Top 5 Fantasy Baseball Prospects: Catcher (2021)
The pandemic erased the 2020 minor-league season. The result is a strange year for evaluating prospects, with some top youngsters spending a significant portion of the year at their respective team’s alternate training site and others training on their own. One notable omission from the top catching prospects touted below is Adley Rutschman. He’s the unquestioned top catching prospect and a top-five prospect regardless of position, but he faces an uphill battle to reach The Show this year, as Nathan Ruiz of the Baltimore Sun discussed here.
The catching prospects included tallied at-bats in the Majors last year. Keeping expectations in check, none of the catching prospects crack my top-12 fantasy backstops. However, two of the catchers ranked within my top-20 catcher rankings, and a third appears in the top 25.
5. Joey Bart (SF)
With just 87 plate appearances at the Double-A level and zero plate appearances at the Triple-A level under his belt entering 2020, Bart leaped to the Bigs and struggled to the tune of a .233/.288/.320 slash with zero homers and a 36.9 K% in 111 plate appearances. Despite the rough showing, he remains one of the game’s best catching prospects, and he’ll have an opportunity to receive more minor-league seasoning to open this season,
Bart’s not worth drafting even in two-catcher re-draft leagues. If he rakes at the Triple-A level and forces his way onto the Giants, he could be worth scooping up during the year.
4. Sam Huff (TEX)
While Bart received some upper-minor league experience, Huff made the same jump with no experience above High-A. No problem for the slugging backstop. He didn’t waste any time showcasing his elite thump, ripping three homers in 33 plate appearances.
The homers are one thing, but they don’t tell the whole story. The youngster’s limited batted-ball data was silly. He put 20 balls in play and posted the fourth-highest average flyball/line-drive exit velocity at 100.8 mph, according to Baseball Savant. His thump matched his MLB Pipeline accolades from before last year.
Huff’s power comes with swing-and-miss concerns as evidenced by his 33.3 K% in his limited big-league time, and, more alarmingly, his 29.7 K% in Single-A and High-A combined in 2019, according to FanGraphs. Huff’s strikeouts create a significant batting average risk, but his power offsets those concerns and helps him clear the low bar for fantasy relevance for catchers. He’s likely to receive more minor-league reps, but Evan Grant and Sam Blum of The Dallas Morning News indicate he’s “very likely to be in the majors for good before the end of the year.” As is the case with Bart, Huff’s not worth drafting — barring a surprising spring resulting in him claiming a spot on the active roster — in re-draft leagues.
3. Tyler Stephenson (CIN)
Stephenson is the first featured catcher who appears likely to break camp with his team. Although, incumbent starter and reigning Gold Glove Award winner Tucker Barnhart should probably be penciled in on the larger side of a timeshare. Manager David Bell referred to the catching situation with Barnhart and Stephenson as being “nice to have,” and,
even on the small side of a timeshare, Stephenson’s bat could carry him to two-catcher league relevance. He popped a couple of dingers with a .294/.400/.647 slash, 10.0 BB%, and 45.0 K% in 20 plate appearances for the Reds. The homers are eye-catching, and the strikeout rate is alarming, but don’t put too much stock in his small sample for the Reds. While his raw power has a present grade of 65 on the 20-to-80 scale and his future grade matches, his game power marks are just 40 and 45, respectively, according to FanGraphs. Eric Longenhagen’s scouting report notes Stephenson “has a contact-oriented approach in games.” Stephenson hit six homers with a .125 ISO, but he walked at a 10.2% clip with a 16.5 K% in 363 plate appearances in Double-A in 2019. His excellent approach helped him post a .285/.372/.410 slash.
Stephenson’s raw power and his homer-friendly home digs open the door to him tapping into more game power than he’s shown in the minors. Even if he fails to translate his batting-practice power to games, his high-contact approach should yield batting-average help to fantasy rosters. He’s in the mix as a late-round option in two-catcher re-draft formats.
2. Ryan Jeffers (MIN)
Mitch Garver was an above-average offensive player in 2018 with a 103 wRC+, and then his bat exploded to the tune of a 155 wRC+ with 31 homers in 359 plate appearances in 2019. Last year, injuries contributed to him amassing only 81 plate appearances. He was a disaster at the dish nonetheless with a 45.7 K% and 41 wRC+. It’s unwise to dismiss his excellent 2019 season, but his struggles last year are of note, too.
Additionally, Jeffers showed well in 62 plate appearances for the Twins with a 119 wRC+. The Twins selected Jeffers in the second round of the 2018 MLB Amateur Draft, and he quickly climbed the minor-league ladder reaching Double-A in 2019. After starting both of Minnesota’s postseason games last year, he’s ready to don the tools of ignorance along with Garver for the Twins this year. At this moment, I’m treating it as a near 50/50 split.
If Garver’s bat bounces back, he could soak up some vacated designated hitter at-bats with Nelson Cruz no longer on the team. Garver checks in as my 11th ranked catcher, Jeffers ranks 18th. Jeffers profiles as a catcher who can chip in some homers and either modestly help batting average or not be a total detriment to the category relative to his catching peers.
1. Alejandro Kirk (TOR)
I was driving the bandwagon for Danny Jansen last year, but he failed to live up to my expectations with an 89 wRC+, six homers, .175 ISO, and brutal .183 batting average in 147 plate appearances. This year, he’s in danger of being overtaken as Toronto’s top catcher by Kirk, which Jeff Zimmerman discussed earlier this month in his Mining the News column.
Jansen and Kirk are two ships passing in the night. Kirk represents the ship you should be on. He went from High-A in 2019 to MLB last year, hitting .375/.400/.583 with one homer, a 16.0 K%, and 169 wRC+ in 25 plate appearances. He also added a single in one of his three plate appearances in the postseason.
Kirk has top-shelf control of the strike zone and avoiding punchouts. He hit seven homers with a .290/.403/.465 slash, 15.1 BB%, and 10.5 K% in 372 plate appearances between Single-A and High-A in 2019. His scouting report at MLB Pipeline before last year graded his hit tool as a 60 and power as a 45, stating “he’s expected to be more of a hit-over-power guy as he moves through the Minors, with an incredible eye and good plate discipline.” I have him ranked 16th at catcher, putting him on the fringe of single-catcher viability in 12-team mixers and making him a rock-solid option in two-catcher formats.
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