In baseball, the bulk of a catcher’s value is their ability to play sound defense. In this list, which is focused on potential value in fantasy baseball, the best prospects are ones that are more similar to Jorge Posada, a below-average defensive catcher with elite offensive skills (OPS+ 121), than to Jason Varitek, a great defensive catcher with a league average bat (OPS+ 99).
The rankings are broken into three parts: the top 10 prospects in order, the next five prospects in alphabetical order and some prospects who could provide some fantasy value in 2015 but are not among the top 15. As always, these rankings are done with fantasy baseball in mind, generally focusing on a standard 5x5 league, but other statistics (e.g., OBP) are considered.
Top Ten Prospects:
1. Blake Swihart, Boston Red Sox
Highest Level: AAA Pawtucket (International League)
2014 Statistics: .300/.353/.487 with 12 HR (92 games, AA Portland); .261/.282/.377 with 1 HR (18 games, AAA Pawtucket)
Swihart is an above-average defensive catcher who switch-hits with average power and above-average contact rates. He has a strong arm and good fundamentals, and is also an above-average athlete. His approach at the plate is overly aggressive, but his strikeout rates are solid due to good pitch recognition skills. He has the potential to hit .280 with 15 HR on an annual basis, but his ascent will be slowed by Boston’s depth behind the plate. He should make his big league debut in 2015 and become the starter by the end of the year.
2. Jorge Alfaro, Texas Rangers
Highest Level: AA Frisco (Texas League)
2014 Statistics: .261/.318/.440 with 13 HR (100 games, High-A Myrtle Beach); .261/.343/.443 with 4 HR (21 games, AA Frisco)
Alfaro’s calling cards are his elite raw power, cannon-like throwing arm and tremendous athleticism. Unfortunately, he remains a work in progress both as a hitter and behind the plate. He often sells out to try to hit the ball over the wall, further exaggerating his aggressive approach with poor pitch recognition and below-average contact rates. Despite his athletic ability and arm, he is a below-average receiver who allowed 23 passed balls and committed 13 errors in 2014. He has the potential to hit .300 with 25-plus HR, but may struggle to hit .260 and may need to move to first base if his defense does not improve.
3. Kevin Plawecki, New York Mets
Highest Level: AAA Las Vegas (Pacific Coast League)
2014 Statistics: .326/.378/.487 with 6 HR (58 games, AA Binghamton); .283/.345/.421 with 5 HR (43 games, AAA Las Vegas)
Over the past two seasons, Kevin Plawecki has gone through four levels of baseball, hitting a combined .307/.379/.453 and consistently displaying strong fundamentals and good receiving skills on defense. While he lacks a true standout talent, he is a solid all-around catcher who has the potential to hit .280 with 10-15 HR on an annual basis. He is nearly ready for the majors, but is blocked by Travis d’Arnaud, who put up an 805 OPS after he returned from AAA. Plawecki or d’Arnaud could be traded, as cost-controlled catchers who are good hitters are a valuable commodity, but the most likely result is a platoon of sorts to allow Plawecki to ease in the major leagues and prevent d’Arnaud from being overworked.
4. Gary Sanchez, New York Yankees
Highest Level: AA Trenton (Eastern League)
2014 Statistics: .270/.338/.406 with 13 HR (110 games, AA Trenton)
Sanchez is one of the best hitting prospects in the minor leagues, a group that is not limited to catchers, but he has struggled to turn his raw talent into production. In 2014, he got off to a hot start, but struggled with consistency and was suspended by the team in mid-June for a violation of team rules. It was Sanchez’s second team-imposed suspension, the first having been a two-week suspension for insubordination in 2011. Sanchez has a great throwing arm, but is a poor receiver who is viewed as someone who is not putting in the work to fully develop behind the plate. He has the potential to hit .280 with 20-plus home runs at his peak, but struggles to make consistent contact and may need to move to first base due to defensive deficiencies.
5. Austin Hedges, San Diego Padres
Highest Level: AA San Antonio (Texas League)
2014 Statistics: .225/.268/.321 with 6 HR (113 games, AA San Antonio)
In list that focused on real world value Hedges would likely be the top prospect, as his defense is nearly major league-ready and he possesses an above-average arm and gold glove-caliber receiving and blocking ability. His weakness is his offensive development, as he has the potential to hit .275 with 10 home runs at his peak, but has struggled to adjust to AA pitching, including hitting .205/.242/.264 from June through the end of the season. Hedges is an elite baseball prospect, but his value in fantasy baseball is limited and he could struggle mightily when he is promoted.
6. J.T. Realmuto, Miami Marlins
Highest Level: Miami (National League)
2014 Statistics: .299/.369/.461 with 8 HR (97 games, AA Jacksonville); .241/.267/.345 with 0 HR (11 games, Miami)
Realmuto spent his second season in AA Jacksonville in 2014, improving in nearly every meaningful statistic, resulting in roughly one month in the major leagues, where he held his own. The Marlins drafted Realmuto out of high school and quickly converted him from a shortstop to a catcher to take advantage of his strong arm and above-average athleticism without being restricted by his limited defensive range. Realmuto lacks elite skills, but profiles as a catcher who could hit .290 with 15 home runs and a handful of stolen bases. Jarrod Saltalamacchia is signed through 2016 and Jeff Mathis is set to be the backup in 2015, so Realmuto is unlikely to get any significant playing time until 2016 at the earliest.
7. Kyle Schwarber, Chicago Cubs
Highest Level: High-A Daytona (Florida State League)
2014 Statistics: .600/.625/1.350 with 4 HR (5 games, Short Season-A Boise); .361/.448/.602 with 4 HR (23 games, Low-A Kane County); .302/.393/.560 with 10 HR (44 games, High-A Daytona)
Schwarber’s introduction to professional baseball was a superb exemplar of Kyle Schwarber as a baseball player. After putting up a 1975 OPS over five games with Short Season-A Boise (a typical assignment for a draft pick from college), Schwarber was promoted to Low-A Kane County, where he continued his offensive assault and put up a 1050 OPS, leading to a second promotion to High-A Daytona. His bat cooled off in the Florida State League, where he put up a 952 OPS, leading the league. He also finished tied for 11th in HR despite appearing in only 44 games. Schwarber has the potential to hit .280 with 30 home runs at his peak, but his defensive home is up in the air. He has a sufficient arm and athleticism to catch, but he lags behind with his skills as a receiver. Schwarber spent more time in left field than behind the plate, but the Cubs are planning on developing him as a catcher, where he has the talent to succeed and his bat would be even more valuable. Schwarber has a case to be a top three catching prospect, but the substantial likelihood that he ends up in the outfield knocks him down the list.
8. Reese McGuire, Pittsburgh Pirates
Highest Level: Low-A West Virginia (South Atlantic League)
2014 Statistics: .262/.307/.334 with 3 HR (98 games, Low-A West Virginia)
McGuire’s defense is nearly major league ready, and he is known for his ability to work with pitchers and call a game, both rare qualities for a prospect in the minor leagues let alone one still in his teens. His offensive development is behind his defense, but he showed enough ability to warrant his prospect status. McGuire finished strong, hitting .333/.375/.533 over the last two weeks of the season, a rare strong finish for a prospect completing his first full professional season, let alone a catching prospect. He lacks elite offensive upside, but has the potential to hit .280 with 10-15 home runs at his peak while challenging Austin Hedges for the NL Gold Glove.
9. Chance Sisco, Baltimore Orioles
Highest Level: Low-A Delmarva (South Atlantic League)
2014 Statistics: .340/.406/.448 with 5 HR (114 games, Low-A Delmarva)
Sisco is a bat-first catching prospect, employing a line drive swing and an all-fields approach to place third in the South Atlantic League in batting average and tie for 11th with 27 doubles. He also had more multi-hit games (35) than zero-hit games (24), though he did much of his damage against righties (.360/.418/.476) while hitting much worse against lefties (.267/.362/.344). Left-handed batters struggling against same-side pitching is common in the minor leagues, and if Sisco can keep his OPS against lefties above 700 he will be a force. His defense lags behind his bat, as his footwork needs work, which will come with experience and repetition. He has the potential to hit .280 with 10-15 HR at his peak, but his power has yet to show up in game situations and his value would take a hit if he is force to move from behind the plate.
10. Luis Torrens, New York Yankees
Highest Level: Low-A Charleston (South Atlantic League)
2014 Statistics: .250/.333/.313 with 0 HR (5 games, Rookie Level GCL Yankees); .270/.327/.405 with 2 HR (38 games, Short Season-A Staten Island); .154/.353/.269 with 1 HR (9 games, Low-A Charleston)
Torrens opened 2014 with Low-A Charleston, where he struggled before being sent to extended spring training to work on his game until the New York-Penn League opened. After a few days in the GCL, Torrens was promoted to the NY-Penn League where he more than held his own as an 18-year old where the average age is nearly 22. Torrens went 1-2 with a double (it was a blooper and Torrens turned it into a double with hustle), scoring the only run for the South All Stars. He has a strong, accurate throwing arm and above-average athleticism, but will need substantial time to work on his defense, as is common with catching prospects. At his peak, Torrens has the potential to hit .290 with 15-plus HR.
Next 5 Prospects (Alphabetical Order):
Nick Ciuffo, Tampa Bay Rays (.224/.289/.333 with 4 HR in 52 games with Rookie level Princeton). High baseball-IQ with the potential to hit .300 with 10 HR. 21st overall pick in 2013, so the Rays knew he was a “project” with a high ceiling, and he will be given time to develop.
Francisco Mejia, Cleveland Indians (.282/.339/.407 with 2 HR in 66 games with Short Season-A Mahoning Valley). Strong arm, but much work needs to be done on the defensive side. Started NY-Penn League All-Star game over Luis Torrens. Switch-hitter with the potential to hit .280 with 15-plus HR at his peak.
Peter O'Brien, Arizona Diamondbacks (.321/.353/.688 with 10 HR in 30 games with High-A Tampa; .251/.293/.557 with 24 HR in 76 games combined with AA Trenton and AA Mobile). Traded by Yankees to Diamondbacks for Martin Prado. O’Brien has top-flight power, but rarely walks and strikes out too much. Poor defender who seemed destined for a 1B/RF/DH role, but Diamondbacks’ GM Dave Stewart publicly stated that they view him as someone who could contribute as a catcher in 2015. Already 24, has potential to hit .250 with 25-plus HR, but aggressive approach and swing-and-miss could substantially limit production.
Max Pentocost, Toronto Blue Jays (2014 draft, 1st round, 11th pick). Average defensive catcher who has the potential to hit .275 with 10-15 HR. Had surgery to repair a partial tear in his right labrum, which will be something to watch in the spring.
Stryker Trahan, Arizona Diamondbacks (.257/.344/.496 with 6 HR in 30 games with Short Season-A Hillsboro; .198/.264/.367 with 13 HR in 95 games with Low-A South Bend). Moved to right field and sent to South Bend to start the season, Trahan never seemed to get on track. Moved back behind the dish and sent to SSA Hillsboro, he returned to form, improving his walk rate, cutting his strikeout rate in half and seeing his isolated power increase by nearly 80 points. Potential to hit .275 with 20-plus HR, but his return to full season ball in 2015 will be a big test.
2015 Fantasy Value (Alphabetical Order):
Christian Bethancourt, Atlanta Braves. Slotted to be the starting catcher for the Braves in 2015, Bethancourt is unlikely to hit higher than .260 with 10 HR. The addition of A.J. Pierzynski could indicate Bethancourt may not get the full starter’s share of starts.
Justin O'Connor, Tampa Bay Rays. Howitzer-like arm stops the running game in its path, but has the ability to hit .280 with 10-15 HR at peak. Already on 40-man roster, could see time if Rene Rivera and John Jaso can’t get the job done.
James McCann, Detroit Tigers. Behind both Alex Avila and Bryan Holaday, but could see substantial playing time if both continue to struggle at the plate. Solid defensive catcher with a good arm, could hit .275 with 10 HR if given playing time.