Future bright for top prospect Flowers
White Sox farmhand's mitt catching up to his power bat
Coming into the 2009 campaign, the book on catcher Tyler Flowers was that he had a great bat. But would he be able to stay behind the plate?
So far this season, the Chicago White Sox 23-year-old power prospect has been writing his own emphatic response by doing everything he can to disprove any knocks on his defense while maintaining his offensive reputation.
It's clearly working, as Flowers was selected as one of just two catchers for the US Team in the upcoming XM All-Star Futures Game.
The 11th annual XM All-Star Futures Game, pitting the best Minor League prospects from the United States against the best from the rest of the World, will be held at Busch Stadium in St. Louis on All-Star Sunday, July 12, at 1 p.m. CT. MLB.com will provide complete coverage before, during and after the game, which can be seen live on ESPN2 and ESPN2 HD and followed live on Gameday.
That honor is particularly rewarding for the Double-A Birmingham Barons catcher since it means he gets to represent an organization he just joined via trade this past December as the key player coming back to Chicago in a six-player deal that sent Javier Vazquez to Atlanta.
Flowers' arrival in the White Sox system made him the immediate heir apparent to veteran A.J. Pierzynski, whose contract expires following the 2010 season.
He has continued to provide an impressive combination of power and plate patience as he's moved up the ladder, hitting .292 with 12 homers and 41 RBIs for the Barons. His .431 on-base average and .529 slugging percentage rank among the highest in the Southern League.
Those kind of offensive numbers have been pretty much the norm for Flowers, who batted .288 with 17 home runs and 88 RBIs at Advanced-A Myrtle Beach in the Atlanta organization last summer.
He followed up that campaign by heading to the Arizona Fall League where he batted .387 and led the loop with 12 home runs and a .973 slugging percentage.
Flowers was originally drafted by Atlanta in the 33rd round of 2005 out of Chipola Junior College in Florida and signed the following spring as a draft-and-follow. Knee trouble, however, limited the 6-foot-4, 220-pounder to first base for most of his first two pro seasons, making the 2008 campaign his first full summer behind the plate.
But while that showing made Atlanta fans anxious for his arrival, his itinerary changed on Dec. 3, when he was dealt to the White Sox.
Chicago catching instructor John Orton got his first look at his new pupil a few weeks later in Arizona.
"The best way [to get to know a new player] is to sit back and watch and see what he does -- how he moves, how he receives, his footwork and all that," said Orton. "When he came over, people were saying he was a little rough defensively, but I tried to put that out of my mind so I could see for myself and not have any preconceived judgments."
With that approach, Orton was pleasantly surprised the first time he watched Flowers catch in a bullpen session.
"My first impression was, 'Wow, this kid has good hands!" Orton said. "And that's big for me, because you can work to get better with that, but a kid has to have good hands to start with to be able to catch in the big leagues."
His second and third impressions were just as good.
"I watched him as we did our drills, plays at the plate, blocking balls in the dirt, footwork drills," Orton said. "And he was so athletic in all those areas that I knew at that point it was just going to be minor adjustments and working with him about the 'other' side of catching, handling the pitching staff."
The work the two have done together has already begun paying dividends.
"I think I've gotten better defensively at every facet of my game, and working with John we've got a good consistent foundation we've built," Flowers said. "I'm finally starting to feel really comfortable back there. At the beginning of last year I felt sort of lost, but now I feel more confident than ever, even when I'm working with a pitcher I've never caught before."
Flowers' first-half numbers at Birmingham have reflected the hard work he's put into improving. While he made 13 errors in 86 games behind the plate in 2008, he'd made just three through 64 games this season for a .994 fielding percentage.
When it comes to the area of defense where Flowers still needs the most work, it would be blocking balls in the dirt, though Orton said he's been improving in that area as well.
But when it comes to Flowers' strengths, Orton enumerates many, including one that won't show up in the statistics.
"The more I see him catch, the more I'm impressed with his demeanor with the pitching staff, and in fact I'm jealous in a way that I didn't have that same demeanor when I caught," said Orton, who spent five seasons in the big leagues. "He's really involved with them and has a good feel for pitchers' different personalities. He seems to work well with all of them."
That ability to work well and adjust quickly to new pitchers will certainly be an advantage for Flowers when he heads to St. Louis, where he and fellow catcher Jason Castro of the Houston Astros will be working with a 10-man US Team pitching staff of some of the top prospects in the game.
"It's not a concern, but it's definitely something you're aware of -- talking to each new guy about what they like to throw and what their pitches do," said Flowers.
Fortunately, his Arizona Fall League experience already helped prepare him for the task of adjusting quickly to an unfamiliar staff of All-Star pitchers and meshing with them right away.
"Yeah, I think it will be the same thing, where you just have to learn on the fly pretty quickly," he said. "You get a couple of warmup pitches and go from there."
Though Flowers knows that, as such, his and Castro's workloads may be a little heavier than the rest of the players, he can't wait for the experience.
"It's definitely exciting," said Flowers, who will be reunited in St. Louis with his college roommate, Minnesota outfield prospect Rene Tosoni, who will be playing for the World Team. He won't be hanging around the extra few days to take in the All-Star experience, though. Monday morning will find Flowers on a plane back to Birmingham, Ala., where his Barons are hosting the Southern League All-Star Game that night. And while his Futures spot precluded his playing in both games (though he was named to the Southern League squad), he still hopes to be in the home dugout to cheer on his teammates.
Lisa Winston is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.