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Newman’s Own: Best Catchers Of 2012

Seeing prospects in person is my passion. In 2012, I was fortunate enough to visit parks in five different leagues — collecting information and video on 200 legitimate prospects or more. The lists released over the next few weeks will highlight the best prospects I’ve seen in person at each position during the 2012 season. The rankings will be adjusted based on projected position at the major league level, not present position. Additionally, I’ll do my best to rank based on notes/video from the park and avoid adjusting for statistics after the fact. Keep this in mind when working through the lists and understand this is not meant to be a complete list of the best prospects at each position across all of Minor League Baseball, but the best of what I’ve seen.

In 2012, the ability to travel more afforded me the opportunity to see more legitimate catching prospects than ever before. And while I haven’t been able to list 10 prospects of note in previous years, finding complete young catchers is as difficult as ever.

1. Mike Zunino, Seattle Mariners

Admittedly, my only in person look was as a designated hitter in the Southern League playoffs. However, I came away so impressed with his bat speed and loft-generating swing that I’m comfortable assigning Zunino top billing based heavily on offensive potential. If Zunino is 85% the defensive catcher he’s reported to be, then it’s a slam dunk. Many doubted Zunino as the third best talent in the 2012 draft, but he has exceeded expectations to the point where he may push for the starting job in Seattle out of spring training.

2. Yasmani Grandal, San Diego Padres

While difficult to not place Grandal at the top of the list based on 2012 performance, my look at the Padres catcher was in spring training during an early rough patch. At a time when he was struggling, Grandal still presented as a balanced backstop with the ability to contribute both offensively and defensively. He’s probably not a 6 WAR/600 plate appearance player over a full season, but give him credit for being a major factor in the Padres turnaround.

3. Gary Sanchez, New York Yankees

At 19, Sanchez presented with catch-and-throw skills and power to spare. Concerns include a propensity to swing-and-miss, as well as a perceived lack of agility behind the dish which hurts his ability to block balls and shift laterally mid-pitch — A skill needed for framing. Sanchez is certainly a top-100 prospect and one of the better minor league catchers in the game, but his floor is too low to crack the top two.

4. Christian Bethancourt, Atlanta Braves

Badly rushed with the bat, I’m comfortable giving Braves catching prospect Christian Bethancourt an offensive mulligan through the 2013 season. Why? Bethancourt has bat speed to spare, above average contact skills and showed major signs of offensive development in 2011 before the quick promotion schedule began in earnest. On defense, his catch-and-throw skills are off the charts resulting in regular sub-1.9 pop times. Add to this his excellent athleticism and the potential is there for things to come together quickly in spite of his .566 OPS.

5. Jorge Alfaro, Texas Rangers

It’s impossible to not be enamored with Jorge Alfaro’s physical gifts, but projecting how they come together on a baseball field is awfully difficult. On defense, he presents as a catcher with little refinement and a demeanor bordering on lackadaisical. On offense, Alfaro has impressive raw power, but is a bit out of control combining unbridled swings with poor plate discipline. Few catchers can match Alfaro in terms of ceiling, but his floor is potentially non-existent.

6. Derek Norris, Oakland Athletics

While an extremely brief look in spring training qualifies the Athletics catcher for this list, Norris’ ranking comes more from perception than first person information. For years, prospect followers have been enamored with his combination of walks and home runs making the Norris and the Athletics a perfect match. However, one often overlooked aspect of prospecting is players who walk a great deal at the minor league level often have limited offensive ceilings as additional growth is hard to come by in areas like plate discipline.

7. Will Swanner, Colorado Rockies

Rockies catching prospect Will Swanner posted huge offensive numbers in spite of lofty strikeout totals in the South Atlantic League last season. His catching is a bit suspect at this point, but he has the frame and athleticism to become at least a fringe average catcher. In person, the arm needed work and his baseball movements were a bit loose both offensively and defensively, but the numbers already point to added polish this past season over 2011. One scout recently told me, “Swanner might not end up a catcher, but boy can he hit!” My thoughts exactly.

8. Gabriel Lino, Philadelphia Phillies

I traveled to Asheville for Dylan Bundy and came away enamored with his battery mate Gabriel Lino. Since then, Lino was dealt to Philadelphia for Jim Thome, so others must have liked him too. Another diamond in the rough, Lino combines power with a strong foundation of defensive skills. The hit tool lags significantly behind the rest of his all-around game leaving him with an extremely low floor as well.

9. Blake Swihart, Boston Red Sox

Billed as an offense-minded catcher, Swihart struggled to produce in the South Atlantic League. It’s a smooth swing and I didn’t see any glaring omissions from his defensive game, but I’m on the fence as to whether Swihart has fringe average or average tools across the board leaving the projection pretty murky. One thing’s for certain, Swihart will have to hit more to really establish himself as a force within the organization.

10. Andrew Susac, San Francisco Giants

Another brief look in spring training, Susac was lean and athletic behind the dish. One has to wonder how the grind of a full season would affect him at the Major League level. A 95 wRC+ at 22 in the California League is a bit scary considering my expectation that college hitters should dominate the league. Entering 2013, his prospect status is a bit fringy and it’s difficult to project an offensive rebound should he be promoted to the Eastern League.

11. Kellin Deglan, Texas Rangers

Deglan is a prospect I often try to will myself into liking. He’s athletic behind the dish, has power and catch-and-throw skills, but the sum of the parts is a messy mix of strikeouts and poor performance. Entering 2013, the former first round pick is likely off the prospect radar until further notice. The Rangers haven’t made many mistakes in recent years, but picking Jake Skole/Kellin Deglan in the first round of the same draft would be difficult for many organizations to overcome.

12. Gorman Erickson, Los Angeles Dodgers

Late in 2011, I received my first look at Gorman Erickson and wondered why the massive young catcher didn’t receive more playing time considering the lack of hitting prospects throughout the Dodgers organization. In Arizona, seeing him rope two hits off of Rangers pitching prospects left me thinking 2012 would be a successful year for the 24-year old switch hitter. After stumbling out of the gate, Erickson never really recovered posting a .673 OPS with below average defense behind the plate. The only silver lining is he handled lefties well (.303/.394/.449), so the potential is still there for him to become a platoon partner at the big league level.