Catcher prospects for 2014
Catchers are typically slower to develop offensively because of the time they spend mastering their craft behind the plate. Scott White sizes up the top catching prospects for 2014.
Catchers are notoriously slow to develop.
They're half of the pitching equation, after all. With so much of their emphasis on the blocking and the framing and the game-managing and the pitch-calling, the hitting kind of goes by the wayside.
So more than at any other position, you'll find players whose numbers don't measure up to the scouting reports. And more than at any other position, you'll find players who seem to come out of nowhere.
Looking at you, Josmil Pinto and Max Stassi.
Note: This list has been adjusted for Fantasy purposes. Though long-term potential is a factor, it's arguably less important than the player's expected role in 2014. These prospects don't all profile as superstars, but they're the names most worth knowing in Fantasy now.
1. Travis d'Arnaud, 25, Mets
Where played in 2013: Rookie, Double-A, Triple-A, majors
Minor-league stats: .286 BA (105 at-bats), 3 HR, 13 2B, .934 OPS, 25 BB, 23 K
Major-league stats: .202 BA (99 at-bats), 1 HR, 3 2B, .548 OPS, 12 BB, 21 K
It's finally happening. After years of maybes, eventuallys and if-onlys, d'Arnaud is finally set to become a full-fledged big-league catcher. Of course, with him, you can never be too sure. Opening day hasn't arrived yet, so he could still break his foot or tear his PCL or relive any of the other maladies that have delayed his arrival this long. In case the use of "finally" not once, but twice doesn't give it away, d'Arnaud has loads of potential, particularly for Fantasy purposes. Don't let his underwhelming late-season trial convince you otherwise. He was still working to get his swing right after missing the first four months and didn't get enough at-bats for it to mean anything anyway. While calling him another Buster Posey probably gives him too much credit, d'Arnaud's ability to hit for both average and power could make him an early-rounder in Fantasy someday. Right now, the hype has died down enough that you can probably get him late in single-season formats. He may not get drafted at all in leagues that require only one catcher per team, which makes him a definite sleeper for those willing to exercise a little faith.
2. Josmil Pinto, 25, Twins
Where played in 2013: Double-A, Triple-A, majors
Minor-league stats: .309 BA (456 at-bats), 15 HR, 32 2B, .882 OPS, 66 BB, 83 K
Major-league stats: .342 BA (76 at-bats), 4 HR, 5 2B, .963 OPS, 6 BB, 22 K
Pinto is that curious sort of prospect who doesn't get any love from the rank lists despite stellar minor-league numbers, which normally means those numbers are a mirage that won't hold up against major-league pitching. But a .342 batting average and .963 OPS in a late-season trial would seem to suggest otherwise. Defensive shortcomings might also explain why so few prospect hounds had heard of Pinto before last September. He plays a position where it's kind of important, which is why the Twins are reluctant to turn over full-time catching duties to him even with Joe Mauer moving to first base. Ultimately, though, dollars figure to win out there. Pinto is cheap and didn't look so terrible behind the plate in his late-season trial, throwing out nearly half of would-be base-stealers. The Twins have far more to gain by developing him than by resorting to a placeholder in what will probably be a lost season. Obviously, Pinto still has to prove those 76 at-bats weren't a fluke, but in leagues that require two catchers per team, he's a worthy late-round gamble even if he doesn't win the job outright and has to split his time between catcher and DH.
3. Max Stassi, 23, Astros
Where played in 2013: Double-A, majors
Minor-league stats: .277 BA (289 at-bats), 17 HR, .529 SLG, .863 OPS, 19 BB, 68 K
Major-league stats: .286 BA (7 at-bats), 0 HR, .661 OPS, 0 BB, 2 K
Stassi, we hardly knew ye. The 22-year-old backstop took a Tanner Scheppers fastball off the face seven at-bats into his mid-August call-up, preventing him from joining All-Star Jason Castro in an alternating catcher-DH tandem. Of course, he's healthy now, so barring a flurry of activity this offseason, nothing is stopping the Astros from trying him in that role again. He'll need a big spring, in all likelihood. The Astros aren't contending anytime soon, so they wouldn't want to force the issue. Judging by the way he took off at Double-A Corpus Christi, though, Stassi isn't far from being a finished product. A non-entity in the minors up to that point, the former Athletics farmhand exploded for a .318 batting average and 16 homers in only 176 at-bats after the All-Star break, prompting his promotion. While he's not quite that good, Stassi has legitimate middle-of-the-order power -- the kind that would profile at DH as well as catcher -- which makes him an intriguing Fantasy option for the long haul. He may still be a couple years from meeting his full potential, but the Astros' willingness to use him last year makes him a worthwhile pick in AL-only leagues.
4. Gary Sanchez, 21, Yankees
Where played in 2013: high Class A, Double-A
Minor-league stats: .253 BA (454 at-bats), 15 HR, .736 OPS, 41 BB, 87 K
Sanchez is not all the way there yet. That much is obvious. What should be just as obvious is that he's going to hit in the majors someday. You won't find a scouting report that says otherwise. So even if his minor-league numbers leave a bit to be desired, apart from a decent home run total, owners in long-term keeper leagues would be wise to show a little faith in the process. Owners in single-season leagues shouldn't pay him a second thought. Again, he's not all the way there yet, either offensively or defensively. But when Sanchez is ready to take over as the Yankees' full-time catcher -- possibly in 2016, right about the time Brian McCann is ready to shift to first base or DH -- he projects to have middle-of-the-order, perhaps even 30-homer power. The question isn't whether he'll make it to the big leagues, but whether he'll be more Wilin Rosario, Matt Wieters or Evan Gattis when he does. And for some, that's a fine line anyway. Sanchez isn't the perfect catcher prospect, but he's a good bet to return your investment and then some.
5. Jorge Alfaro, 20, Rangers
Where played in 2013: Rookie, low Class A, high Class A
Minor-league stats: .265 BA (404 at-bats), 18 HR, 18 SB, .809 OPS, 32 BB, 122 K
In terms of pure upside, Alfaro ranks up there with any other player on this list, but like most 20-year-olds who have yet to reach Double-A, his future presents a wide range of possible outcomes. He should hit for power and has shown he can run a little bit, but his free-swinging approach could come back to bite him as he works his way up the ladder. The good news is he's so raw defensively that he'll have plenty of time to refine his stroke. He may have three or four more years in the minors before the Rangers gets antsy to call him up. Of course, as long as his bat develops as expected, he could always shift to an outfield corner, which would only hasten his timetable. Either way, Alfaro's offensive potential makes him worth your while in long-term keeper leagues. Just understand that you don't know exactly what you're getting or how long it will take.
6. Christian Bethancourt, 22, Braves
Where played in 2013: Double-A, majors
Minor-league stats: .277 BA (358 at-bats), 12 HR, 11 SB, .741 OPS, 16 BB, 57 K
Major-league stats: .000 BA (1 at-bat), 1 K
Bethancourt has been regarded as one of the Braves' top prospects since signing as a 16-year-old in 2008, but last year was the first time he showed any glimmer of offensive potential, hitting 12 homers in 358 at-bats. And considering the breakthrough happened at Double-A, which is widely considered to be the biggest step up the minor-league ladder, you can trust that it's legitimate. Of course, double-digit homers with poor plate discipline and a suspect batting average does not an All-Star make. Any discussion about Bethancourt still begins with game-changing defense, which doesn't do much for Fantasy owners, but if nothing else, it ensures he'll catch full-time in the big leagues someday. That day could come in 2014 if Evan Gattis slumps his way out of the picture or if injuries open up a spot for him elsewhere. Most likely, though, Bethancourt will begin the season at Triple-A. His power could continue to develop to the point that he's a fringe contributor in mixed leagues, but for now, you should think of him as more of an NL-only option.
7. Tom Murphy, 22, Rockies
Where played in 2013: low Class A, Double-A
Minor-league stats: .289 BA (357 at-bats), 22 HR, 31 2B, .948 OPS, 41 BB, 103 K
Though Murphy wasn't so highly regarded coming into 2013, the third-round pick in the 2012 draft showed he might have a future in the big leagues by hitting 22 homers with a .948 OPS in his first full professional season. Granted, most of that production came at low Class A Asheville, which is notorious for making fringy prospects look like burgeoning superstars, but he was similarly productive after his promotion to Double-A Tulsa (a two-level jump, mind you), hitting .290 with three homers in 69 at-bats. Soon to turn 23 and already seasoned from his time at the University of Buffalo, Murphy could advance quickly for the Rockies. He presents them with a ready-made alternative to Wilin Rosaro, whose bat they want in the lineup but whose defense hasn't come along as hoped. Depending on how he performs in the upper levels of the minors, Murphy could even reach the majors at some point in 2014. You'll likely have advance notice of such a move, though, so he's not a high priority in NL-only leagues. Long-term, he projects to hit for power, particularly at Coors Field, but his ceiling isn't as high as, say, Sanchez's.
8. Blake Swihart, 21, Red Sox
Where played in 2013: high Class A
Minor-league stats: .298 BA (376 at-bats), 2 HR, .428 SLG, .794 OPS, 41 BB, 63 K
Swihart is a leap-of-faith prospect if there ever was one. Yeah, he has hit for a decent average, but at least from a Fantasy owner's perspective, his minor-league contributions are lacking. Yet he remains as highly regarded as when the Red Sox selected him 26th overall in the 2011 draft. At age 21, he's still young enough to live up to those expectations -- Stassi is the perfect example of a prospect who suddenly had it click for him -- but if nothing else, Swihart doesn't look like he's reaching the majors anytime soon. Still, Baseball America rates him as a better prospect than both Garin Cecchini and Mookie Betts -- two Red Sox farmhands with the numbers to back it up -- pointing out that the power he shows in batting practice should translate to games as his pitch recognition improves. Yeah, maybe. But something tells me Fantasy owners aren't lining up to claim Swihart right now. In deep enough dynasty leagues, he's well worth owning -- catchers with plus offensive potential are relatively few and far between -- but he isn't as much of a priority as some prospects, including those other two Red Sox.
9. Austin Hedges, 21, Padres
Where played in 2013: high Class A, Double-A
Minor-league stats: .260 BA (300 at-bats), 4 HR, .390 SLG, .723 OPS, 28 BB, 54 K
Hedges is one of those prospects who'll show up higher in real-life rankings than Fantasy rankings because of everything he does behind the plate. In terms of receiving, blocking, throwing out base runners and every intangible that would apply to a catcher, he's the bee's knees. In terms of productivity ... well, let's just say he should get better. True, he's only 21, and catchers are notoriously slow to develop, but it takes a special brand of hitter to produce a sub-.400 slugging percentage in a year spent mostly in the heavy-hitting California League, even if he was the youngest full-time catcher there. Is it entirely indicative of his potential? Of course not. Scouts generally like Hedges' stroke and project him for average power, putting his upside somewhere in the neighborhood of A.J. Pierzynski. But while Pierzynski has had and continues to have a quality career, most mixed-league owners would consider him a fringy option. Hedges is a safe long-term keeper since he's sure to play full-time someday, but if Pierzynski is the best he can do, he's not a particularly exciting one.
10. Tony Sanchez, 25, Pirates
Where played in 2013: Double-A, Triple-A, majors
Minor-league stats: .282 BA (277 at-bats), 10 HR, .487 SLG, .845 OPS, 28 BB, 63 K
Major-league stats: .233 BA (60 at-bats), 2 HR, .400 SLG, .688 OPS, 3 BB, 14 K
You may have heard catchers are slow to develop. Sanchez is a textbook example. Despite going just three picks after Stephen Strasburg in 2009, he bombed when he first reached the upper levels of the minors, losing the contact ability that made him such an enticing prospect in the first place. He battled injuries, breaking his jaw more times than anyone with a thought of self-preservation should, and didn't exactly endear himself to management with a couple of off-the-field issues, one of which resulted in a broken jaw. But in his third crack at the upper levels, he finally produced numbers deserving of a call-up. He has improved power to thank, which isn't so unexpected for a player in his mid-20s, but it may end up being too little, too late. The Pirates have Russell Martin locked up for another season and consider him a big reason for their long-awaited return to the postseason in 2013. Sanchez will compete with Chris Stewart for backup duties in 2014. Maybe if he performs well enough in the role he'll get his shot in 2015, but it's not a likely enough scenario for you to bother with him in long-term keeper leagues.
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