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June 27, 2014

BP Top 50

Austin Hedges vs. Blake Swihart vs. Jorge Alfaro

by Jason Parks, Nick J. Faleris, Chris Mellen and CJ Wittmann

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Links to Other BP Top 50 Debates

Tim Anderson vs. J.P. Crawford | Daniel Norris vs. Jose Berrios | Albert Almore vs. Stephen Piscotty

The Rules
Rather than re-printing the BP Prospect Team Midseason Top 50 debates—much of which involves discussion of multiple players at the same time—we thought it would be interesting to call out some of the more interesting pairings among players in consideration for the #BPTop50 and allow an advocate for each to make his case for why that player should be ranked ahead of the other.

In each case, the BP Prospect Team member advocating on behalf of a prospect may or may not ultimately prefer that prospect, but in any event has agreed to argue that prospect’s case for purposes of this series. It’s a good reminder that the differences in value between players on these rankings is sometimes quite small, and in most cases a strong case can be made for ranking players in any number of combinations.

Nick Faleris serves as a quasi-moderator for the debate, introducing the players and leading a question-and-answer session to help tease out the arguments for and against each player.

Introducing Hedges, Swihart, and Alfaro
Austin Hedges, (C, Padres), Jorge Alfaro (C, Rangers), and Blake Swihart (C, Red Sox) ranked 18th, 41st, and 73rd, respectively, on the Baseball Prospectus Top 101 Prospects list, and first, second, and sixth on their respective teams’ Top 10 Prospects lists (Padres Top 10 Prospects here; Rangers Top 10 Prospects here, Red Sox Top 10 Prospects here). All three carry dramatically varied profiles and levels of refinement, with Hedges skewed heavily towards his plus-plus defense, Alfaro showing the potential for solid defense and a big offensive profile, and Swihart grading solid across the board.

Dating back to his amateur days, Hedges has earned elite grades in his catch-and-throw game and comfort behind the plate. The transfer and footwork are crisp and his release and accuracy help a solid arm play to near-elite levels. He’s a general on the field who excels in a leadership role, and you could make a strong case that had you dropped him into the majors last summer he would have stood out as an above-average defender. The bat has lagged some since his midseason promotion to Double-A San Antonio (where he returned in 2014).

The Legend has been touted at Baseball Prospectus since his arrival in the Rangers’ system, and while the production has been expectedly uneven, the teenager has often been playing as the youngest or one of the youngest talents at his level. After a brief taste of the Carolina League at the end of 2013, Alfaro returned to High-A Myrtle Beach this spring, and he earned All-Star honors and has posted a respectable .262/.322/.438 slash line with 13 percent of his hits landing on the other side of the wall and 37 percent going for extra bases. His pure arm strength is among the best in the game, majors or minors, and his athleticism and loud raw tools make him one of the most exciting prospects around, with a chance to grow into a producer who impacts the game in all facets.

Swihart first jumped out to me during the summer showcase circuit during the scouting cycle of his draft year, as the New Mexico prep product regularly wowed with his arm strength, athleticism, versatility (he regularly played all over the diamond), and potential at the plate from both sides. Fairly or unfairly, Swihart was labeled a jack of all trades/master of none by a number of decision makers, and slid all the way to the back of the first round, where Boston happily scooped him up with the 26th overall pick. Since then Swihart has shown steady growth each year across his game, and now finds himself regularly mentioned in discussions of the best catchers in the minors. He’s making much more regular contact this year in his first taste of Double-A, driving the ball with authority, and still showing well behind the dish. –Nick J. Faleris

The Case for Austin Hedges
Austin Hedges is the best defensive catcher in the minors, and for me, its not even close. He does not have Alfaro’s raw arm strength, which receives elite grades, but the release is every bit as fast, the throws every bit as accurate, and the footwork is superior. The arm is the only aspect of Hedges’ defensive game that requires an explanation to support, as the receiving skills and game-calling intelligence set the bar for the position in the minors. At the end of the day, Hedges will be a perennial Gold Glove caliber backstop, and neither Alfaro nor Swihart can boast the same with such confidence, even if they reach the full potential of their defensive projections.

On the offensive side of the ball, Hedges isn’t nearly as sexy and I won’t suggest his ability to work pitchers or grind out tough at-bats can stand with his prospect contemporaries in the class. But he does have some ability to swing the bat, and even though it’s probably a down-the-order stick, Hedges will likely hit well enough to stay in a major-league lineup. Any additional production at the plate will be considered gravy, and with his double-plus (near elite) defensive skill set and relatively high floor it’s clear to me that Hedges is the top catching prospect in the minors. –Jason Parks

The Case for Jorge Alfaro
He does not have the overall defensive skill of Austin Hedges, or even the glove/hit utility of Blake Swihart, but the overall ceiling might be higher than either. Hedges is a wizard behind the plate but he does not possess the raw arm strength, raw power, or run utility of Alfaro. Swihart, one of my favorite overall prospects, has blossomed into a fine hitter and receiver since moving behind the plate. But does match Alfaro in any of those categories either? I don’t think so.

The thing that appeals to me the most about Alfaro is how hard he works at his craft. The glove utility might only play average but the elite raw arm strength will be plenty to carry that side of his game. While consistently popping sub-1.85, in game, and with some minor tweaks in footwork, Alfaro could throw out 30-35 percent of base stealers at the highest level. At the plate, he shows off plus bat speed and a swing generated to produce loft with authority to all fields. The raw power is double-plus and the hit utility could play to average, allowing the plus-plus raw to play at least plus in game.

Alfaro is a supreme athlete for his size and position, and consistently clocks home-to-first times in the 4.2 range. So a player with an average glove, elite arm, average hit tool, plus power and at least a solid-average run utility all from a premium defensive position? Sounds like a role 7, all-star caliber player to me. –CJ Wittman

The Case for Blake Swihart
It is no secret that I am a big believer in Blake Swihart. He has the raw tools that can all play as average-to-better, and the theme surrounding this prospect since turning pro has been “improvement.” From the defense to pitch recognition to physical statue, Swihart’s development has been in a constant forward motion. The skittish hitter who was just trying to feel his way through things in his first season at Low-A has grown into a mature, methodical, and (most importantly) confident hitter in Double-A.

I was actually expecting Swihart to get off to a slower start to the year, as he’s tended to ramp up while gaining comfort at new levels. Since Day One in Double-A, however, he’s been right there with the speed of the game, and dictating the pace. That’s huge.

While Swihart doesn’t have a flashy tool or two like Austin Hedges and Jorge Alfaro do, he has a collection that complement each other. The switch-hitter’s swing unfolds fluidly from both sides of the plate, with loose hands that control the head of the bat. His bat control has enabled him to begin to learn how to pick his spots to get more lift and tap into his added strength. The strength’s enhanced his defensive game. I see a catcher who can hit in the .280s with 15 home runs and solid defense in his peak. That’s a top tier prospect. – Chris Mellen

NF: Let's start with Swihart, who was the lowest rated of the three in the BP Top 101 published at the end of January. Putting Swihart even in the same discussion as Alfaro, let alone Hedges, would indicate either a huge jump in value for the Red Sox backstop or some correction in a too-lofty rating of the other two. So which is it, Mellen?

CM: I would say that a large majority of it is a jump in value for Swihart, and a case where he is rising in status. The jump is grounded in the fact that we have a player here who is passing developmental markers, and showing tangible progress toward closing the gap between his now and his ceiling. That is really what it comes down to for me. It speaks to the assessed talent, and most importantly the makeup, that this is a player who can maximize his total skill set, and be a productive big-leaguer over the long haul.

NF: And the Swihart stat lines seem to provide support of the scouting, particularly with the increase in power and decrease in strikeouts this year with Double-A Portland. On the other side of the coin, Alfaro receives pornographic write-ups from scouts when it comes to the tools, and he flashes loud in game, but the overall production has lagged a bit this year (All-Star selection and performance notwithstanding), and I think we can all agree that, from a production standpoint, Alfaro has yet to put it all together in the form of a traditional "breakout" year. At 21 he is young for his level, but not impactfully so. So, Witt, when are these loud tools going to start manifesting with enough regularity that fans can actually see the potential stud you spoke of in your opening argument?

CW: In terms of the breakout season for Alfaro, I don't think he'll ever hit for a ton of average. The raw power could very well be double-plus but the hit utility might not allow it to play there. That said, if you look at Alfaro's 2013 campaign, and at his slash line of .265/.346/.463 with 43 extra-base hits, that seems to me like what we will see from Alfaro at the highest level. This kid performs. He's the type of player, in my eyes, who will play his best ball in the big show.

NF: And that certainly would be a solid offensive output to go with the big arm strength behind the plate.

Parks, we've all followed BP's work on catcher framing and are starting to get a sense for generally who the best and worst catchers are in this facet at the major-league level. Based on reports and your scouting acumen, how should we expect Hedges to ultimately rate out in this area? We know he has the side-to-side actions, blocking ability, transfer, footwork, and coordination, but how confident are we that Hedges will score well in this newly quantifiable aspect of catching?

JP: Hedges could be an elite receiver and is likely to become a darling of the framing community, which is probably a pretty strange community. His hands are already special and he's a highly intelligent student of the game, an attribute that will propel his existing skill set beyond its physical boundaries.

On this front, I had several casual conversations with Padres arms during Cactus League camp, and even major-league pitchers already appreciated what Hedges could bring to the table as a receiver. It's obvious to even the untrained eye, and I feel confident that once Hedges arrives at the major-league level, members of the framing community will join hands and rejoice at the spectacle that is Austin Hedges, the next great defensive backstop in baseball. Book it.

NF: Mellen, you're advocating for Swihart here, but I'm curious to know who you'd slot next: Hedges or Alfaro? Do you value the potentially elite defensive profile or the louder collection of potential offensive weapons to go with top tier arm strength?

CM: I slot Hedges next. I'm not as high on Alfaro as others, mainly in regards to how his hit tool is going to play up. There's no denying that his tools are loud and they flash big in spurts. But my feel on the swing leads me to believe the hot zones for driving the ball are going to be limited against the elite competition you see at the highest level. Hedges' defense is going to carry him, and enable him to carve a career out whether his bat plays to full potential or not. When looking at the two, I see Hedges as having the better chance to have an extended overall career.

NF: Parks and Witt, same question to you. Assuming your guy is the top catcher in this trio, how would you rank the remaining two, and why?

JP: I've been hyping (or overhyping, depending on your point of view) Jorge Alfaro since he was 16, which either makes me a creep or good at projection or both, but I'm going to make the case for Swihart over him for this particular snapshot in time. When it comes to tools and ceiling, Alfaro can stand next to the elite prospects in the game, and given his defensive position and offensive projection, his ultimate ceiling could eventually make him one of the most valuable players in the game, a franchise-altering talent.

What Swihart lacks in elite tools he makes up for with elite makeup and the safety and security of a high floor, which given his position on the field and switch-hitting chops at the plate, isn't exactly anything to discount or discredit. Swihart is going to push himself above his tools-based paper grades, likely developing into a true first-division talent in the majors, a .275+ bat with good gap pop and very strong fundamentals behind the plate. His work ethic is still applauded by the amateur scouts who followed him around during his high school days, and that choir has been joined by the pro scouts who picked him up after he signed.

Given the complexity of his position on the field, the elite makeup carries a lot of weight for me, and if given the choice between a no-doubt major-league catcher with enough feel for hitting to make it work or a franchise-altering talent who still comes with considerable risk, particularly with the stick, I'm taking the no-doubt catcher with elite makeup at this stage of the developmental process. I'm still on board the Alfaro bandwagon, but Swihart is more legit than some seem to recognize, and his ranking on this list should showcase his present and future value.

CW: I cannot compare my love for Alfaro to Jason Parks’ since Parks was there from day one. Still, mine is legit. I think Alfaro, at his peak, will make multiple all-star games from a premium defensive position. My reasoning for Alfaro over both Hedges and Swihart is a very basic argument. I do not think either of them possesses the tools or overall profile Alfaro does. I do have concerns about the ultra-aggressive approach and the ability to barrel quality spin for Alfaro, which is why I do not see his hit utility truly playing above 55 grade. Further, while Alfaro has an aggressive approach, he does have some on-base skills. As he has matured, he has taught himself to get into more hitter-friendly counts and tune that aggression to his advantage.

I have heard raves of Alfaro's makeup and have seen it for myself. He works extremely hard at his craft behind the plate because he needs to. There has been a large developmental path for Alfaro behind the plate and with my experiences with the player I think he is the type of player that will perform his best under the big lights. He loves the spotlight and I think his glove will play to its max when he gets to the bigs.

Wrap
Part of the reason I chose this debate is that it features three players, all at the catcher position, that Baseball Prospectus has pushed as hard or harder than any other publication evaluating minor-league talent. Outside of Parks, Mellen, and Witt, we had numerous prospect team members who would have gladly advocated on behalf of any of these three, and in fact the trio that did participate in this debate could have easily, and happily, traded players and argued the merits of the others just as passionately. Who you prefer ultimately comes down to what you are looking for in your catcher, and perhaps your philosophy as an organization. Without question, all three are impressive kids who have a chance to provide big value for their respective orgs once they arrive.

We will keep the convo going in the comments section and hope you will join in with questions and critiques of your own. Who do you believe is the better prospect right now, Hedges, Alfaro, or Swihart? Are you troubled by Hedges’ lack of impact offensive production thus far at Double-A? As loud as Alfaro’s tools can be, will he be able to get to them regularly at the highest level? Is Swihart merely impressive because he has done what few before him have—entered the minors as a prep catcher prospect with “work to do” and found success and a level of advancement each year?

Check in tomorrow for our next entry in the Midseason BP Top 50 Debate Series, and of course make sure you’re here when the list drops next week!

Jason Parks is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Jason's other articles. You can contact Jason by clicking here
Nick J. Faleris is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Nick's other articles. You can contact Nick by clicking here
Chris Mellen is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Chris's other articles. You can contact Chris by clicking here
CJ Wittmann is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see CJ's other articles. You can contact CJ by clicking here

17 comments have been left for this article.

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