Top 5 Prospects at Catcher (2020 Fantasy Baseball)
This piece kicks off a series of articles highlighting the top-five prospects at each position on the diamond. The series is geared toward re-draft formats and 2020 value specifically. With that in mind, proximity and current skills are the most important factors, but likely home park factors, as well as the path to immediate playing time, are weighed also. As a general rule of thumb, catchers frequently have trouble making immediate waves in fantasy leagues. That probably shouldn’t come as a surprise given the sheer volume of responsibilities they have with offense often taking a backseat to their work behind the dish. Having said that, the following catchers could be of use in 2020 to those playing in two-catcher formats or “only” (i.e. AL-only and NL-only) formats.
5. Joey Bart (SF)
Bart narrowly edged out Alex Jackson for this spot. The latter is behind a pair of catchers for the Braves, but he reached “The Show” last season for four games and 15 plate appearances. Jackson has impressive power, but his swing-and-miss issues could make him more of a liability than a helper for fantasy squads, so Bart gets the nod despite the fact his best-case scenario is reaching the bigs late in the season.
MLB Pipeline has an ETA of 2021 for Bart, but FanGraphs has a 2020 ETA on his player page. The 23-year-old catcher was the second pick in the 2018 MLB Amateur Draft and he reached the Double-A level in his second pro season. In 87 plate appearances at that level, he slashed .316/.368/.544 with four homers and a 163 wRC+, per FanGraphs. He put the finishing touches on a nifty 2019 by hitting .333/.524/.767 with four homers, nine walks, and just seven strikeouts in 42 plate appearances in the Arizona Fall League, according to Baseball-Reference.
Bart’s timeline makes him a long shot to help much (if at all) in roto leagues. However, if he ascends to the majors by the end of the year, he could help catcher-needy gamers in head-to-head leagues during the most important weeks of the season.
4. Keibert Ruiz (LAD)
Ruiz won’t turn 22 until late July and he has 700-plus plate appearances at the Double-A level under his belt while totaling 40 plate appearances in Triple-A in 2019, too. Ruiz’s bat-to-ball skills are silly with only a 7.2 K% in 765 plate appearances at Double-A and Triple-A combined. Even with his aversion to strikeouts, he’s hit just .265 in the upper minors and he slugged just six homers in 350 plate appearances last year.
The scouting grades on the 20-to-80 scale vary a bit between FanGraphs and MLB Pipeline. The former gives Ruiz a 55 present hit tool with a 70 future grade along with a 30 present and 40 future game power grade. The latter grades Ruiz’s hit tool at 55 and power at 50. The bar is low for being an offensive asset at catcher so Ruiz could conceivably chip in if presented the opportunity to play for the parent club.
Both Will Smith and Austin Barnes are ahead of Ruiz in the pecking order for playing time. Smith is coming off of an impressive rookie season and will begin this year at just 25 years of age, so Ruiz could make for an attractive trade chip for the Dodgers to shop in order to patch up other spots on the team. In the meantime, Ruiz will continue to hone his craft at the minor’s highest level.
3. Daulton Varsho (ARI)
Varsho spent the entire season at the Double-A level in 2019, and in 452 plate appearances, he hit .301/.378/.520 with a 9.3 BB% and 13.9 K%. Additionally, he showed off a fantasy-friendly power/speed combo with 18 homers and 21 stolen bases in 26 attempts. Stolen bases are at a premium in fantasy these days and getting them from a catcher would be an unexpected source of contribution to the category.
Varsho’s not simply picking on pitchers sleeping, either. FanGraphs gives him a present and future grade of 60 for speed and MLB Pipeline gives him a 55 grade for run (speed and run can be considered interchangeable, to be clear). FanGraphs and MLB Pipeline both indicate there are questions about Varsho’s ability to stick behind the plate and each suggests he has the traits to handle the outfield or possibly second base.
Versatility would actually be a plus for Varsho as playing a position other than catcher would allow him to avoid taking the punishment that accompanies donning the tools of ignorance while still having catcher eligibility in fantasy leagues. Furthermore, it could enhance his chances of getting into Arizona’s lineup. On the flip side of the coin, learning the outfield and/or second base could result in requiring more minor-league seasoning. The only thing that keeps Varsho from the top spot on this list is the uncertainty of when he’ll be up on the parent club.
2. Dom Nunez (COL)
Remember the considerations for inclusion on the list I rattled off in the intro? Nunez ranks this high as a result of his proximity to the majors, his home ballpark factors, and his potential for playing time right out of the chute. He didn’t crack Colorado’s top-31 prospects list at FanGraphs. He’s not a top-10 catching prospect at MLB Pipeline, and Baseball Prospectus didn’t rank him among the Rockies’ top-20 prospects. Back in May, Eric Longenhagen and Kiley McDaniel included him in their “Bench Types” section as part of the “Top 27 Prospects: Colorado Rockies” article.
He doesn’t have much prospect fanfare, but speaking of bench type, he concluded the 2019 season as the backup catcher for the Rockies and currently sits behind only Tony Wolters on the team’s depth chart. If he remains the team’s backup catcher entering the year, he’ll likely be the only catcher highlighted to this point who opens the year in the majors. Furthermore, if Wolters were to get dinged up, Nunez would be positioned for regular playing time. Even as merely a backup, he could have home-start streamer appeal thanks to the extremely hitter-friendly nature of Coors Field.
Those factors are the primary driving force behind Nunez’s rank though, he is coming off of a solid season in Triple-A. In 257 plate appearances, Nunez hit .244/.362/.559 with 17 homers and a 116 wRC+. Additionally, FanGraphs credits him with a 49.3 FB% at Triple-A last year and a 56.5 FB% in 43 plate appearances for the Rockies. Tyler Maun of MiLB.com mentioned a “retooled” approach that “gained some lift” for Nunez in their write-up of him as a Rockies organization all-star. He strikes out a bunch (26.8 K% at Triple-A and 39.5% in MLB last year), so he’s almost certainly going to post an ugly average. However, his fly-ball heavy approach will play well at Coors Field and he should be a streaming candidate in deeper two-catcher leagues when he spells Wolters at home right away if he wins the backup catcher gig in spring training.
1. Sean Murphy (OAK)
Murphy was an easy pick for the top spot. Getting right to brass tacks, he’s the projected starting catcher for the A’s this year. He’s the only catcher listed on their depth chart, though Austin Allen and Jonah Heim are also on their 40-man roster. Allen’s intriguing in his own right after raking in Triple-A, but the backstop prospect the A’s acquired from the Padres with a player to be named later for Jurickson Profar scuffled in his first crack at the bigs last season. He’s also not an asset as a defender, as Eric Longhenhagen stated, “Allen’s reps need to be limited the way Evan Gattis‘ were when he was seeing regular playing time, pairing him with pitchers who work in such a way that Allen’s problems are masked.”
Murphy, on the other hand, earned a 65 grade on his fielding and 70 grade on his arm from MLB Pipeline. He ranks as the 43rd-best prospect on their top-100 prospects list and he thrived under the bright lights last year. He played 20 games and amassed 60 plate appearances for the A’s in 2019, slugging four homers with a .245/.333/.566 slash and 135 wRC+. A knee injury limited him to only 31 games in Triple-A and another 10 rehabbing in rookie ball, but he made the most of his 140 plate appearances at the minor’s highest level hitting .308/.386/.625 with 10 homers.
Murphy’s defense should be enough to earn him the lion’s share of the playing time behind the dish, but he’s not merely a defense-only catcher. Beyond the stats, MLB Pipeline grades his hit tool as a 45 (just a pinch below average on the 20-to-80 scouting scale) and his power as a 50. The most recent scouting grades from 2019 on his player page at FanGraphs provides present grades of 40 for his hit tool and game power as well as 55 for his raw power, and their future grades are 55 for hitting, 50 for game power, and 55 for raw power.
After factoring all of his grades between MLB Pipeline and FanGraphs, Murphy has a chance to hover around an average hitter. Even being a tick below average would play at a position that collectively hit .236/.308/.405 last year, according to FanGraphs. Murphy’s worth drafting in AL-only leagues and 12-team mixers using two catchers. He could even potentially play himself into 12-team mixed-league single-catcher format relevance, but he doesn’t need to be drafted there.