Prospects are a tricky bag altogether, and while pitching prospects get the fancy acronyms (TINSTAAP), it’s worth noting just how hard it can be to accurately peg a future stud catcher, especially in fantasy. It’s a demanding position that saps strength, and makes it nigh impossible to be consistent offensive force. This makes what guys like Buster Posey and Jonathan Lucroy do year in and out all the more impressive.
It also makes investing in catching prospects extremely difficult. Remember when Matt Wieters was Mark Teixeira at catcher? Where did you have Yan Gomes ranked as a prospect? In fact, Ben Carsley made the case against investing in the position outside of deeper dynasty leagues in September. That is with the caveat that you can’t entirely ignore the position, and to that end we want you to be as informed as possible when you’re choosing who to ignore and who to target. We’ve broken the prospects you need to know into names for 2015 (immediate value) and 2016-and-beyond (long-term value). Still, there aren’t any catching prospects I’d be investing in as a fantasy starter for 2015 alone, a la Travid d’Arnaud last year.
Please note that the names are not listed in any particular order.
Names for 2015
Blake Swihart, Red Sox
He won’t start the year in the big leagues, but Swihart is the most worthy of “best fantasy catching prospect for 2015.” He’s close enough to the majors that a strong start from him coupled with non-production or injury to Christian Vazquez could result in playing time, and he’s talented enough not to relinquish a huge portion of that playing time. A switch-hitter, Swihart hasn’t hit below .290 since 2012, and packs enough pop to project double-digit home runs over the course of a full season. Vazquez is more than a stopgap to overcome during 2015, but Swihart is the future behind the plate in Boston. That future won’t make an appearance ‘til the second half, if the Sox can help it, though.
Andrew Susac, Giants
Positives: In the majors already, shown ability to hit in small sample, big time power.
Negatives: Plays behind Buster Posey.
Playing time is going to be an issue for Susac, which is a shame because he’d be a perfectly useful catcher in most leagues and someone who is probably somewhat valuable in deeper leagues. But Posey does exist, and Brandon Belt isn’t going to play left field, so unless he gets hurt (highly possible), Posey won’t see first base that much, which means Susac won’t see catcher all that often. When he does play, expect a decent average .250-.265, limited on-base skills, and some thunder in his swing. He had 24 hits last season and 11 were for extra bases, so even if they’re not long balls, Susac’s power makes him relatively unique among his catching brethren.
Christian Bethancourt, Braves
He’s going to be the primary catcher with Evan Gattis sliding over to left field, but honestly, you’re likely better off taking Susac and his limited playing time than Bethancourt. I wouldn’t own him outside of perhaps 20-team leagues, and I wouldn’t be looking to play him even in that context. He’s got moderate power but hardly makes enough contact to get to it, and the approach is a severely limiting factor. He’s got a premier arm, but that doesn’t make him fantasy worthy.
Austin Hedges, Padres (FOR NOW)
Take everything I said about Bethancourt and move the timeline back somewhere between a full season and half a season. I like Hedges’ chances of hitting more than I do Bethancourt’s, but that’s damning with faint praise. He could see the majors sometime in the latter half of this season, but it’s going to take something going wrong with Derek Norris, and a vast step up in his ability to hit for his presence to matter to fantasy leaguers.
Justin O’Conner, Rays
Take everything I said about Hedges and then give it less hype. O’Conner hasn’t proven he can hit, as he might have just experienced a nice season. Still, he showed nice power in the pitcher-friendly Florida State League, and reached Double-A by the end of the season. He also boasts excellent defensive reviews, and could see the majors on the back of his defensive qualities, as long as the team thinks he can survive at the plate. The Rays have shown a willingness to eat offensive production from catchers if it benefits them in the field before. Still, all of these scenarios are unlikely, and I wouldn’t bank on O’Conner being in the big leagues ‘til sometime in 2016. Even if he does make his debut this year, he’s not going to matter much in a fantasy context.
Jorge Alfaro, Rangers
Like O’Conner above, Alfaro played 21 games in Double-A in 2014. Like O’Conner (and Hedges and Bethancourt), Alfaro has a howitzer for an arm. Unlike those above him, he’s not nearly as refined defensively, but he also has more than a faint pulse at the plate. Alfaro is the rare catcher that could legitimately bat in the middle of the order, hit for average and power, and given his athletic prowess, nabbing a few bases isn’t out of the question either. Alfaro could also fail to do any of those things with regularity, and never cash in on his promise. There’s equal risk and reward with Alfaro, but a full season at Double-A should give us some insight on how he’ll fare against advanced pitching. He’s got the tools to succeed, but whether he can put it all together is the question. More seasoning is needed here, but if he goes crazy in the upper minors, it’s conceivable he could get a call up in August or September. It’s likely the Rangers’ hope that he spends the full year in the minors though.
Peter O’Brien, Diamondbacks
O’Brien’s got that boom-boom that all the boys chase, but he pairs it with equal measures of swing-and-miss. He got a lot of attention for absolutely obliterating High-A with the Yankees, and saw his stock rise with a trade to the Diamondbacks who seem intent to keep him behind the plate as long as possible. Their catching situation is fairly dire, and a strong offensive campaign could place O’Brien in the mix later this season. Still, the upside here is limited to power, and there’s a significant chance he can’t stick at the position, which is a huge knock on his overall value.
Gary Sanchez, Yankees
In 133 games between 2013-14 at Double-A, Sanchez has yet to recover the power stroke he sported in the lower minors. Perhaps he thought joining MLB’s league-wide offensive decline would make him fit in, and more likely to be called up? Hard to say exactly. What that means though is the power that was supposed to be sufficient enough to sustain a move to first base (if need be) hasn’t been present. That puts more emphasis on Sanchez’s highly questionable ability to stay behind the plate, making him an ever increasing risk.
Kevin Plawecki, Mets
If he played for another team, there would be a strong argument for Plawecki above Swihart for 2015 value, but he’s stuck behind Travis d’Arnaud, a talented catcher in his own right, and can’t even slide to first base with the emergence of Lucas Duda. On the plus side, d’Arnaud is no stranger to freak injuries that leave him out for a significant portion of the season, which means Plawecki could well accrue important at-bats for a prospective fantasy owner. He’s always been able to hit for average (never below .283 in full-season ball), and while he’s topped out at a career-high 11 home runs in the minors, he can at least keep pitchers honest when they attack the zone. Still, a high average from a catcher is plenty valuable, and his advanced approach at the plate means he’s on base often.
J.T. Realmuto, Marlins
While he struggled in a brief major league stint, Realmuto had a breakout 2014, slashing .299/.369/.461 at Double-A. He’ll be 24 heading into 2015, and the Marlins are never afraid to push a prospect, so it’s fair to expect he’ll toil in the shadow of the Dinger Machine at some point this year. Jarrod Saltalamacchia is still in town, which presents the first obstacle to Realmuto’s 2015 value, but J.T. is still likely to be the first option turned to should Saltalamacchia miss any real time. Realmuto is intriguing not only for his ability to hit with some pop, but because he also swiped 18 bags last season. Still, it’s worth noting that outside of a strong 2011, Realmuto hadn’t had a season like 2014 on his minor league resume, and both his good seasons have been heavily BABIP influence. Alternatively, both his bad seasons have seen low BABIPs, which means that if you’re investing in Realmuto, on some level, you’re investing in variance. As far as sleepers go, that’s not a bad proposition though!
Names for 2016 and Beyond
Reese McGuire, Pirates
It’s tempting to put McGuire into the same category as Hedges, Bethancourt, and O’Conner as great defenders who might be worth investing in for counting stats. That’s probably the right place for him at present, given his current production. That said, McGuire has a short swing that portends the ability to hit for average, though it comes at the cost of merely modest power production. He just spent a full season in Low-A at age 19, and will spend next year in the Florida State League. Don’t expect big minor-league numbers if the Pirates remain aggressive with him, but trust in the talent and the scouting reports.
Kyle Schwarber, Cubs
The ultimate question is if the Cubs will be patient enough with Schwarber to give him the Ryan Doumit treatment behind the plate. Fantasy owners are hoping he gets behind the plate frequently enough to retain catcher eligibility but plays outfield often enough to accrue more games (and stay fresher) than your average catcher. There’s substantial upside here, as Schwarber can contribute in four of the five major categories from the position that traditionally offers some of the poorest production around.
Chance Sisco, Orioles
Another in the mold of the high-contact, limited power backstops, Sisco is coming off a .340/.406/.448 slash line in his introduction to full-season ball. He’s got a firm hold on the strike zone and complements it with a swing smoother than a fresh jar of Skippy. He’s more likely than not to be a slow burn of a prospect, with an ETA in the 2018 range, and while his power only projects as fringe, the hit tool makes him easily worth acquiring if you’re in a league with a deep minor league system. Sticking at catcher is a question mark, despite present athleticism, but as a high school shortstop, Sisco has a chance to play another position of value rather than sliding all the way to the other end of the defensive spectrum.
Max Pentecost, Blue Jays
He only got 25 games in after signing and none above short-season, before Pentecost ended his season with shoulder surgery. Prior to the injury though, he showed an advanced approach at the plate and gap power, to go with a short swing that generated hard contact. Home runs might be hard to come by for Pentecost, despite his future home environment, but he should be able to hit for average and get on base quite well. The surgery impacts his timetable, as there was a good chance he was on the fast track, but he should still be an option come 2016, assuming there are no setbacks.
Tyler Marlette, Mariners
Marlette followed his breakout 2013 campaign with an equally rousing 2014 season, though it’s worth noting that this most recent performance came in the high-octane environs of the California League. He’s shown the ability to make contact without losing his power stroke, and while his career-high 15 home runs eclipsed his career total entering the season, much of that can be laid at the feet of the aforementioned Cal League. Still, there’s the potential for the above average power in Marlette’s bat, and he lets it function thanks to solid hit tool. His offense is ahead of his defense though, and the Mariners will likely be patient in letting him develop behind the plate while Mike Zunino locks down the position at the major league level. With another team, Marlette might sneak a September call-up, but the Mariners aren’t likely to have a need for him this season.
Francisco Mejia, Indians
Mejia is going to be the next in the Alfaro mold, though he doesn’t have quite the same speed as the Rangers prospect. Still, he’s a potential middle-of-the-order hitter with the chance to hit for above-average power and average while sticking at the position. The downside? He’s yet to play in full-season ball and is likely going to be a high-risk prospect all the way up the chain, as it’s unlikely that all his tools transform into skills at once. Still, he carries himself in the field like Bruno Mars does on the stage: natural; confident; loose. Patience is required for investment, but the ROI could be quite the dynamic player.
Others: Carson Kelly, Cardinals; Clint Coulter, Brewers; Tony Wolters, Indians; Chase Vallot, Royals; Nick Ciuffo, Rays; Jakson Reetz, Nationals; Bruce Maxwell, Athletics; Stryker Trahan, Diamondbacks
We Hardly Knew Ye (Fantasy Value)
- Will Swanner, Rockies
- Jon Denney, Red Sox
- Tommy Joseph, Phillies
- Tony Sanchez, Pirates
- Sebastian Valle, Phillies
- Kyle Skipworth, Reds