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Three Up, Three Down for Prospects - Catcher


While this is not a hot take, the catcher position has been dreadful for fantasy owners over the past few seasons. And yet, this does not mean that catching prospects are also on the decline. For example, this writer has four catchers in the top-60 dynasty prospect rankings, and two close to jumping into that group. With such an influx of talent, there are unique opportunities for new names to jump onto rosters and make an impact across all five categories.

The limit with catching prospects is that the better hitters tend to move off the position, and the best defenders lack the hit tool to make a legitimate fantasy impact. The silver lining is that, often, catching prospects are cheaper than other sexy names in first-year player drafts, and, with the position context, make a greater relative impact at the position. This is why J.T. Realmuto is ranked much higher than his raw stats in drafts but also tends to be worth the pick. 

For dynasty owners, keep reading to see who the Rotoballer team thinks are prospects on the way up, and who needs to turn a recent trend around to stay fantasy relevant. Just a hint, there is a bias towards hit tools on this list, which will reward owners with multiple-category production. Not that we avoid power, but the hit tool tends to be a bit more predictive of long-term fantasy value.

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Stock Rising

Andrew Knizner (C, STL)

Knizner is underrated in fantasy circles for the last few seasons, but Carson Kelly’s move to the desert removes the only block on his value long term. 2018 was his break-out year, at least for those who ignored the production in 2017. Over 94 games between Double-A and Triple-A, Knizner slashed .314/.373/.421 with seven homers and 42 runs. The plate discipline pushes a plus grade, with a 0.54 BB:K and the catcher has never posted a K rate higher than 14%.

The limit on Knizner’s upside is his power, as the tool grades out as average at best, but a plus hit tool still makes him a top fantasy target. The other concern in previous seasons has been the defense behind the plate, as he perhaps does not hit enough to justify a spot at first. By all accounts, the defense is improving with each step up the organization ladder and should reduce the concerns on playing time for now. The floor is a bat-upside reserve to Yadier Molina for the next few years, with the ability to push for the role after the legend in front of him retires. In a weak catcher market, a close to the majors prospect with a high floor, will be worth his weight in gold.

Daulton Varsho (C, ARI)

Varsho is the option for owners looking to steal a speed category in roto leagues from behind the plate. While he grades out as a below-average arm in throwing runners out, when running on his own, Varsho posted 19 steals in 22 attempts. Add that to 12 homers in 81 games between Rookie ball and High-A, and this looks to be the most exciting package in the minors at backstop. In the Francisco Mejia mode, Varsho could find his way out into the field, perhaps at second base, but even there the 20/20 upside plays. The other reason to jump in on Varsho would be the Flyball%, which has increased with his march up the organization ranks. This should make up for some of the other concerns limiting his power.

A 31.5 IFFB% at High-A showed the downside to the swing path after a 29.3% mark at Low-A in 2017. While this clearly shows there are some holes in the swing, and he still needs a few years to enter the draft equation, Varsho has impressed by demonstrating that the speed and power combo was not a fluke. Long term, he should have a 15/15 floor, but a slight swing change should unlock the potential in his bat. Varsho is the Yandy Diaz of catching prospects, with a floor to be an asset, but a swing change away from being an elite option. 

Keibert Ruiz (C, LAD)

This one might be cheating a bit, as many in the industry had Ruiz as one of the top prospects at catching coming into 2018. What they did not see was that he is perhaps the top catching prospect with a stock that is moving higher with every look at the film and production on paper. Ruiz is still only 19, and competing with the best at Double-A, so the concerns about a drop in the batting average to .268 need to be placed in the full context of his season. 12 homers in 101 games how the limit on the power numbers, but a 26:31 BB:K line demonstrates the approach at the plate. In the AFL this Fall, Ruiz only failed to get on base three times in 13 games, and only struck out once in 44 PAs. Of all the catchers on this list, Ruiz grades out the best behind the plate, with Fangraphs putting a 55 FV on the defense tool.

Ruiz is not a new name to the baseball community, but is closer than most think to a fantasy impact, and might even be a bit underrated outside the prospect community. The other selling point is the catching situation in Los Angeles, as, while Russel Martin seems to have a role due to the trade, mostly for his glove, further struggles from Austin Barnes are not out of the question. While there is little reason to project Ruiz as a starter even late in 2019, there are reasons to see him get a cup of coffee at the least. 

 

Stock Falling

Carson Kelly (C, ARI)

Coming in right under the rookie eligibility due to a few short stints with the Cardinals, Kelly is the prospect closest to regular playing time of all the names on the list. And yet, the move to Arizona is not one that should excite Kelly owners. Not only was the bat a question mark before the trade, but moving to a neutral hitters park only hurts that even more. Add to that a team in flux, moving towards a tear-down, and all the supporting pieces hurt Kelly’s outlook. Kelly’s longest stint at Triple-A was in 2018, where be played in 83 games, for this third stop at the level. In those games, Kelly slashed .269/.378/.395 with seven homers and 38 runs.

Kelly will play with the Diamondbacks, but the plate-per-plate production will not excite owners, even with the sorry state of the position. Fantasy owners should not buy into the glove leading to playing time narrative that is attached to Kelly at this point and expect this to be the next coming of Roberto Perez. The downside is that Kelly cannot match Perez's power upside, making this an empty batting average play, if he hits with Arizona.

Tyler Stephenson (C, CIN)

The 2015 11th-overall pick of the Cincinnati Reds, Stephenson has seen his prospect luster close to disappearing after a disappointing stop at High-A in 2018. In 109 games, he did flash some power, with 11 homers, but also saw the overall plate skills deteriorate. After a 16.9% K rate in 2017, Stephenson saw this rate jump to 21.8%. While not a massive increase in a vacuum, at 22, Stephenson is now old for his level and should be showing gains, not drops in production as he moves closer to the Reds. Add to that a two-point drop in his walk rate, and there is little reason to think still that the catcher is on a path to being fantasy worthy.

One primary reason for the slow progression could be the injuries, with a broken wrist and a concussion both costing him time. While this is no reason to doubt his long term prospects as a Big League catcher, even in a reserve role, the hit tool has not been consistent enough to warrant fantasy teams hanging on to the player. Avoid this player with some name value, and look to move him while there is still a shot at a decent return.

Francisco Mejia (C, SD)

While this writer is not out on Mejia, the ceiling of an elite hitter seems to be waning a bit. Before looking under the hood, the fact that Cleveland was willing to part with him shows they do not see him as the heir longterm. If so, that is an overpay for a closer, giving owners some insight there. Even more, the fact that he was linked to a move to Miami, while only rumor, shows that the Padres themselves might be a souring a bit once they got a close look. Even without the story, the defense is just not been proven good enough to keep him at catcher, or at least, to allow him to overtake a good glove, no bat option like Austin Hedges. Mejia also flashed both sides of his production after a move to San Diego with a .328/.364/.582 slash at Triple-A El Paso, but a 32.8% K rate during his time with the Padres.

The good news for Mejia is that even in the minors he was able to pair high batting averages with K rates, so the small sample should not scare off owners, but perhaps Mejia is not the elite player that most had pegged entering 2018. Mejia needs to get playing time this campaign for owners to see what they have, and for the time being, even in dynasty leagues, this writer will look to other names to build a long term option behind the dish.

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