Updated: May 2, 2019
THIS IS A COUNTDOWN!!!!! Over the next forty-something days starting on February 12th and ending on March 28th, I will be rolling out my Top 35 prospects in the Cardinals organization. We call it "The Dirty Thirty-Five" because it's marketable, I think. Also, we call it that because my write-ups and evaluations are a little different. I’m kind of quirky and goofy guy and the evaluations fit that personality. I've already written about the four players that graduated off the list. I've also written about the guys that just missed the list. You should check those out because you're going to have questions about my sanity afterwards. The article about the guys that didn’t make the D35 is really freaking good. This list is my own. It's terrible. I'm fine with it. Remember, have fun with these lists. Ranking prospects is a joke, but it's fun so treat all of the prospect ranking accordingly.
Dennis Ortega - Catcher
Signed as an International Free Agent in 2013
A+ Palm Beach
STATS AS OF 5-1-2019
For years now, basically since Carson Kelly became a catcher, the plot involving prospects that's held up the longest among the Cardinals' fanbase has been "who is going to replace Yadier Molina when he retires?" Until this offseason, that conversation had taken two forms. First, it was the statement "It's going to be Carson Kelly." Then, that conversation turned into "Will it be Carson Kelly or Andrew Knizner?" Now the conversation is simply "Will the Cardinals' ever need another catcher and will Yadi play forever?"
Well, the jokes is on everyone because Yadi is going to play 130 games per year until he's 90.
Hyperbole aside, earlier in the offseason, Mr. Molina stated that he'd be interested in an extension with the Cardinals beyond the two years that he is locked up for. If Yadi does, indeed, sign an extension, then the question becomes "which catcher in the organization appears most likely to fit in with a timeline of 3-4 years in regards to replacing Yadi?"
The answer to that question is "Dennis Ortega, probably." (Of course, it's more complicated than this and the #4 and #23 prospect on this list will probably have a substantial say in this argument/question, as well. Especially #4, because of all that he is capable of doing.)
But that's foreshadow a book that's years away from being written. I'm basically George R.R Martin talking about one of those "Song of Ice and Fire" books. I, too, will probably be dead before I ever write about the guy who is actually going to replace Mr. Molina and I'm willing to bet the house that I die before Yadi retires. We will all be dead, I'm betting.
Before we write the story of Yadi's successor, let's do the background on Ortega. At 21 years of age, Ortega has already made some positive changes to his approach at the plate with an emphasis on getting the ball in the air. Entering the 2018 season, Ortega had yet to hit a home run while only hitting 18 doubles in 542 minor league at-bats. He did this while playing four seasons at the lowest levels of the minor leagues. So, to see him hit six home runs and 13 doubles in 243 at-bats shows both physical and hitting approach maturity. Personally, I really like Ortega's swing. There isn't too much going on and he isn't afraid to go with the ball (with a little authority, I might add) to the oppo-gap:
Speaking of physical-maturity, Ortega is physically mature (No, I do not get paid to do these). Listed at 6'2", 180 lbs, Ortega is every bit of 200+ pounds. I'm willing to bet that he's closer to 220 than it is 200. It might not make sense, but he also stands taller than his listed 6'2" frame.
I've said it in nearly every write-up that I've done when mentioning him; he has a presence about him on the diamond that was extremely evident when watching him on the backfields during spring training. He has a "presence" in-game at the minor league level, but I think that it's telling that he has the same presence when he's sharing a field with major leaguers, even if it's only on the back fields during spring training. It's a small thing that gets fan jazzed-up more than it should, but it's a "thing" nonetheless.
Next, I would like to spend a little bit of time fleshing out Ortega's statistical output during the season. 270 plate appearances isn't a lot, and I wanted to point out that Ortega had a bit of a "time-share" with fellow promising catching prospect Julio Rodriguez at Peoria. I like Rodriguez a lot, too, and he's a more consistent defensive catcher than Ortega is but with quieter tools and less upside. Anyway, Ortega's season at the plate can be divided into almost two perfect halves that were separated by injury.
From the start of the season until June 27 when he got injured, he hit 284/344/390 with three home runs, six doubles, with a walk rate of 8.9% and a strike out rate of 15.3% while posting a wRC+ of 110.
He returned from the injury on July 15th and proceeded to hit 221/270/375 with seven doubles and three home runs to end the season. During this time, both of his rates went in the wrong direction. His walk rate fell to 6.2% and his strikeout rate went up to 23.9%. He did this while posting a wRC+ of 82. Hopefully, the injury isn't something that will linger.
Where Ortega will make his money is his defensive abilities. There are times that Ortega looks like a sure-fire defensive catcher at the major league level. Something along the lines of Drew Butera or Eric Fryer, but with a hand-cannon of an arm. I've seen Ortega throw runners out at second from his knees more times than I can even understand. And not just throw them out, but throw them out by STEPS. He did it during the Midwest League all-star game it was almost comical. Just like this one:
The issue with Ortega's defense at this point is that it isn't as consistent as you'd hope it would be. Most of the time he looks like a plus ball-blocker, but sometimes he swipes at the ball or doesn't get down all of the way on it. Most of the time his game-calling is plus, but sometimes it's just OK. Remember, he's still so young that it shouldn't come as a surprise that consistency is an issue. I firmly believe that he'll clean it up and be consistent by the time he's a step away from the majors in a couple of season.
Now, for the fun part.
Ortega is very good at framing the ball. I'm only going to give one instance because I don't want to weigh the article down (more than I already do with my words. I kid. It's because of my deleted archive and because MiLB TV is being updated). Watch this guy frame the ball:
Do you want to read an evaluator reach further than he's ever reached before in an extra effort to be unnecessarily critical of a prospect? You do?! Well, you're in luck!
One small thing, all things considered, is that I'd like to see him be more controlling of the pitcher's emotions in-game. NOW, this is a BIG ask and it's a quality that few catchers truly possess, but if he was capable of corralling Alvaro Seijas like Yadi is capable of corralling Carlos Martinez then Seijas' season would have been better. Again, it's borderline irrational for me to even bring this kind of thing up. But it's just another way to show my appreciation for Yadi and I'm cool with that. He calls a damn-fine game from behind the plate and there's no getting around that!
THE BOTTOM LINE
There is no way of telling who Yadier Molina's eventual successor will be or if the world will end before Yadi retires. Time-line-wise, Ortega is in a good position to follow Yadi but he has to get more consistent both behind the plate and at the plate before it becomes a real possibility. If he continues to hit like he did during the first half of the season instead of how he hit during the second half of the season, and he continues to get more consistent with his potential plus tools behind the plate, then the Cardinals' will have a major leaguer on their hands. There is still a lot of time for him to work on those skills behind the plate, and it's going to be interesting to watch his offensive profile come together during 2019 in the hit-suppressing Florida State League. On it's own, Ortega's defensive potential is good enough to warrant a spot on the D35.
MAY 1st UPDATE
Ortega hasn't played a lot for Palm Beach, but it's been ugly when he has. Right now, Julio Rodriguez appears to have lapped Ortega on the organizational depth chart. As you'll see soon, I'm going to drop Ortega down quite a bit on the list, but I'm not ready to take him off. Hopefully he can turn it around during May.
Here is a special and loud THANK YOU to FanGraphs for the stats! Thanks For Reading!!