Welcome to the annual Over The Monster One Big Question season preview series. Over the next 40(ish) days, we will be running through every player on the 40-man roster and identifying a key question for them pertaining to the coming season. This should run us up to the start of the season, at least as it is scheduled now. We will go through the roster in alphabetical order. For the most part, these will run Monday through Friday every week running up to the week before Opening Day, though expect some weekend posts mixed in as well as the 40-man is expected to continue to be altered before the start of the season. You can catch up with every post by following this link. Today we finish up the series with a look at Connor Wong.
The Question: Is Connor Wong the Red Sox’s catcher of the future?
For most of the entries in this series, we look at short-term inquiries. We suggest small tweaks or outline statistical anomalies that might tell us something about how 2021 will go. However, for today’s question, I’m taking a bit of a big picture perspective. Connor Wong has yet to make his major-league debut and although he is not the top prospect in the Red Sox’s system (more on that later), he’s one of the more intriguing players on the 40-man roster from a long-term outlook. This year may provide some insight into how the Red Sox will fit him into their future plans.
As I mentioned, Wong is not the number one prospect in the Red Sox’s system. In fact, the 24-year-old catcher isn’t even the organization’s top backstop prospect, depending on whom you ask. FanGraphs ranked him the top catcher and No. 19 overall prospect in the Red Sox’s system in January, but Sox Prospects has a him a few spots lower overall (No. 22) and a few steps below fellow catcher Ronaldo Hernández (No. 14).
Besides the competition from Wong’s fellow prospects, when looking up at the current makeup of the Red Sox major-league roster, the catcher spot is largely filled, at least right now. Christian Vázquez has blossomed into a very good catcher. He may even be among the best in the league. Meanwhile, Kevin Plawecki is a pretty solid backup. However, Vázquez is entering the final guaranteed year of the three-year extension he signed in 2018 (the deal includes a club option for 2022) and Plawecki’s last year of arbitration eligibility is this coming winter. I’d expect the Red Sox will exercise their option with Vazquez and bring him back on another deal eventually, but he is on the other side of 30 and Plawecki, even if he did sign before hitting arbitration, probably isn’t someone the Red Sox envision as the future of the position.
All this means that there will be a chance for someone like Wong to make a move in the next few years, which may just be perfect timing based on Wong’s current trajectory. Although he is on the 40-man roster, Wong still needs more time to develop, especially after the minor league season was called off in 2020. Just how much development he may need is up for debate, with FanGraphs projecting him to make his debut this year. But even with that accelerated timeline, we probably won’t know what his future actually looks like until at least next season.
With all that written, what are some of the things that stand out about Wong’s profile and what are some areas he’ll need to work on to make himself an indispensable prospect rather than just an intriguing one?
To me, the highlight of Wong’s performance through his first three seasons across the lower portions of the minor leagues (he’s reached no higher than Double-A) has been his power. He has launched 48 home runs across roughly 1,000 plate appearances in the minors (1,004 to be exact), according to Baseball Reference. His Isolated Power (SLG - AVG) numbers during that time have always usually hovered above the .200 level, including marks of .263 and .255 across the Single-A and Double-A levels in 2019, respectively, according to FanGraphs. Now, Wong is by no means a Bobby Dalbec-type power prospect, but the pop he has exhibited is definitely enticing when you consider his position. Obviously, it remains to be seen just how well his power will play beyond the lower levels of the minors, but what he’s shown so far is encouraging.
While we have some indication about Wong’s ability to hit for power, just how effective he can be as an all-around hitter is more up for debate. Wong slashed .349/.393/.604 with a 175 wRC+ in 163 plate appearances in Double-A while still in the Dodgers’ system in 2019. Those numbers are clearly incredible, but he had never hit above .300 in a minor league season before then and his batting average on balls in play (BABIP) was an astronomical (and unsustainable) .467 in that time. Those numbers scream that regression is coming, especially when you look at Wong’s strikeout and walk numbers. Wong produced strikeout rates of more than 30 percent across three levels in the 2018 and 2019 seasons, including a 30.7 percent mark during that incredible run in Double-A in 2019. He paired that with less than stellar walk rates, including a mark of 6.7% in Double-A in 2019. Taken all together, unless Wong can continue defying the odds with an outlandish BABIP, he’ll need to reign in his K/BB ratio to produce at the plate.
But what about Wong’s ability to field his position. According to SoxProspects, Wong is a “potential average defender behind the plate.” Oftentimes, teams either have to accept lesser defense for a better hit tool at catcher or live with mediocre offense to go with an exceptional glove. Its rare to get the whole package. With Wong’s potential on offense (especially the power), if he can just be average, as SoxProspects projects, he’ll be a worthy contender for the starting catching job in the future.
Of course, there’s also the chance that Wong’s future lies elsewhere on the field. Although the bulk of his minor-league playing has been behind the plate, Wong can pick it at a few infield positions as well, including second base. With Jeter Downs pegged as the second baseman of the future, Wong would be better served competing for the catcher post, but being able to move around the field could be useful all the same.
Despite his potential, the Red Sox will still need to give Wong more seasoning. Missing playing time last year clearly will alter the trajectory of many prospects, and although Wong got a few chances to play with the MLB club this spring (1.167 OPS in nine at-bats), he was still sent to the alternate site. That means that any answers Wong can provide this year will likely have less of an impact on the Red Sox’s ability to contend in 2021 and more of an impact on whether he emerges as the starting catcher in waiting or a player with a less clear path to the show.
That concludes this year’s One Big Question series. We hope you enjoyed it as much as we enjoy putting it together. If you missed any or would like to go back for any reason, you can find all of the entries here.