Fri. Feb 21st, 2020

Prospects Blooming: Catchers

Now that Spring Training is right around the corner, there will be tons of speculation around what position battles there will be. There is also going to be plenty of prospects hungry for exposure and playing time at the Major League level. So, I will breakdown 10 prospects at each position to keep your eye on through Major League camp and Spring Training.

(Side note: This is not a ranking just 10 players, fans need to watch during Spring Training)

First, let’s start with catchers:

Sean Murphy (Athletics):

This 24-year-old catcher was drafted in the third round in 2016. He’s already made his debut and should be a sure lock to start for the Athletics in 2020. However, with the trade earlier in the offseason to acquire catching-prospect Austin Allen, plus, the Athletics looking for catching depth, it’s not all set in stone. Murphy hit .308/.386/.625, with 10 home runs and a 1.011 OPS in the hitter-friendly Las Vegas Ballpark at the Triple-A level before getting called up.

In 20 games with Oakland, Murphy hit .245/.333/.566 with four home runs and a .899 OPS. Murphy got as high as the #3 prospect in the A’s top-30 prospect list and #43 overall in the top-100 prospects of 2019. He has a closed stance and has a quick and compact swing; great for developing a constant line drive approach. Yet, he doesn’t have much power but still has 10-15 home runs-power. His defense is one of the main reasons he has gotten to the MLB so quickly, as that tool sticks out more than his others.

He’s not a flashy player by all means, but he’s a young catcher with good tools on both sides of the ball. This is why you need to keep your eyes out for his development. With multiple players coming for his spot, and Billy Beane trying to acquire a veteran catcher, this will be one of the more interesting developments this spring. If I could give a comparison of his tools, he’s a more athletic and faster Benjie Molina, a good defensive catcher with a little bit of pop.

Tyler Stephenson (Reds):

Stephenson is a 23-year-old that was drafted in the first round in 2015. He’s made it as far as Double-A and in his Minor League career has a slashline of .263/.350/.390 with 28 home runs and a .740 OPS. Stephenson, broke out in 2019 after hitting .285/.372/.410 with six home runs and a .782 OPS. That’s one of the main reasons to keep an eye on him. But there’s more, with Tucker Barnhart as the Reds primary catcher, Stephenson has a chance to slot right in especially with the tools he possesses.

Barnhart is a terrific defensive catcher, but his other tools are what are holding him back. Stephenson, who has great tools on both sides of the ball, has a short yet uppercut-like swing. He develops a lot of hard hit ground balls and is a major contact hitter. However, he does have some raw power and needs to develop a better plate discipline and approach. In 2019, he was the Reds #7 prospect and, at 23, he has plenty of time to develop his hitting to be just as good as his defense looking toward the future.

Stephenson is a very interesting pick for Spring Training as he hasn’t played a game at the Triple-A level yet. However, with a good spring, who knows with the very little value the Reds have gotten from their catching position in 2019, they may take an extended look at Stephenson moving into the 2020 season.

Jake Rodgers (Tigers):

This 24-year-old was drafted in the third round in 2016. Rodgers was the seventh ranked prospect in the Tigers top-30. He is more known as one of the pieces delt in the Justin Verlander trade from 2017. Rodgers has always been an incredible defensive catcher with his hitting tool slowly developing, but it needs to be worked on quite a bit. So far, he has a career slashline of .242/.338/.442 with 52 home runs and a .780 OPS. As shown, Rodgers has plenty of power, but is susceptible to any breaking pitches and his timing tends to be off with a big leg kick.

Moving forward, his defense is what’s going to keep him in the MLB — it’s that good. He has an incredible arm and quickness behind the plate, and that alone is enough to make him an MLB regular. He’ll never hit much for average, but his power should translate well in the MLB — especially if he nails his plate vision down. To me, his tools are similar to Austin Hedges, a defensive-first catcher with raw power and has issues with strikeouts.

Rodgers has already made his debut, so he has an upper-hand on everyone in camp. But with three other catchers already on the 40-man roster, it’s going to be a challenge. Rodgers is interesting because he provides the most value to the Tigers, even though his bat isn’t fully developed. However, the Tigers might want to go with a veteran like Austin Romine over the uncertainty of Rodgers. This battle may turn into one of the better ones this spring.

Deivy Grullon (Phillies):

This 23-year-old was signed out of the Dominican Republic in 2013. He was the Phillies #19 prospect for the 2019 season. Now, no one is starting over J.T. Realmuto, but this prospect can make waves among all organizations by securing the back-up role and capture more exposure from the Phillies and other teams alike. He got some time in the MLB last year after hitting .283/.354/.496 with 21 home runs and a .851 OPS at the Triple-A level. Grullon has a bulky build and is bat-first catcher with a cannon of an arm, but might fit better as a DH in the long run.

Grullon’s main tool is power, as shown by his 21 home runs. He has a stance similar to Carlos Santana, albeit with a little shorter swing. Like a lot of power hitters in today’s game, Grullon is a free swinger and does have a hard time with breaking pitches in the dirt. In the end, he turned the corner in 2019 with his bat and Andrew Knapp is the only other catcher that is projected to backup. If Grullon can have a good spring and shows the power he possesses, he’ll be an easy backup candidate for the Phillies in 2020. Plus, he’ll learn from the best defensive catcher in baseball going forward.

Andrew Knizner (Cardinals):

With the Cardinals signing Matt Weiters to a one-year deal, this makes for a major challenge to win the back-up role behind Yadier Molina. This 24-year-old was drafted in the seventh round in 2016. Another prospect who made his debut in 2019, he hit .226/.293/.377 with two home runs and a .670 OPS at the MLB level. However, when given consistent at-bats at the Triple-A level, he hit .276/.357/.463 with 12 home runs and a .821 OPS. Currently the fourth-ranked prospect in the Cardinals top-30 and has plenty of upside.

He has good tools on both sides of the ball, especially having an accurate arm and an all-around great contact tool. He has sneaky power which is still developing. He’s got great plate vision and his swing constantly develops hard line drives. Knziner is going to start in St. Louis — if not traded at some point. For Spring Training 2020, he needs to show all of his tools and beat out Matt Weiters for the back up gig. Either way, Knizner gets to learn from Yadier Molina, one of the best to do it.

In fact, if Knizner impresses enough, the Cardinals might carry three catchers and swap Weiters and Knizner every other time Molina needs a day off. However, I do think he’s ticketed for Triple-A, where he’ll get consistent at-bats and he can work on his defense and other parts of his game.

Dom Nunez (Rockies):

Dom Nunez is a 25-year-old who was drafted in the sixth round in 2013. He’s struggled mightily in the minors since 2015 when he broke out in Single-A. However, 2019 was his best all-around year defensively and offensively. In 2019, Nunez hit .244/.362/.559 with 17 home runs and a .921 OPS at the Triple-A level. I’m going to be honest, I don’t know a lot about Nunez, but with some research, he’s a defensive-first, light-hitting catcher. If he does surprise, competing with Tony Walters for the starting catching spot should be a breeze. He still projects to be a back-up catcher for the future. The spring will tell how this 25-year-old will play moving forward.

Does the power he showed in 2019 translate in 2020? Or does he take a step back and stay as a backup catcher for the 2020 season? Nunez is kind of a forgotten prospect at this point as he’s no longer on any top prospect lists, and at his age that will not change. 2020 is show up or bust for this 25-year-old. This battle between two light-hitting catchers should come down to the wire, and with Nunez showing a bit of power in 2019, he should get plenty of looks this spring.

Luis Campusano (Padres):

No, Campusano will not be a back-up nor a starter in 2020. His case is all about exposure to GM AJ Preller and other front office members. He’s already broken out once in 2019. In Single-A advanced, Campusano hit .325/.396/.509 with 15 home runs and a .906 OPS. He’s got a great bat, full of raw power and solid defense with an incredible arm. It’ll be interesting to watch how he adjusts to more Major League-ready pitching, especially with his plate discipline being off and on. When his discipline is bad, his swing gets long and he’s flailing at everything on site, which could just be because he’s so young. However, his hitting and approach is very advanced for his age, so the Padres might have a second Fransisco Mejia waiting in Campusano.

Even when not in Spring Training, this is a prospect you must keep your eye on, he’s 21-years-old, #5 in a loaded Padres top-30 and has the potential to be an everyday catcher moving forward. After a few more kinks to his swing and plate discipline, Campusano will get the attention from the front office and media he deserves.

Daulton Varsho(Diamondbacks):

The D-backs already have a legitimate catcher moving forward in Carson Kelly, but much like Campusano, Varsho had a very impressive year and the D-backs might be fairly aggressive with his development going into 2020. This 23-year-old was a competitive balance pick in 2017. He was the fifth-rated prospect in 2019 and 100th overall in the top-100 to end the 2019 season. In 2019, Varsho hit .301/.378/.520 with 18 home runs and an .899 OPS at the Double-A level. He has a very aggressive and quick swing, is versatile and can play catcher and the outfield.

His bat should develop well on his road to the big leagues, as he makes consistently hard contact and continues to develop so much power with his upper-cut swing. He also has a brilliant eye at the plate and tracks the ball very well. He’s good defensively, but still needs work in terms of framing. Another prospect who’s hungry for attention and exposure. He’ll start back in Double-A in 2020, but if the D-backs want to expose him to MLB pitching, they’ll keep him in Major League camp all spring. Varsho should advance through the minors quickly and leaving him in Major League Spring Training helps him develop quicker.

Keibert Ruiz (Dodgers):

Another prospect who looks to claim a 25-man spot in 2020 is Keibert Ruiz. The 21-year-old switch-hitter was signed in 2014. Much like Campusano, he’s very advanced for his age in terms of hitting. He covers the plate well and has a quick level swing to go with all the moving parts in the box. In 2019, between Double-A and Triple-A, Ruiz hit .261/.331/.347 with six home runs and a .679 OPS. They’ve been fairly aggressive with Ruiz, so that shouldn’t change going forward. Ruiz is a hard guy to strikeout and consistently puts a good swing on the ball. He’s got a wide stance, much like Nomar Mazara and is really good at hitting the inside pitch. His power didn’t show in 2019, but he has some decent power potential.

He’s a tremendous fielding catcher and has some of the softest hands in terms of framing in the Dodgers system. With Will Smith already starting, it’ll be interesting to see who gets the most looks between Ruiz and Barnes. Of course, Barnes has been an MLB caliber catcher the last couple years, yet he struggled mightily in 2019. This opens the door for Ruiz to at least claim a 25-man spot in 2020.

Cal Raleigh (Mariners):

With the Mariners current starter being Tom Murphy, Raleigh should get some looks at Major League camp this spring, even for a back-up role. Right now, the Mariners depth chart shows an emergency catcher named Austin Nola — who is a first baseman — as their main back-up. But back to Cal Raleigh, this 23-year-old was drafted in the third round in 2018. He struggled a little bit at the Double-A level, but had a pretty solid year in 2019. Raleigh hit .251/.323/.497 with 29 home runs and a .820 OPS. Raleigh, has plenty of power to go with some decent fielding skills. He has a quick upper-cut swing designed to do damage and hit fly balls.

His stance reminds me a lot of Alex Dickerson in terms of hand placement and rotation. He’s an extreme pull-hitter and his bat moving forward will continue to be his most valuable weapon. With the Mariners looking for offensive upgrades, Raleigh will be an important piece for the future and beyond. Tom Murphy had a decent 2019 and should start again in 2020. However, Raleign is going to start at the Double-A level unless they see enough from him to skip Triple-A and make his Major League debut in 2020. As it stands right now, he’s still a year or two out, but take notes, Mariners fans, this is your future catcher.

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