2018 Catching Prospects (Fantasy Baseball)
The offensive bar for having fantasy value at catcher is low. It’s especially low in two-catcher formats. Having said that, even the low bar is often tough to exceed for prospect catchers. Catcher is a unique position with more responsibilities than other spots on the diamond, and the priority of hitting frequently falls behind receiving, game calling, controlling the running game, blocking balls in the dirt, and pitch framing in real-life baseball. On a related note, catchers with elite defensive skills can — and often do — crack industry top prospect lists even if their bats leave a lot to be desired. Having gotten the disclaimers out of the way, let’s move on to some catching prospects who could have value in 2018 fantasy baseball re-draft leagues.
Jorge Alfaro (PHI)
If it feels like Alfaro’s name has been on top prospect lists for a long time, it has been. The earliest notable industry top prospect list he appeared on was the Baseball Prospectus 101 prior to 2012, per Baseball-Reference. He appeared on MLB’s list the following year, and he cracked Baseball America’s top 100 prior to 2014. He’s remained on each of those prospect lists every year since, with the exception of Baseball America’s pre-2016 list.
Sometimes it takes awhile for things to click for a prospect, and it’s even less unusual for that to be the case for a catcher (again, refer to the lengthy list of responsibilities they have that I noted in the intro). Don’t become a victim of prospect fatigue. In the fickle world of fantasy baseball, gamers often move on to the next shiny new toy quickly. Remember, though, prospects turning into studs quickly like Mike Trout, Bryce Harper, and Mookie Betts did, for instance, is still the exception, and not the rule.
Alfaro’s a better athlete than most catchers, and he’s capable of chipping in stolen bases. He also has big raw power that hasn’t fully translated to game power. It might not ever make the leap from gaudy batting-practice power to jaw-dropping in-game power, but it’s worth noting he possesses that type of thump in case the light does go on. Furthermore, he did smack five homers in 114 plate appearances in The Show last year while adding seven in 350 plate appearances a the Triple-A level.
To call Alfaro a free-swinger doesn’t do his swing-at-everything approach justice. Among hitters who received a minimum of 100 plate appearances last year, Alfaro tallied the second highest outside the zone (O-Swing%) percentage and highest swing% overall, according to FanGraphs. His propensity to swinging at seemingly everything helped fuel the highest swinging strike percentage (SwStr%) among players with a minimum of 100 plate appearances.
The youngster’s impatience threatens to hurt his batting average, and he hit only .241 at the Triple-A level last year. The .318 average he posted in the Bigs was largely fueled by a .420 BABIP. A BABIP north of .400 is unsustainable, but be careful about too harshly regressing it. Alfaro sported a .347 BABIP at the Double-A level in 2015, duplicated it at the same level in 2016, and had a .345 BABIP at the Triple-A level last year. Running a high BABIP looks like part of the package with Alfaro. Still, there’s plenty of batting average risk with him, and a sub-.250 average looks far more likely than one north of .250. If he turns some of his raw power into game power and swipes a few bags, though, that’s a total package that could play even in 12-team, single-catcher leagues. Alfaro is out of minor-league options, so he can be expected to stick on the Phillies as at least their backup catcher, but winning the starting job in the spring is within the realm of possibility.
Chance Sisco (BAL)
Sisco’s cup of joe last season was a size small, as he totaled only 22 plate appearances with the Orioles. He made those plate appearances count, though, smacking a pair of homers and showcasing plate discipline that belies his youth. The 22-year-old catcher walked in 13.6% of his plate appearances. His walk rate at the Triple-A level last year was a solid 8.2%, but he’d shown even more patience in previous years running double-digit percentage walk rates at High-A and Double-A in 2015, and at Double-A and Triple-A in 2016. Sisco’s willingness to work walks enhances his value in OBP leagues.
Sisco’s power ceiling falls well short of Alfaro’s, but MLBpipeline.com pegs it as a pinch below average as a 45 on the 20-to-80 scale. They also award him a 60 grade on his hit tool, though, and he hit .320 in 479 plate appearances at the Double-A level in 2016. His strikeout rate has been north of 25% in Triple-A and the Majors, but it was under 18% in Double-A, High-A, and Single-A. I’d caution against projecting him as a batting average asset right out of the gate, but he has batting average potential and shouldn’t be a major liability. The Orioles might opt to start him in the minors this year in order to manipulate his service time, but he could push Caleb Joseph down the depth chart early in the year. Sisco doesn’t need to be drafted in single-catcher, re-draft leagues. He’s a viable stash or priority waiver claim after his call-up (again, assuming the Orioles send him down for service time purposes) in two-catcher formats and has top-20 catcher upside this year.
Francisco Mejia (CLE)
Mejia’s bat is easily the most interesting of the prospect catchers featured. He also has the stiffest competition for playing time on a team that’s a World Series contender. In fact, Mejia’s bat is so intriguing the Indians had him play the hot corner in the Arizona Fall League in an attempt to make him more versatile. It doesn’t appear it was a seamless transition, but his ability to play third base even semi competently is worth keeping tabs on in the spring.
Getting back to his bat, he slashed .297/.346/.488 in 383 plate appearances at the Double-A level last year before playing in 11 games and totaling 14 plate appearances for the Indians in which he hit just .154/.214/.154. In 2016, Mejia hit .342/.382/.514 in 443 plate appearances between Single-A and High-A. The switch-hitting backstop also ripped off a 50-game hitting streak in 2016. His hit tool is elite, and while he doesn’t work a ton of walks (6.3% BB% at Double-A last year), he does a great job of making contact (13.8% K% at Double-A last year).
In addition to hitting for average, he also hit for power with 14 homers, and he even swiped seven stolen bases in nine stolen-base attempts in 92 games (383 plate appearances) at the Double-A level last season. The biggest knock on Mejia is that the Indians don’t need to rush him. Yan Gomes tallied 1.8 fWAR last year, and Roberto Perez was worth 0.5 fWAR. StatCorner ranked Gomes in the middle of the pack in per-game pitch framing among catchers who caught at least 1,000 pitches, and Perez was one of the best in the business ranking sixth in per-game pitch framing value. Depending on bench size, Mejia’s upside is worth stashing in two-catcher leagues. He’s also the type of player worth using top waiver priority to scoop up when he’s summoned to the parent club. Mejia is a good candidate to open the year in the minors catching every day and continuing his development — he did skip Triple-A, and as I noted, the Indians don’t need to rush him. If you’re bullish on Mejia’s odds of receiving more than 400 plate appearances, act accordingly, as he has top-10 catcher upside with that type of workload. I prefer taking a more cautious approach with the expectation of around half a season’s worth of plate appearances (i.e. around 300).