Everyone knows that Willson Contreras is the hottest catcher in the entire system, if not all of minor league baseball. He’s been tearing it up at AAA Iowa, hitting .335 with 9 home runs and 35 RBI. But what would you say if I told you there is another catcher, another Cubs prospect no less, who is closing in on Contreras’ amazing first half? Ian Rice of South Bend is hitting .387 with a .500 OBP while hitting 5 homers and driving in 19 in just 25 games. He’s done it rather quietly, too.
Rice’s story begins in obscurity, as getting drafted in the 29th round is not going to put you on any top prospect lists. At the time, nobody made much noise about it. Here are some of the comments about him at the time of last year’s draft:
Cubs Den: “Cubs like to stock up on organizational catchers late in the draft…”
Bleacher Nation: “A junior, Rice hit .255 and slugged only .364 … but he walked 46 times in 55 games. He struck out just 34 times.”
Cubs Insider: “…the Cubs picked up 3 catchers, a position they now seem to be stockpiling.”
There’s not a lot of information there, but, then again, he was a 29th round pick. Not many writers are going to go around digging up dirt on a guy who’s picked that low. Rice was assigned to Eugene shortly after the draft.
I think what I said back in November sums up what Rice did after the draft nicely:
Ian Rice was the Cubs 29th round draft pick out of Houston. Like most catchers drafted after the 20th round, [he] was to be an organizational catcher – you know, a bullpen catcher, defensively minded, and not much of a long term future. Something went wrong. Rice showed that not only could he catch, but the 22 year-old can also hit. He was hitting .260 before a season ending slide in September dropped him down to .252. 2016 should be interesting to see how does at South Bend and how he handles the brilliant staff of young arms.
Rice did well at Eugene and heading into this season the hope was that he could do as well as he did last year, maybe a little better. He’s demolished those expectations, despite missing a couple of weeks in late April. The young backstop returned with a vengeance at the plate in early May, hitting .378 with 3 home runs and 15 RBI. He’s been splitting time with PJ Higgins behind the plate and should see more time as the season goes on.
While Rice’s offensive performance this season has been great, he has always been known for his receiving skills. Don’t let the low draft position fool you, this guy did not just pop onto the scene. He was actually drafted by the Red Sox in the 21st round in 2014. The Red Sox became enamored with Rice after his two years at Chipola College, a junior college in Florida, before which he had also made a name for himself playing in the Cal Ripken League.
A Boston Red Sox Blog, The Yawkey Report, said this of Rice after his selection:
As far as a scouting report goes, Rice is known for his power. Smacking ten home runs this spring and leading the Cal Ripken Collegiate League in home runs last summer Rice impressed. Along with his .500 OBP for Chipola, yes, Rice walked about twice as often as he struck out which shows he has a great eye at the plate. Rice is definitely a player Boston needs to make a priority in signing since his potential is far too great to pass up.
Rice held his commitment to Houston but did not have the best year of his life in 2015 as a Cougar. While people raved about his defensive skills, his bat waned. His approach, however, remained quite solid. While Rice batted only .255, he had an amazing OBP of .427 his junior year. I am sure many organizations focused just on the batting average, though the Cubs did not.
The Red Sox saw his potential coming out of junior college. The Yawkey Report did too. Even though his junior year batting average was a blip, Rice fell all the way to the 29th round. Luckily, the Cubs snapped him up and he is paying big dividends behind and at the plate for South Bend. In a recent article on MiLB.com, Rice said the following about his emphasis on defense:
As a catcher, I feel just as responsible for the pitcher’s ERA as he is. I take my work behind the plate just as seriously as I do at the plate. I want to be known as a good defensive catcher just as much as I want to be good with the bat.
On Saturday, May 28, Rice went yard twice and drove in 5 runs. On Saturday, June 4, he homered twice again. I think we are only beginning to see what he can do and I look forward to him staying healthy in the second half.