs to be patient with himself as he gets stronger.”
Long and lean at 6-foot-3 and 195 lbs., Heim had a Michigan State commitment when the Orioles drafted him from a high school in Amherst, N.Y., near Buffalo. The area scout who signed him was Kirk Fredriksson and Heim agreed to a slot bonus of $389,700.
Heim was rated as the Orioles’ No. 26 prospect after the 2013 season by Baseball America and is expected to be top 30 again in the newest edition of their Prospect Handbook.
Over 73 career games and 229 at-bats, Heim has batted .192 with one homer and 11 RBIs.
No one has expressed any concern over the stats whatsoever, since Heim is so early in the developmental process. In fact, some see the potential for Heim to hit for a decent average with gap-to-gap power. They like his swing.
“My thoughts are he just needs to play and we leave him alone physically and wait for some more strength to come,” Merullo said. “Right now he is so long and lanky he doesn’t always have the explosiveness with the bat.
“But the bat speed is there and the shortness of the swing is fine. To me, everything works well. He is just not that strong yet, but he’s going to be strong.”
In the Orioles’ upcoming minicamp that runs from Jan. 11-14 at the Ed Smith Stadium complex in Sarasota, Fla., manager Buck Showalter and his staff will take a look at some major leaguers, but also a host of their young minor league talent, including Heim and Murphy.
When you draft a player in the fourth round, you want to see someone with talent and potential that provides the baseball tools to work with and develop as he moves up the minor league ladder. Multiple members of the O’s minor league staff say they clearly see that with Heim.
“It all depends on his bat because he’s a special defender,” Merullo said. “He throws guys out you are not supposed to throw out. You see a good runner get a good jump on a guy with just an OK time to the plate and he threw the guy out.
“He is advanced with working with pitchers and calling the game. I thought Jonah was a real good draft pick from the first time I saw him.”
Heim is expected to move to full-season ball this year and has a good chance to head north in April as the starting catcher for SIngle-A Delmarva.
Photo courtesy of Corey Rinker