As I noted in kicking off this series last year, it can get lonely down here in the depths. So thanks for braving the elements and joining me way down deep, below where even the 50th-most-appealing dynasty league catching option creeps.
Each week we’ll be running this as a complimentary piece to our positional dynasty rankings, with a nod towards those of you in the Jacques Cousteau-deep leagues of the world with no player eligibility requirements and those in a perpetual state of search of the next big thing.
I linked it above, but I’ll reiterate before we go on that you should check the top 50 piece for the overwhelming majority of dynasty-relevant catcher analysis. For those that dare go on I’ve split things up into four categories: the big league back-ups, the prospects, the 2015 draftees (who are technically prospects, but haven’t been draftable as yet in a lot of leagues), and the early names of note for this year’s draft & international classes (when applicable for the latter).
In addition to providing color on some names beyond the top 50 who invite varying degrees of interest for deep-leaguers, this series is also meant to serve as a reminder to those entering minor league draft season that first-round pedigree is not exclusively correlated with future fantasy success. The tendency in first-year dynasty drafts is to focus overwhelmingly on the top-round guys, and there’s obviously fairly straight-forward logic in so doing. But especially for deeper leagues, being among the first to mine early diamonds from further down the ticket can be a huge strategic advantage in turning over your farm system consistently. Of the top-performing catchers last year, Jonathan Lucroy and J.T. Realmuto were both third-rounders, while Evan Gattis and Russell Martin each tell outlying tales of late-round picks turned good. Their stories are not the norm, of course, and first-round picks are indeed much more likely to develop into big-leaguers. But one in five draftees taken between the sixth and tenth rounds still makes it to the majors, and getting yourself a leg up on figuring out which ones are mostly likely to make a fantasy impact can be a nice little market inefficiency to corner.
And with that, on to the back of the backstop line.
Back-up Types, But In (Or Close Enough To) Their Primes!
Nick Hundley, Free Agent – Hundley sat pretty at 21 overall on Bret’s dynasty list last year, coming off a stellar campaign and poised for another season of starting reps in Coors. An injury-abbreviated season and free agency threatening to take him away from Coors later, and the 33-year-old managed to slide right on off the list. His overall numbers over the past two seasons (.282/.330/.455, 18 homers in 615 plate appearances) suggest the potential for a still-useful backstop if opportunity knocks for him wherever his new home may end up being. And the production wasn’t strictly symptomatic of Coors, as he hit .275/.331/.472 on the road when healthy last year.
Christian Vazquez, Boston Red Sox – One of these days, Christian Vazquez is going to start hitting, and then you’ll be sorry. You’ll all be sorry! Lord knows the Red Sox would love nothing more than for this defensive monster to force the issue and seize more of the eminently available playing time available behind the dish in Boston. Sandy Leon on a heater is one thing, and Blake Swihart trotting in from left field on a white horse is another, but the defensive gulf between Vazquez and the rest is significant. If he can ever find a way to approach his career .344 on-base percentage in the minors there are majority-start at-bats sitting right there on the table for him, and given Boston’s lineup depth that’s enough for interest in a deep-enough league.
Robinson Chirinos, Texas Rangers – I liked Robinson Chirinos as a deep-league C2 option heading into last season, and through the season’s first five games I was sitting there saying to myself “hey, that Robinson Chirinos is doing alright, he looks pretty goo-oh no he just broke his arm.” So it goes, sometimes. And then sometimes when it does go that way a team will up and trade for Jonathan Lucroy. It sure doesn’t look like there are going to be a ton of at-bats built in for Chirinos as things stand today, but the franchise’s reigning minor league player of the year (discussed below) is slated to open at Double-A, and a strong showing there could open up Chirinos as tasty trade bait into a better situation come summertime. Or Lucroy could get hurt. Either way, Chirinos has enough pop to potentially warrant a waiver claim if either of those scenarios unfold.
Caleb Joseph, Baltimore Orioles – Joseph ranked 27th on the catcher list last year, and thanked us for our faith in him by promptly hitting .174 and not driving in a single run in 141 plate appearances, an accomplishment that may rival the unassisted triple play or the Bengie Molina stolen base among baseball’s rarest feats. If last year’s performance didn’t do enough to quash all hope for majority at-bats, Baltimore’s acquisition of Welington Castillo certainly did. At 31, Joseph is one of those guys who’s older than you think he is, too.
John Ryan Murphy, Minnesota Twins – Murphy is another guy who cracked last year’s top 30 (he checked in 29th), but on the heels of a semi-interesting 172 plate appearances the season prior he got off to a .075/.119/.100 start through his first 11 starts and got shipped back to Triple A, where he continued to struggle for most of the season. He still doesn’t turn 26 until May and will likely garner another look as the team’s backup to Jason Castro this spring, and for those reasons pretty much alone he’s still on the radar.
Austin Allen, San Diego Padres – This marks Allen’s second consecutive eyebrow-raised appearance in this space, as I wrote him up in last year’s edition as one of the more intriguing catching bats from the previous draft class. He certainly didn’t disappoint in the Midwest League, raking his way to a .320/.364/.425 line in 453 plate appearances while handling arguably the best second-half starting rotation in the minor leagues. Teams ran wild on him, however, and the defensive chops remain a big question. As in most cases, the bat will be a lot less interesting if he’s forced to move out into the field.
Jose Trevino, Texas Rangers – I wrote approximately 1,500 words on my favorite position player in the California League over the course of this past season, and while he’s less interesting for fantasy purposes, there’s still enough of a baseline offensive profile here that when combined with his high big-league probability he could evolve into deep dark league relevance.
Taylor Ward, Los Angeles Angels – Despite Ben Carsley’s appropriately unflattering Drew Butera quip in our Angels Top 10, there were at least some signs of life in Ward’s bat over the second half of the season. He’ll still default to punching balls to the opposite field right now, but there’s some mildly interesting nascent pop in there, and he shows signs of being an okay hitter. It’s not much, but there’s at least a foundation to theoretically build off of here, and a solid year at Double-A could move the needle by the time we’re writing these columns again next January.
Mitch Garver, Minnesota Twins – Garver had a solid season with the stick between Double and Triple A last year, posting a .270/12/74/50/1 line that, had he done it in the majors, would’ve made him the seventh-best fantasy catcher in the game last year (yes, catchers were collectively that bad). The rub, of course, is that Double A is not the major leagues, but with really only the aforementioned John Ryan Murphy ahead of him on the organizational depth chart, it’s not unlikely he gets a view from the top at some point in 2017.
Max Stassi, Houston Astros – It’s kind of remarkable I haven’t written anything about Stassi before on these pages, because I’ve been patiently biding my time for his obvious and inevitable breakout for a long time, and yet…it’s just never really come. For a fourth straight season he managed to sneak into a few big-league games, but for a third straight his PCL production was not particularly good. He’ll still turn just 26 in May, but the depth chart is awful crowded around him and he’s never really hit about Double A.
Keibert Ruiz, Los Angeles Dodgers – Investing in an 18-year-old catcher in Rookie ball is just a terrible, terrible idea in general, though there’s an exception to every rule, and if you happen to be in the mood to except this particular rule, Ruiz may be the dude to except for. The Dodgers signed him out of Venezuela for $140,000 in 2014, and after rolling up a four-digit OPS in eight games of complex ball he went right on to hit .354 as the youngest regular in the Pioneer League. He will travel literally thousands more miles on minor-league buses before he’s within shouting distance of the majors, but the stateside debut performance last year should turn your head ever-so-slightly in his direction.
Dennis Ortega, St. Louis Cardinals – Oh, Ruiz isn’t “hard” “core” enough for you? Enter Ortega, Ruiz’s Gulf Coast League doppelganger. He signed for $125,000 in 2013, and his advanced command of the strike zone drove a strong offensive debut on American soil. That development was something of a surprise for a prospect generally considered glove-first, but given the defensive chops he should be follow-listed as Low-A name to watch.
Class of 2016!
Chris Okey, Cincinnati Reds – A second-rounder out of Clemson, Okey’s a well-rounded backstop with an average offensive profile. The swing lacks for a ton of fluidity or natural bat speed, but he handles the zone pretty well and could turn into, well, any number of the backend guys people rostered in a given 16-team league last year.
Ben Rortvedt, Minnesota Twins – Noooow we’re talking, a bat-first catcher with a second-round pedigree. What’s that? He was just drafted out of high school and struggled in Rookie ball? Oh. It’s a year early here, but scouts are into the power potential, and his advanced approach suggests some baseline to the hit tool, too. He should migrate up to full-season ball at some point this summer.
Will Smith, Los Angeles Dodgers – I wrote a report on Smith back in September, and he displayed one of the most efficient pop-and-transfers I’ve ever seen. That is, of course, neither here nor there for our purposes. Smith has some hitting ability, mostly in the form of good discipline and top-spin line drives to all fields. The swing isn’t a kind that produces loft and power, so at best he’s going to profile as a non-traditional contributor of fantasy value. The good news is that he’s athletic enough that the Dodgers have already given him off-day reps at second and third bases, and he appears to have set off on the Austin Barnes program. Only five catchers hit .265 last year, so if he shows batting average acumen along with continued versatility there’s at least some kind of a profile possible.
Logan Ice, Cleveland Indians – A supplemental second-rounder last summer, Ice has all of Smith’s lack-of-power and none of his High-A experience. He had a well-timed breakout offensive season last spring, posting a .310/.432/.563 line for Oregon State, but struggled at Low-A after signing. Ice is a dude to skate on for now, with a promise to reevaluate again next winter.
Sean Murphy, Oakland Athletics – Oakland’s third-rounder last summer had perhaps the best arm of any catcher in the draft class, and should be a no-doubter to remain at the position. His offensive future is a bit more muddled, as he suffered through a dreaded hamate fracture at the beginning of the spring and struggled to find the barrel much in the New York-Penn League after signing. He’s got the bat speed and leverage to hit for power, however, and showed an advanced approach in college.
David Garcia, Texas Rangers – Garcia was considered the top catcher available in last year’s international class, and as is their wont, the Rangers scooped him up. He’s a 16-year-old switch-hitter who shows some feel with the stick from both sides, and as a shortstop in his younger (!) days he shows advanced athleticism and body control. File the name away for when you’re bored and blue some lazy summer afternoon in 2019, then punch in his name and see how he’s doing.
Abrahan Gutierrez, Atlanta Braves – The Braves spent a lot of money on international signings last year, and Gutierrez was the beneficiary of their largesse to the tune of $3.5 million. He already tipped the scales at 205 pounds as a 16-year-old when he signed, with a significant growth spurt in the year prior leading to more uneven performance heading into the signing period. There are across-the-board tools for a future starting catcher here, but we probably won’t figure out whether they’ve come together enough to warrant a dynasty roster spot for at least another three years.
Class of 2017 & Beyond!
J.J. Schwarz, University of Florida – Schwarz is the early frontrunner for “2017 Zack Collins” anointment, despite posting a sophomore season that was more meh than magic. He boasts true plus power from the right side, along with a stellar approach that should play up his on-base skills. Schwarz flirted with first base a couple times last season as an injury replacement, and figures to spend a good bit of time this season at DH. Reports on his defensive chops are mixed, if hopeful for his ability to remain behind the dish long term. His teammate Mike Rivera will likely generate some draft buzz, as well and will be the primary reason Schwarz sees less reps in the field. Rivera is a defensive stalwart to where he profiles as an actual, definite, stays-behind-the-dish catcher, though the offensive ceiling is well south of Schwarz’s.
Evan Skoug, TCU – If you liked Matt Thaiss last year, you’ll probably like his mini-me this year in Skoug. He put up a nice .301/.390/.502 line in his sophomore season for the Horned Frogs, before going on to serve as the Collegiate National Team’s primary catcher last summer. It’s unclear whether Skoug will stick behind the dish, as the defensive profile is on the fringier side. He’s a quality hitter with a short stroke, though if he does get yanked to another position the pressure on his power tool development will increase all the more.
Riley Adams, University of San Diego – Adams was heavily scouted out of high school, but his strong commitment to San Diego scared teams off. He jumped right in as the team’s starting catcher as a freshman, then hit .327/.443/.512 in 56 games as a sophomore last year. He’s a tall drink of water for a catcher, but his arm strength and athleticism are assets behind the dish and there’s a decent chance he sticks there. Above-average raw power is possible as he finished developing physically, and a repeat line this spring will likely send him shooting up draft boards heading into June.
M.J. Melendez, Westminster Christian School (FL) – What’s better than investing in a just-drafted high school catcher? Investing in one that’s still a senior. You’ve read this far, though, so here’s the guy right now in his prep class. Melendez is as athletic as you’ll find behind the plate, and reports on his glove can get a little giddy. As related to what we care about, he possesses some of the most tantalizing bat speed in the draft class, though the approach is appropriately raw and the mechanics wildly inconsistent. We’re probably talking five years of lead time here, but he’s as good a bet as any prep catcher to go in the first round, and the foundation of a lethal hitter is there, albeit buried under a bunch of raw mud and sludge above. There may be a signability issue here as well, as his father is the head coach at Florida International, where he’s committed to attend.
Calvin Greenfield, Jensen Beach High School (FL) – Reports are less kind to Greenfield’s glove, and as things stand he’s probably not a catcher long term. But he’s an intriguing bat in this prep class, as these things go, with quality showcase performance against premium stuff and velocity on his resume. There’s advanced strength and feel in his swing, and he’ll be a name to watch this spring for reports on his defensive growth (or lack thereof).