Two weeks ago in this space, I discussed five sleeper first base prospects. Like first base, catcher is a tough position to find quality fantasy prospects at, but for a different reason–few catchers project to hit well enough to be impact fantasy players. Beyond that, there is of course the issue of defense–while we’re not concerned about catcher defense in fantasy baseball, major league managers certainly are, and they’re the ones who decide if a player sees the field and gets the opportunity to accumulate statistics–just ask anyone who’s waited on the Ryan Lavarnways and Hank Congers of the world to finally get uninterrupted stretches of MLB time.
The slam-dunk names at the top of the catcher prospect board right now are the Mets’ Travis d’Arnaud, the Padres’ Austin Hedges, and the Yankees’ Gary Sanchez. If you’re looking for a catching prospect and you have your pick of the field, that’s where to look first. But for those in deeper dynasty leagues, there are several others to look into at the position. Today, I’ll discuss five options.
Josmil Pinto, AA, Twins–The knock on Pinto has always been his defense behind the plate, and the consensus is still down on him defensively, though he’s got a career 33% caught-stealing rate, including a solid 29% this year in Double-A. He has just six passed balls in 112 games caught over the last two seasons, and he’s improved enough that most think he can at least spot at the position in the majors. The Twins have a pretty good catcher already, so Pinto likely wouldn’t be asked to carry a full-time MLB catching load barring a trade, anyway.
Pinto might just hit enough to work out as a DH who catches once or twice a week. He’s hitting .318/.426/.506 this year despite playing his home games in a very pitcher-friendly park; he’s at .321/.432/.522 on the road. He’s slugged 13 home runs while controlling the zone, with a very solid 16.5% strikeout rate and an excellent 15.2% walk rate. He’s never struck out over 20% of the time at any stop, and his combination of power and contact make him a very intriguing fantasy prospect at the catcher position if he can find regular playing time that includes at least occasional catching.
Given that he’s blocked by Joe Mauer, Pinto could find himself traded at some point, though a building Minnesota club isn’t exactly at a phase where they’re jettisoning young talent, so it’s anyone’s guess what uniform he’s wearing and what position he’s playing when his MLB debut comes. At 24, he doesn’t seem to need much more development as a hitter, though, and he could be above-average in all three triple-slash stats, especially for a catcher. Let’s just hope he stays a catcher.
Jake Lowery, AA, Indians–Lowery, like myself, is an alum of James Madison University, which is kind of cool, though it has nothing to do with why he’s on this list. No, the reason for his inclusion is that he’s hitting .286/.358/.481 in Double-A–not quite Pinto-level production, but Lowery is a year and a half younger. Lowery also plays in a pitcher’s park and is hitting very well on the road (.321/.418/.571, albeit in 18 games).
Lowery’s a lefthanded hitter, which is always nice for a catcher. He has good leverage in his swing that already produces doubles (15 in 45 games) and could produce 15+ homers down the line. He’s still figuring out how to make consistent contact (27.2% K%), but will take a walk (10.4% BB%). He likely won’t hit for high averages, but triple-slash lines in the .255/.325/.425 range may well be attainable.
Lowery comes with the benefit of having at least tentatively passed the upper-minors test, and he’s done so at a younger age than most catchers. Defensively, he’s a work in progress in terms of receiving (six passed balls in 42 games), but he boasts a good arm (33% CS; 31% career). He should be able to catch in the majors, though he may never be more than an average overall defender at the position. Of course, Carlos Santana blocks him, though the Indians have not been shy about playing Santana at first base in the past (he has never caught over 100 games in a season), so Lowery may still be able to cobble together a significant amount of playing time even if he and Santana are on the same roster.
Kevin Plawecki, High-A, Mets–Meet the best catching prospect that nobody’s talking about. You’d think he’d come up in prospect discussions more–Plawecki was picked 35th overall last year out of Purdue and has raked at a .322/.397/.485 clip between Low-A (.314/.390/.494) and High-A (.346/.418/.457) this year, but he remains largely unnoticed by non-Mets fans and hardcore prospect aficionados.
Plawecki has the distinction of being the one player on this list who projects as a legitimate above-average defensive catcher in the big leagues. He sets himself apart from most A-ball catchers with very soft hands and good receiving skills. He’s also gunned down 32% of basestealers this season. Defense will not impede his ascent to the majors–if he hits, he’ll find a catching gig. Sure, d’Arnaud is ahead of him in his current system, but two-way catchers don’t just rot on the vine.
And Plawecki is a legitimate two-way catcher, pairing that defensive ability with all-around offensive skills. He’s a big guy who ropes doubles–he has 30 (!) in 88 games–all over the park, and he has the size to be a potential 15-HR guy (he has seven this year). Plawecki makes an impressive amount of contact (11.4% K%), and could be a high-average hitter; he’ll also draw a decent number of walks.
You don’t need me to tell you that a high-contact player who hits a lot of doubles and a fair amount of homers at the catcher position is quite valuable. Plawecki has a lot of skills in place to make that happen already, and he’s just 22. He could be a fast riser on prospect lists over the next couple of months as people take stock and begin to appreciate his accomplishments and skillset.
Mike Ohlman, High-A, Orioles–With Ohlman, we return to the ranks of questionable defenders with big offensive numbers. Ohlman is a hulking 6’4″ catcher with projection left, and he’s hitting .317/.414/.569. Frederick’s home park is very friendly, but he’s still at .284/.373/.471 on the road; he also hit .304/.411/.456 in Low-A last year, so this isn’t the first time his bat has made noise.
As for his defense, it says something that Ohlman’s only caught 26 games this year (DH’ing 34) in favor of 26-year-old former indy leaguer Zane Chavez and organizational rover Allan De San Miguel. He has some arm strength, but like a lot of big catchers, he has a long way to go mechanically with his receiving, blocking, and throwing. He may be athletic enough to stand around at third or the outfield, not just first base, if he’s moved, but his prospect stock would take a major hit at any other position.
Ohlman could be a 20-HR catcher who isn’t a liability in other areas, or he could be a first baseman who never solves the upper minors. He’s not quite on the same level of prospectdom as Lowery or Pinto, let alone Plawecki, but he’s also a catcher slugging .569 as a 22-year-old in High-A–you can’t just flat-out ignore anyone with that on his resume. If he keeps hitting when he reaches Double-A, which could be soon (certainly no later than Opening Day next year), Ohlman could start to appear on Top 100 lists. He’s the sort of statistical producer who might end up surprising everybody who dwelled on his weaknesses.
Tom Murphy, Low-A, Rockies–Murphy plays in another silly park, perhaps the silliest park in minor league baseball. Asheville’s stadium features a Green Monster-style wall in right field with a 297-foot short porch, and includes the profoundly absurd dimensions of 320′ to right-center and 372′ to dead center. Murphy is a righthanded hitter, and the park is slightly less ridiculous for northpaws, but there’s no doubt his .314/.409/.644 line is largely a park creation. Still, his end destination is Coors Field, which isn’t a whole lot less crazy, and Murphy isn’t all Asheville, with a .261/.379/.548 road line.
A third-round pick out of Buffalo last year, Murphy is a compact catcher with surprising athleticism. He has the power to hit 15+ homers in less bizarre environments, and he throws in some doubles and walks. In Coors Field, of course, that could be magnified to 20+ homers and 30+ doubles. He is 22 and a bit old for the Low-A level, and he’s behind on his receiving acumen, allowing 17 passed balls in just 57 games caught. He has thrown out 32% of basestealers, and his athleticism gives him a shot to become a workable receiver down the line, but he’ll need a few years of development defensively and may not be ready until late 2016 or 2017. He does strike out a fair amount (25.2%) and will need to avoid backsliding in that department as he advances, though the cozy parks of the Colorado system (including Coors itself) may help mask strikeout woes with BABIP inflation and friendly fences.
Like Ohlman, Murphy is somebody who needs to cut down the defensive mistakes and prove himself one level higher before he becomes a safer buy, but he’s someone to closely monitor. A catcher with legitimate offensive skill tied to Colorado’s park can be a huge asset, as we’ve seen with Wilin Rosario. If Murphy improves defensively and Rosario doesn’t, and the former keeps hitting, he may ultimately seize the Rockies’ backstop job a few years down the line.