Welcome back to Future Rookies everyone. For those new to the column, and for a reminder to previous readers, in order for a player to qualify for this list, they must meet Baseball America’s definition of a prospect. For batters, that means having received less than 130 at-bats. For pitchers, that means having pitched fewer than 50 innings, or received fewer than 30 relief appearances. The first position to delve into is catcher. A position historically lacking in impact bats is now featuring a bevy of young offensively talented players in the majors. They aren’t alone though, there are a number of exciting backstops navigating their way through the minors.
Jesus Montero, Seattle Mariners, 22 years old
Montero was on the move this offseason, getting sent to the Seattle Mariners from the New York Yankees in a package that included Hector Noesi for Michael Pineda and Jose Campos. As a right-handed slugger, swapping Yankee Stadium for Safeco Field is unfortunate for Montero, though, not by any means crippling to his value. Never lauded for his defense, the Mariners say they envision him at catcher. Whether that ends up coming to fruition long term remains to be seen, but in the interim it is great news for his fantasy value. Montero is the rare hitting prospect that projects to hit for plus power and plus average. He doesn’t sell out for power, and kept his strikeout rate at a completely acceptable 21.2 percent rate in Triple-A and 24.6 percent rate in the majors. His walk rates haven’t been deplorable in the minors, but could stand for a tiny bit of improvement. He has the type of swing that lends itself well to annually flirting with a .300 average.
The total package is tantalizing, and with nothing left to prove in the minors, he will almost certainly break camp with his new club. His first appearance in the majors came as a designated hitter, and he only played in three games at catcher, so it is likely he’ll begin with just utility eligibility in most fantasy leagues.
Ryan Lavarnway, Boston Red Sox, 24 years old
Like Montero, questions about Lavarnway revolve around the glove, not the bat. He is a much improved catching prospect, but one who has a defensive ceiling of average. He could prove to be the long term replacement for David Ortiz at designated hitter, something that would hurt his fantasy value. However, the Red Sox remain optimistic he’ll stick behind the plate. He offers a ton of power, and is very patient drawing walks at a high rate. His strikeout rate could cap his batting average ceiling slightly, but don’t expect him to be the classic all or nothing catcher of yesteryear that would be a complete drag on average.
The Red Sox have both Jarrod Saltalamacchia and Kelly Shoppach in the fold at catcher, so Lavarnway may open in Triple-A. It’s also possible Shoppach fumbles the backup catcher gig and Lavarnway breaks camp as the reserve. Regardless, the bat is ready, and once the organization decides he is defensively ready, he’ll be on the active roster. I expect he’ll start in the minors to further hone his defensive chops, but force a promotion and time share at the catcher position over the summer. Probably a better option in 2013 than 2012, it is possible he plays himself into fantasy relevance this year. Once again, like Montero, he saw his first major league time at designated hitter and is likely to only have utility eligibility initially in most leagues.
Devin Mesoraco, Cincinnati Reds, 23 years old
Mesoraco followed up a breakout 2010 season with an excellent showing in Triple-A. That performance earned him a September call-up, and cemented his status as the Reds catcher of the future. The future will begin this year, as he’ll share time with Ryan Hanigan behind the dish. Hanigan is an excellent defensive catcher with enough offensive aptitude to present a road block for Mesoraco. Factoring in that Dusty Baker loves veterans, and the Reds playing time split at the position could be very similar to that in 2010, which was almost a 50/50 split between Hanigan and Ramon Hernandez.
Mesoraco is a patient power hitter that doesn’t strike out often (16.6 percent strikeout rate in Triple-A in 2011). Because he keeps the strike outs in check, there is potential for him to hit for a fantasy helpful batting average as he adjusts to the major league level. His power should play up in the Great American Band Box. He has all the goods necessary to rank amongst the best at his position, and little threat of being asked to turn in his tools of ignorance for a first baseman’s glove. He’s a worthwhile gamble in deep mixed leagues, two catcher leagues, and NL-only formats this year in the event he’s able to wrestle away the lion’s share of playing time away from Hanigan.
Travis d’Arnaud, Toronto Blue Jays, 22 years old
The Blue Jays had to be delighted with the season d’Arnaud turned in. One of the pieces the organization received in return for Roy Halladay, d’Arnaud put together easily his best season of his professional career. Not a finished defensive product, he did make great enough strides to be voted by managers in the Eastern League as the best defensive catcher. A much better defender, and all around talent, than incumbent catcher J.P. Arencibia is, he is the future at the position for the Blue Jays.
D’Arnaud’s swing is one that generates power and is conducive to plus batting averages. He doesn’t walk much, but if he’s able to improve that aspect of his game, he could be a middle of the order bat at a scarce position. He should start the year in Triple-A with Las Vegas. Playing in the offensive friendly Pacific Coast League could lead to eye-popping stats. A late summer, or September call-up seems about right. Not a player worth drafting in standard re-draft leagues, but one worth putting on watch lists in case he forces his way to the bigs sooner than anticipated à la Eric Hosmer in 2011.
Wilin Rosario, Colorado Rockies, 22 years old
Rosario saw his 2010 season cut short by a gruesome knee injury that required surgery. More encouraging than his stats is that he stayed healthy for the entirety of the 2011 season. He was much the same player as before the injury. Rosario is a strong armed catcher with power and a hyper-aggressive approach at the plate. He’s never met a pitch he didn’t want to barrel up, and his 21 walks in 483 plate appearances in 2011 supports that. He showed more patience before the injury, so it’s likely he’ll improve his awful walk rate at least slightly.
His fantasy value is tied to his power. He projects to hit 20 plus home runs annually, and will be aided by calling Coors Field home. Even though he reached the majors last year he could stand for more minor league seasoning. This doesn’t appear lost on the Rockies’ brass as they brought in Ramon Hernandez to serve as the starting catcher this year. Rosario should join him over the summer and get his fair share of playing time.
Yasmani Grandal, San Diego Padres, 23 years old
Previously blocked by Mesoraco, Grandal was sent packing to San Diego as part of a large prospect package for Mat Latos. Where Mesoraco projects to hit for more power, something that is a near certainty with Grandal playing in PETCO Park now, Grandal bests him in batting average projection. He played at three levels last year, starting in High-A, and raking his way to Triple-A. He’s a switch hitter, with good patience, and an above average offensive ceiling. If he’s able to overcome PETCO and hit mid-teens home run totals, he’ll be a valuable catcher that’s a cut below the upper echelon of the position.
Derek Norris, Oakland A’s, 22 years old
Yet another catching prospect that changed addresses during the offseason. Norris goes from being a member of the Nationals organization to one that is a member of the rebuilding Athletics. A three-true-outcomes type, Norris hit a home run, walked, or struck out in over half of his plate appearances in 2011. It’s awfully difficult to make an impact as a .210 hitter, but Norris did just that. His power isn’t in question, but his ability to make contact is. One major problem with such questionable contact skills is what it could mean for his walk rate as he moves up the ladder. More advanced pitching is liable to walk him less, and strike him out more if he doesn’t make the necessary adjustments. If he’s able to go from a well below average hitter with plus power and patience, to a slightly below average hitter with the same positive attributes, he’ll be a valuable fantasy catcher. If not, he’ll be a fantasy afterthought. He’s worth a gamble in dynasty leagues, and has a 2013 ETA.
Gary Sanchez, New York Yankees, 19 years old
Sanchez is a few levels behind fellow Yankees catching prospect Austin Romine, who spent most of the year in Double-A and even received 20 plate appearances in the majors, but he has a much higher ceiling. Sanchez’s tools are loud, and he has superstar potential. A $3 million Dominican bonus baby, Sanchez more than held his own as an 18 year old in the Sally League. He has patience and power that belie his age, and his batting average is a poor indicator of his future projection there. Makeup questions have dogged him in the past, but haven’t been great enough to take any shine off his prospect star. There isn’t a prospect on this list that has a higher offensive ceiling, and that includes Montero. It takes dreaming on Sanchez though, and more than anything, patience. A dynasty league darling, there are few players I’d rank ahead of Sanchez. In fact, there were few players I ranked ahead of him when compiling a top-100 list at The Hardball Times late last year.
Tommy Joseph, San Francisco Giants, 20 years old
A 2009 second round draft pick, Joseph is developing just fine spending all of 2010 at the Low-A level, and all of 2011 at the High-A level. Double-A will be his next challenge. He was drafted as a prep catcher with an impressive powerful swing that generated ample backspin on baseballs. Joseph was also considered a project as a defender having split time at first base and catcher in his high school career, before becoming a full-time catcher his senior year. He has come a long way as a defender, and looks like he can stick there.
As well as making defensive strides, Joseph made gigantic improvements in his strikeout rate cutting it down from 24.5 percent in Low-A to 18.2 percent in High-A. Such a dramatic improvement lends hope to him hitting for a respectable average in his major league future. Joseph was at his best after the All-Star break hitting .301/.346/.574 with 16 home runs in 256 at-bats. With Buster Posey on the major league roster, no grey beard himself, his future defensive home is most likely to hinge on how the Giants choose to handle Posey. Posey has voiced his desire to stick behind the plate, but could possibly be swayed to move out from behind the plate in a few years. It’s also possible Joseph could find himself battling fellow prospect, and 2011 second round draft pick Andrew Susac for catching duties. Those interested in reading more about Susac are encouraged to check out my Giants 5×5 2012 Prospect Rankings article at Fantasy Baseball 365. If Joseph continues on the level-a-year development path, his ETA for a major league debut is 2014. A big year in Double-A with Richmond could speed that up slightly. Remember Joseph’s name in dynasty leagues, as he may be available depending on the depth of your league’s farm system and rosters.
Jorge Alfaro, Texas Rangers, 18 years old
A prospect dubbed “The Legend” by Baseball Prospectus prospect guru Jason Parks, Alfaro is a raw catching prospect with boom or bust capabilities. The first thing that jumps off the page to me is his disgusting 4:54 walk-to-strikeout rate. Including his 2010 totals brings the ratio to 9:102, yuck. Projection, projection, projection is the name of the game with Alfaro. His raw power grades as plus-plus (think 70 or better on the 20-to-80 scale). That should be enough reason to pique interest in fantasy circles. He has already showed some of that off in game hitting six home runs in just 160 plate appearances and sporting a .181 ISO in Short-Season ball as an 18 year old. Even with an aggressive approach and lots of strikeouts, he was able to hit .300. His defense is raw, but he has the tools necessary to be a defensive wizard. Heart of the order catching prospects don’t grow on trees. Unlike most of the others on the list, Alfaro is years away from being ready. That doesn’t mean he shouldn’t be on dynasty league radars.
Christian Bethancourt, Atlanta Braves, 20 years old
Bethancourt is a top catching prospect more as a result of his defensive skills than his offensive prowess. Because he’ll be on many top prospect lists, I thought it prudent to address him here, even if his fantasy outlook isn’t nearly as rosy as his real life outlook. Some scouts believe his power will move from the batting practice variety to the in game variety. If that’s the case, he’ll have a chance for fantasy relevance. Others aren’t as optimistic. He’s an impatient hitter with questions about his bat.
The Braves were somewhat aggressive with him, sending him to the Arizona Fall League. He played surprisingly well against advanced competition, slashing .306/.324/.556 with five home runs in 74 plate appearances. As the small gap in batting average and on-base percentage suggests, he continued to take an aggressive approach. What shouldn’t be overlooked is his five home runs in so few plate appearances. Those five home runs match his 2011 total in 410 plate appearances split between Single-A and High-A. His next hurdle will be facing high minors pitching in Double-A. At such a young age, it wouldn’t be the end of the world if he struggled there this year, and needed to repeat the level early in 2013. Even still, there is no need to own him in dynasty leagues until he either shows off a greater offensive aptitude in games, or wins over some of his scouting detractors.
Sebastian Valle, Philadelphia Phillies, 21 years old
Valle has questions about his offense, but the impression I get from reading his scouting reports is that they aren’t as great as those of Bethancourt. He uses a high leg kick, and plus bat speed to generate above average raw power. That power was on greater display in Low-A in 2010, where he hit 16 home runs in 447 at-bats, than in High-A in 2011. Like so many catching prospects highlighted in this article, he’s impatient. His batting average has oscillated from good, .284 in High-A last year, to bad, .253 in Low-A in 2010, dating back to his professional debut in 2008. His overall hitting line in 1487 minor league at-bats is .272/.325/.418. He’s yet another low minors catcher that warrants watching, but not owning even in dynasty leagues just yet.
Josh is a graduate of SUNY Cortland's Sport Management program, and an aspiring fantasy writer. You can catch up with Josh in the Cafe Forums where he posts as B-Chad. You can also follow his work at The Hardball Times and follow him on Twitter (BChad50).
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