Every Friday I will take a snapshot of this year’s current crop of prospects at each position relative to how they were ranked a year ago. I’ll examine the top performers, those who did not live up to our lofty expectations, and the key graduates. Our rankings last year were compiled by Andy Germani and myself, and I know we have our fair share of hits and misses. The point of this exercise, though, is to highlight players to target heading into 2017, as well as those to look at moving while they still have name value.
There were 8 graduates in 2015 so it’s no surprise that we saw only two this year. The position already features a lot of youth, but there will be plenty more graduates next season. Last year’s Top 25 Catcher Prospects featured Gary Sanchez at number one, and had some great calls on players to watch, guys who may stumble, and ones who could contribute. We’ll hope to build on this success for 2017, but it’s often in failure that we learn the most. Let’s look at what I suspect we’ll see in our January Top 25 Catcher Prospect list:
(2016 rank in parenthesis)
(1) Gary Sanchez, Yankees: Sanchez put himself in Rookie of the Year consideration, hitting 20 home runs in just 201 at bats. He also hit .299 with a .376 OBP. He essentially saw his power numbers double from AAA to the big leagues, along with his walk rate and strikeout rate. Even ranked as the #1 Catcher Prospect heading in to the year, we never expected this kind of production. Obviously the 40% HR/FB rate is going to come crashing down, but we’re still looking at one the premium fantasy catching options heading into 2017 and the foreseeable future.
(6) Willson Contreras, Cubs: Unlike Sanchez, we saw the normal regression from AAA to the major leagues with Willson Contreras. Fortunately, we’re left with more than enough for him to be a viable fantasy option. Across both levels, Contreras hit 21 home runs in 456 at bats, hitting .314 with a .386 OBP. While the batting average damage was mostly done in Iowa, he did hit .282/.357/.488 in 252 big league at bats. Among all catchers with at least 200 at bats, Contreras ranked 2nd in wOBA last year. Between him and Sanchez, we’ve got two new Top-5 catchers for dynasty leagues.
(17) Francisco Mejia, Indians: Admittedly, a 50-game hitting streak will move anyone up in the rankings. Mejia, though, deserves even more consideration after being ranked as the #7 best catching prospect in 2015. A tough year saw him drop ten spots, but Mejia more than made up for that with his offensive outburst in 2016 hitting .342/.384/.514 across two levels. Nearly two-thirds of his time was spent repeating A-ball, but he didn’t miss a beat once moved to High-A Lynchburg. Mejia played all season at 20 years of age, and will likely be among the youngest in AA in 2017. I don’t know what Mejia can do for an encore after his performance this year, but he has already vaulted himself among the very best catching prospects in the game.
(T22) Carson Kelly, Cardinals: Carson Kelly was almost an afterthought at this time last year. There was some potential with the bat, but he was still relatively new to catching. Fast forward a year and there are no longer questions about his ability to stick behind the plate. His offense improved significantly as well, as he jumped from High-A to AAA with a brief September cameo with the big league club. He doubled in his first big league at bat, but did little else after that. A big catcher (6’2″, 220 lbs) there is some untapped power potential here. With a strong presence behind the plate, Kelly may end up in a regular catching role before too long.
(15) Tom Murphy, Rockies: Murphy has 8 home runs in 79 big league at bats across two seasons, so there is undoubtedly some fantasy buzz surrounding him heading into 2017. Add in the fact that he hit 19 home runs in 303 AAA at bats this season, and you can’t help but be excited about his potential in Coors Field. There are obvious approach issues, as he struck out 19 times in his 44 major league at bats this year. It’s possible that Murphy also plays some 1B as a RH platoon with Parra next year which would only help his fantasy value. I may have under-ranked Murphy in our dynasty rankings coming out on Sunday, but the beauty of group rankings is that the others picked up the slack nicely. He’s the ultimate high-risk, high-reward catching option.
(5) Peter O’Brien, Diamondbacks: I’m not sure if O’Brien would have fallen completely off this year’s Top-25 Catchers list if he hadn’t been moved to the outfield, but it may have been close. Yes, he hit 5 big league home runs in just 64 at bats, but it came with a 40.3 % strikeout rate and a .141 average. O’Brien spent most of the year repeating AAA, where he saw his strikeout rate go up nearly 50% – from a manageable 23.2% to an unsightly 33.9%. The power will always be there, and he’s sure to run into quite a few in Arizona, but that’s assuming he can stay in the lineup. Either way, he’s an outfielder now, removing him not only from next year’s list but also likely from any future fantasy relevance.
(4) Tyler Stephenson, Reds: Stephenson was the top catcher in the 2015, and we ranked him pretty aggressively. Unfortunately not only does it take a long time to develop high school catchers, but that can be further complicated with a wrist injury. Stephenson struggled with such an injury all season, and ultimately had wrist surgery in August. It can take quite a while for power to return after such an injury, but at just 20 years old, there is plenty of time for Stephenson to move back to the top-5 catching prospects. I have lost no faith in the young Reds backstop, but it does teach us a lesson about aggressively ranking young catchers too early.
(14) Justin O’Conner, Rays: O’Conner lost most of 2016 with a herniated disk, not making a rehab appearance until nearly August. He had an abysmal 2015, hitting just .231 with 13 walks and 129 strikeouts in 429 at bats, but he was coming off of a huge 2014 including an AFL appearance where he hit .303 and flashed some excellent defense. But that was then and this is now. O’Conner hasn’t done much of anything since 2014 and may not even be the top catching prospect on the Rays any longer. I wouldn’t completely give up on O’Conner at 24 years of age, but I think it’s safe to wait and see how he rebounds in 2017 before ranking him so highly again.
The New Faces
Zack Collins, White Sox: Collins is the top catcher from the 2016 draft, and you would think I would exercise caution ranking him after the lessons learned with Tyler Stephenson. Collins was a college bat though, and one of the top ones in the class at that so I am not so concerned. There are questions about whether he can stick behind the plate, but no one questions the bat. He has a powerful left-handed swing, and he has a history of high on base skills throughout college and even in High A last year. It’s a pretty quick bat, and it should play even if he ends up moving to first base.
Video courtesy of Baseball America
Pedro Severino, Nationals: Severino’s lack of offensive upside kept him off of last year’s list, but there’s something to be said after he impressed in limited big league at bats this year. He has next to no power, but makes good contact and should be able to maintain a high batting average. He’s also athletic enough to chip in a couple of stolen bases, but most importantly his defense is outstanding, which will give him plenty of opportunities to earn an everyday catching job. He’ll be starting tonight as the Nationals take on the Dodgers; not bad for a 23-year-old rookie.
Luis Torrens, Yankees: I ranked Torrens as the 18th top catching prospect heading into 2015, but a torn labrum in 2015 caused him to be left off of last year’s list. He’s a solid defensive catcher with a very good arm, and he couples that with solid power and the ability to work counts. He returned this year and hit .230 with just 2 home runs in 139 at bats. He had an excellent 13.4% walk rate while striking out just 15.9% of the time. I’d be lying if I didn’t admit to really liking this player, and am looking for big things in 2017. There is a chance that Torrens will be exposed in the Rule 5 draft, being a few years away and with the heavy influx of players that the Yankees need to protect. That would severely handicap his growth, but would certainly be an interesting development.
Video courtesy of Fangraphs.
Next week I will take a look at first base prospects, where we blew it with our number one choice last year.
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