Catching Prospects: Looking Forward (and back)

Every Wednesday I will look back at my prospect rankings from last year and examine the top performers, as well as those who did not live up to my lofty expectations. In every case, it’s not my rankings that were wrong, but the player who did better or worse than they should have. I’m kidding of course; I’ve got my share of hits and misses, but this series is really about looking forward and what players to target and who to cash in on if you can.

Incredibly, 12 of last year’s top 25 catchers saw time in the major leagues in 2015, making it a position with new major league strength and depth. Not all 12 have lost their rookie eligibility, but there should still be at least a 50% turnover rate in the 2016 Top Catching Prospect list. It will be interesting to see where these pieces take us, but I can’t imagine a position that will see as big of a turnover. 

The Graduates (2015 rank in parenthesis)

(1) Kyle Schwarber, Cubs: Schwarber came up for a week in June and hit .364 with a HR and 6 RBI before being sent down to AAA. A Miguel Montero injury in July meant that he would be called up again; and this time it was for good. He finished the season hitting .246/.355/.487 with 16 HR in just 232 at bats. Thirty-two catchers had more big-league plate appearances than Schwarber, but only one had a higher walk rate, and none matched his ISO.

Schwarber had a 39.7% Hard Hit Rate in 2015, and looking at his spray chart you can see he’s hitting to all fields. Schwarber, with his pedigree and his early performance, is already my #2 ranked C for 2016 and for keeper leagues.

Source: FanGraphs

(3) Blake Swihart, Red Sox: Swihart came into 2015 as a highly touted catching prospect with Jim Callis drawing comparisons between him and Buster Posey. Swihart hit .274 in 288 AB in his rookie campaign, but unlike Schwarber, he didn’t give us impact offensive numbers right out of the gate. Swihart was never going to have Schwarber’s power, but a future 15 HR, .280 performance would put him among the game’s very best catchers. When looking at his growth throughout the season, there are signs that he could very well reach those numbers down the road.

First Half 133 .241 5.0% 25.5% .279 .323 .083
Second Half 155 .303 6.5% 24.4% .353 .452 .148

In the second half, Swihart’s wOBA was better than Travis d’Arnaud, Buster Posey, Jonathan Lucroy and every other significant catcher besides Kyle Schwarber. While I won’t rank Swihart in my top 5 for next season, over the next 5 years I trust that, while he may not be the next Buster Posey, he’s a top 5 catcher overall.

(4) Kevin Plawecki, Mets: Not too many well-regarded prospects are thrust into major league action after batting .224 for the first month of the season while repeating a level. Injuries to Travis d’Arnuad made it necessary for the Mets to not only bring him up, but to keep him in the majors this year. The result: a line of .219/.280/.296 over 233 at bats. There isn’t any silver lining that I can find looking at his offensive numbers this year, but I’m giving Plawecki a mulligan because I don’t think he was prepared for the big leagues. The future is cloudy enough with d’Arnaud’s breakout performance though that I have no problem moving on from him.

(12) J.T. Realmuto, Marlins: Realmuto snuck into my top 10 catchers for dynasty leagues with his nice debut in 2015, especially with his unique power and speed combination. Realmuto ended the season strong, hitting .338 with a .890 OPS over the seasons final 5 weeks. He hit 10 HR in 441 AB, and his 8 SB led all catchers in 2015. There is still some room for growth, and it’s not hard to imagine 12-15 HR and 10 SB to go along with a .270 AVG. 

Other Graduates: (10) Andrew Susac, (11) Christian Bethancourt, (16) Austin Hedges, (19) James McCann

The Risers

(17) Austin Barnes, Dodgers: A year ago I said of Barnes:

“Barnes plays C, 2B and 3B and looks the part of a super-utility player. He has an excellent approach at the plate, has good speed and should provide a high OBP.”

Fast forward 9 months later and Barnes has made his major league debut with appearances at C, 2B and 3B. He also had a 16.2% BB rate in his brief 20-game stint in Los Angeles. Before being promoted to the majors, Barnes hit .315/.389/.479 in AAA with a 10.4% BB rate and just a 10.7% K rate. He hit 9 home runs and chipped in a dozen stolen bases. Barnes may not have an All-Star ceiling, but with some power and speed to go with that strong approach, he’s going to provide value at the catcher position. With 6 graduates ahead of him in last year’s rank and a strong performance in 2015, he’s on the way up.

(24) Mark Zagunis**, Cubs: Not really a riser on the catcher’s list per se, Zagunis has moved full-time to the outfield. I liked his bat coming out of the 2014 draft, and he did not disappoint this year, hitting .271/.406/.412 in High A. While he’s no longer considered a catching prospect, it’s worth noting the development of his bat. 

(25) Tom Murphy, Rockies: Murphy was a well-regarded prospect heading into 2013 and 2014, but quickly fell off the radar after a miserable 2014 season. I didn’t forget him, but could only muster up enough faith to put him as my 25th top catcher prospect. His strikeout rate is still very high leading me to continue questioning just how much success he can have in the big leagues. Murphy had a good year though, hitting 23 HR across three levels, including 3 in the majors in just 35 AB. His .286 ISO during his abbreviated major league stint was better than Schwarber’s .243 mark. I think he’ll struggle, but I’ve got renewed hope that he’ll have fantasy value over stretches of time. If he improves at all, he can be more than that.

The Fallers

(6) Max Pentecost, Blue Jays: It’s difficult to move up prospect lists when you’re not in the game, and that has unfortunately been the case with Pentecost. The first-round pick from 2014 has played in just 25 pro games, none in 2015. With moderate power, some speed, and the ability to hit for average, Pentecost has a world of potential. He’ll need to be healthy to not only get there, but to prove he can handle the daily rigors of catching. If he ends up moving from behind the plate, much of his value will disappear.

(7) Francisco Mejia, Indians: Mejia, at 19 years of age, found himself on Top 100 Prospect lists heading into 2015, but largely disappointed this year in A ball. He did hit 9 HR with a respectable 8.5% BB rate, but the power and average both fell. He still has a lot of potential, but he’s at least 2-3 years away and will need to start living up to some of that promise. Mejia doesn’t turn 20 until later this month, and while the upside is still there, I should not have rushed to rank him so highly last year. 

(14) Tyler Marlette, Mariners: I liked Marlette’s power heading into 2015 after having hit 17 HR across two levels as a 21-year-old in 2014. Unfortunately Marlette struggled offensively in 2015 with the ISO dropping (nearly in half) from 2014. That’s not all that has dropped, as Marlette finds himself lower in the pecking order of Mariners catching prospects due to his poor defense. There just isn’t enough upside here to remain optimistic about Marlette’s chances to become an everyday catcher, let alone a solid fantasy contributor. 

The New Faces

Dom Nunez, Rockies: I liked Nunez last year when I did my rankings, but he was just a 19-year-old kid and at least 3-4 years away from the majors. I ranked him as a 4 (out of 5) for fantasy ceiling in my prospect grid, putting him in the a group I have been keeping an eye on this year. He started off poorly hitting .216/.280/.251 in the first half of the season, but exploded in the second half with a .314/.419/.559 line which included 15 home runs. Take a look at Nunez (courtesy of minorleagueball), who isn’t a big guy, but has big power.

Tyler Stephenson, Reds: Stephenson was a first-round pick taken by the Reds out of high school in the 2015 draft. He finished the 2015 season as an 18-year-old and will obviously need a lot of time before he can contribute to your fantasy team. He is a big man, standing 6’4″, 210 lbs who brings a lot of power to his game. It didn’t translate in his pro debut, but he did show a solid approach, especially at such a young age. Fangraphs has some nice video of him receiving and hitting from his high school days. As you can see, he’s nothing like Nunez above, with some scouts concerned about his size and the length it creates with his swing.

Chris Betts, Rays: Betts was drafted 52nd overall by the Rays in the 2015 draft and was ranked #16 by Kiley McDaniel over at Fangraphs. An elbow injury caused him to fall in the draft, and he underwent Tommy John surgery in July. Betts and Stephenson were the top ranked catchers from last year’s draft, with Betts having even more power than Stephenson. He also carries a plus hit tool and could turn out to be a real steal by the Rays. This video is courtesy of Fangraphs.

Willson Contreras, Cubs: Unlike the three young catchers listed above, Contreras has been around for a while, having been signed out of Venezuela in 2009. There wasn’t a lot to get excited about until his breakout season in 2015. Contreras hit .333/.413/.478 in 521 PA in AA. He showed an excellent approach with a 10.9% walk rate and a 11.9% K rate. With just moderate power, Contreras doesn’t have a huge ceiling for fantasy purposes, but with his strike zone control he has a good chance to be a solid hitter in the major leagues. He is excellent defensively as well, making him a very good prospect for the Cubs, even if he may be a better real player than fantasy one. 

Next week I will take a look at first base prospects, and attempt to determine just how good Gregory Bird could be.

Prospects: Looking Forward (and back)
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Paul Hartman

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Fantasy Baseball player since 1987. Creator of Fantasy Assembly, yet just fortunate enough to be a part of it.