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January 15, 2014

Get to Know

Catcher Prospects

by Ben Carsley

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Ah, catching prospects. The sirens of the fantasy prospecting world. One look at those among the current crop of backstops who qualify as “fantasy relevant” will make any owner yearn for more talent and a deeper pool of names, which makes these minor leaguers even more attractive. After all, the average triple-slash line for all catchers in the majors was .245/.310/.344. How hard can it be for the next wave of catchers to top that?

The answer, of course, is very hard. The path to MLB catching stardom is fraught with more perils than the trek to any other position, and patience, above all else, is a virtue when courting young catching talent. Fast movers like Buster Posey are extreme outliers. Good overall players like Mike Zunino get overrated in fantasy circles. And offense-first names like Jesus Montero see their deficiencies ignored as we instead focus on the potential for future excellence.

When viewed as a whole, the current crop of catching prospects is short on upside but long on floor, with only a few names below qualifying as potential future stars but many qualifying as potential future starters. Keep in mind the difference between MLB and fantasy value when judging these players, and remember, too, that catchers are rarely finished projects offensively when they reach the major leagues.

With the most over-written disclaimer in history out of the way, let’s look at the names you know and a few you might not in the world of fantasy catching prospects.

NAMES FOR 2014

Travis d’Arnaud, Mets: The best fantasy catcher headed into 2014, d’Arnaud has all the tools needed to be a top-10 fantasy backstop some day but health is a serious concern at this point. “TdA” has played in just 130 games over the past two seasons combined, and while you could make the argument that his torn PCL, broken foot, and concussion were all freak injuries, such are the perils of playing behind the plate. He should be the Mets’ starter in 2014 and he has top-15 fantasy catcher upside, but he’s far from a safe pick and shouldn’t be viewed as a future stalwart. That’s the state of minor-league catcher talent right now.

Josmil Pinto, Twins: Pinto was an unheralded prospect heading into 2013 but broke out in a big way last season, crushing Double-A before brief cameos in Triple-A and the majors. Pinto doesn’t have big upside, but he looks ready for the majors now and he possesses the bat-to-ball skills to hit for decent averages, as well as the type of developing power that could make him more interesting another year or so down the line. I think the ultimate upside here is as a Wilson Ramos-like fantasy player, but Pinto could finish as a top-20 option as soon as 2014.

Christian Bethancourt, Braves: A defense-first catcher who’s seen his stock rise and fall several times over the past few seasons, Bethancourt hit well enough in 2013 to position himself for regular playing time in 2014. I’ve never been particularly high on Bethancourt from an offensive standpoint, but those who like him see a decent hit tool with the potential for above average power production down the line. Evan Gattis is slated to get most of the starts behind the plate for Atlanta right now, but odds are his defense will make the Braves think twice about that strategy.

Austin Hedges, Padres: There’s no prospect in the game right now with a wider gulf between his MLB and fantasy value, as Hedges is a top-25 prospect in real life but barely a top-100 option for our purposes. He’s blocked by a much more attractive fantasy option in Yasmani Grandal, but Hedges has the type of defensive profile that’s likely to make the Padres move Grandal before long. Hedges should spend most of 2014 in the minors, but it wouldn’t be surprising to see him get a cup of coffee later in the season. He’s still relevant in deep-mixed, two-catcher and NL-only leagues, and from an offensive standpoint the hope exists for an A.J. Pierzynski-like career.

Max Stassi, Astros: Stassi exploded in the Texas League last year after several disappointing, injury-filled campaigns in the low minors, and he’s put himself in position to be a significant part of the Astros rebuilding efforts moving forward. He’s blocked by Jason Castro for now, of course, but should Castro be dealt or hit the DL once again, Stassi becomes an intriguing source of power in deep mixed or AL-only leagues. The ceiling here isn’t crazy, but the floor is attractive.

Others: James McCann, Tigers, J.R. Murphy, Yankees; Tommy Joseph, Phillies; Tony Sanchez, Pirates; Christian Vazquez, Red Sox

NAMES FOR 2015 AND BEYOND

Jorge Alfaro, Rangers: There's no catcher in the minors with a higher upside than Alfaro, who not only brings the promise of big power but also has the requisite speed to steal double-digit bases annually, too. Unfortunately his hit tool and approach leave something to be desired, and they may conspire to limit the utility of his other tools. This is a sexy, sexy prospect with a huge ceiling, but remember the long developmental road that awaits all catcher prospects and be patient.

Gary Sanchez, Yankees: Sanchez may now be the consensus best prospect in a thin Yankees system, but don't let that fool you: His stock is down from where it was a few years ago. Despite massive raw power and a decent eye at the plate, questions about Sanchez' future defensive home and his #want have popped up as red flags in recent seasons. He's second only to Alfaro in upside, but his fantasy floor is fairly low, especially with Brian McCann now blocking him in New York.

Blake Swihart, Red Sox: Swihart is a better MLB prospect than a fantasy one (a common theme for catchers) thanks to his solid all-around game, but what the switch-hitter lacks in weaknesses he lacks in fantasy strengths as well. Boston's reluctance to get in on any of the multi-year catcher contracts suggests they're committed to Swihart in 2015 and beyond, but he's more of a future top-15 fantasy option than a future stud. He's still a shoo-in for the fantasy top 150, though.

Tom Murphy, Rockies: Another pop-up prospect of sorts, Murphy wasn’t on many fantasy radars after going in the third round in 2012 but he now looks poised to serve as the Rockies’ catcher of the future. A questionable hit tool limits Murphy’s upside but potential plus power in Coors is nothing to sneeze at, and the bar for fantasy relevance for catchers is low. Eventually Colorado is going to get tired of seeing Wilin Rosario’s “defense” behind the plate, and by that time Murphy could be ready to assume everyday duties. There’s still some time to buy low on him.

Stryker Trahan, Diamondbacks: There’s no question that Trahan’s overall stock is down right now. He had a poor 2013 season in rookie ball, scouts have seriously questioned his ability to stay behind the plate and his strikeout rate from last year raises some red flags too. That being said there aren’t many names in the minors with a higher offensive upside from behind the plate than Trahan, and for that he gets a mulligan. He’s likely a fringe top-150 name, but he certainly comes with a lot of risk.

Reese McGuire, Pirates: The best catcher in the 2013 draft, McGuire is eons away but possesses top-10 fantasy catcher upside, and that’s worthy of note. I’m not sure he’s a top-150 name yet, but he’s close, and McGuire will start shooting up catcher prospect rankings if he performs well this season. The upside isn’t crazy, but it’s real, and I prefer McGuire to many of the mid-rotation starters often ranked above him from his draft class.

Others: Nick Ciuffo, Rays; Clint Coulter, Brewers; Jon Denney, Red Sox; Carson Kelly, Cardinals; Tyler Marlette, Marines; Wyatt Mathisen, Pirates; Francisco Mejia, Indians; Kevin Plawecki, Mets; J.T. Realmuto, Marlins; Andrew Susac, Giants

Ben Carsley is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Ben's other articles. You can contact Ben by clicking here

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