MLB

Tomorrow's All-Stars: Predicting the 10 Best Catchers in 5 Years

Karl BuscheckContributor IIIApril 28, 2014

Tomorrow's All-Stars: Predicting the 10 Best Catchers in 5 Years

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    Arnulfo Franco

    MLB teams can never have enough catchers. 

    For that reason, behind the plate is where we start for the first of this five-part series known as "Tomorrow's All-Stars." In the opener, I'll predict the 10 best catchers in five years. Over the course of the next month, the series will also provide top-10 lists for first basemen, second basemen, third basemen and shortstops. 

    For now, though, let's just focus on the backstops. As it turns out, there are a ton of talented prospects to choose from. The 2014 crop of catchers is one of the "best classes" of recent memory, according to J.J. Cooper of Baseball America.

    There's no doubt that catcher is the most defensively demanding position on the diamond. Still, the player who claims the top spot doesn't just have skills behind the dish but also with the bat. So, now let's take a look at the who will be the top 10 catchers in five years.

     

     

Honorable Mentions

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    For the purpose of this series, only players who have yet to make their big league debuts were included.

    As a result, Christian Bethancourt, who appeared in one game for the Atlanta Braves in 2013, has been excluded from the list. The 22-year-old has taken part in the All-Star Futures Game twice, an exceptionally rare feat for any prospect. You can watch above, as Bethancourt takes batting practice before the 2013 exhibition game. 

    Here are a few more catchers who just missed out on cracking the top-10 list:

    • Christian Vazquez, Boston Red Sox
    • Kevin Plawecki, New York Mets
    • A.J. Jimenez, Toronto Blue Jays
    • Michael Ohlman, Baltimore Orioles
    • Curt Casali, Tampa Bay Rays
    • Brett Nicholas, Texas Rangers

10. J.T. Realmuto, Miami Marlins

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    Age: 23

    Current Minor League Level: Double-A

    2014 Stats: .292 (21-for-72), .358 OBP, .451 SLG, 2 2B, 4 HR, 13 RBI

     

    The Track Record 

    The Miami Marlins snagged J.T. Realmuto in the third round of the 2010 MLB draft. The 23-year-old is off to an impressive start at the plate in 2014, as he is hitting .292 with four home runs and 13 RBI in his first 19 games for the Marlins' Double-A affiliate. 

    Realmuto still has room to improve defensively. Already in 2014, the catcher has committed four errors. However, Realmuto didn't become a full-time catcher until 2010 when he was drafted. That lack of experience suggests that the prospect will continue to improve as a defender. 

    His arm is definitely a strength. This season, Realmuto has thrown out six of 14 attempted base stealers (43 percent). 

     

    When He'll Arrive in the Big Leagues

    The way he's hitting in 2014, Realmuto is on his way to earning a midseason promotion to Triple-A, where he could share time with Rob Brantly. Since he's already a member of the 40-man roster, there's also a possibility that Realmuto could earn a September call-up to Miami. 

    Jarrod Saltalamacchia, who is playing in the first season of a three-year deal, stands in Realmuto's way for now. However, the catcher should begin pushing the defensively limited Saltalamacchia for playing time as soon as next spring. 

9. Bruce Maxwell, Oakland Athletics

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    Age: 23

    Current Minor League Level: High-A

    2014 Stats: .325 (26-for-80), .365 OBP, .463 SLG, 2 2B, 3 HR, 9 RBI

     

    The Track Record

    There's a lot to like about a left-handed hitting catcher. 

    That's especially true of a left-handed batter who can hit like Bruce Maxwell. So far in 2014, Maxwell is swinging at a clip of .325 with two doubles and three home runs in his first 19 games for the Stockton Ports in the California League. The second-round selection from the 2012 draft is also smashing left-handed pitching to the tune of .433 (13-for-30) average.

    Defensively, the backstop is making major strides behind the plate.

    Before the club's game on April 22, Stockton play-by-play announcer Zack Bayrouty explained to me that Maxwell was "much improved mechanically." That analysis was completely correct. In the first two innings of the contest, Maxwell gunned down a pair of attempted base stealers. Through his first 18 games, the catcher has thrown out nine runners.

     

    When He'll Arrive in the Big Leagues

    With Derek Norris and John Jaso in Oakland, and Stephen Vogt biding his time in Triple-A, the Athletics have no shortage of options at the catcher position and no need to rush Maxwell. Still, I expect him to earn a midseason to Double-A, and to be ready for big-league action either by the end of the 2015 season or the start of 2016.

8. Tyler Marlette, Seattle Mariners

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    Age: 21

    Current Minor League Level: High-A

    2014 Stats: .255 (12-for-47), 3 HR, 6 RBI, 3 SB

     

    The Track Record

    Tyler Marlette has a ton of pop, as you can see in the video above.

    The 21-year-old doesn't just have power, though. He has the ability to hit for high average. Last season, Marlette, who possesses excellent bat speed, totaled 25 extra-base hits in 75 games while batting .304. The fifth-round pick from the 2011 draft has already gone yard three times in 13 contests in 2014.

    Marlette has all the tools to remain behind the plate, and no weapon is more impressive than his arm. In 2014, the catcher has thrown out 47 percent of attempted base stealers.  

     

    When He'll Arrive in the Big Leagues

    With Mike Zunino holding down the catcher's spot for now, the Mariners can afford to be patient with Marlette's development.

    Look for the right-handed hitter to progress deliberately through the Mariners' farm system. Marlette will likely spend 2014 in High-A, 2015 in Double-A and 2016 in Triple-A. Following such a timeline, Marelette would be ready for the big leagues full time by Opening Day 2017 when he'll still be just 24. 

7. Nick Ciuffo, Tampa Bay Rays

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    Age: 19

    Current Minor League Level: Extended Spring Training 

    2014 Stats: N/A

     

    The Track Record

    Nick Ciuffo, who the Tampa Bay Rays picked with the No. 21 overall selection in the 2013 draft, is only just beginning his climb to the big leagues. 

    The 19-year-old is taking part in the Rays' extended spring training, as he awaits an assignment to one of the club's short-season affiliates in mid-June. Last summer, the catcher played in 43 games for Tampa Bay's rookie league affiliate and hit .258/.296/.308. 

    Clearly, those numbers don't jump off the page. However, this early on in the development process, stats are only a small part of the equation. According to John Sickels of Minorleagueball.com, the catcher "gets great scouting reports for offensive potential and good defensive tools."

    Ciuffo has all the intangibles, as well. MLB.com dubs the highly touted catcher a "leader."

     

    When He'll Arrive in the Big Leagues

    Considering Ciuffo is less than a year removed from graduating from high school, it's difficult to predict just when he'll make it to Tampa Bay. Still, there's a very good reason why the left-handed hitter was the second catcher selected in last June's draft. Simply put, Ciuffo has all sorts of potential. 

    It's a bold call, but Ciuffo has the tools and the swing to break into the Rays' lineup by midseason 2017, when he'll still be just 22.

6. Andrew Susac, San Francisco Giants

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    Age: 24

    Current Minor League Level: Triple-A

    2014 Stats: .291 (16-for-55), .391 OBP, .455 SLG, 3 2B, 2 HR, 9 RBI

     

    The Track Record

    The San Francisco Giants have always been aggressive with Andrew Susac's minor league assignments. The catcher went straight to High-A in 2012, spent 2013 in Double-A and is now playing for the club's Triple-A affiliate, the Fresno Grizzlies.

    Despite the accelerated pace, Susac has demonstrated highly consistent on-base skills with a .359 OBP during his minor league career. With a .291 average and an .845 OPS this season, Susac is off to an excellent start in Triple-A.

    Susac is known for being an average defender, but his arm is tremendous. For the Grizzlies, the 24-year-old has thrown out 10 of 16 attempted base stealers. 

    Currently, Susac is on the DL with a concussion, according to Bryant-Jon Anteola of the Fresno Bee. That's certainly a worrisome injury for any catcher, but the team hopes the right-handed hitter will only require a short-term stay on DL, per Anteola.

     

    When He'll Arrive in the Big Leagues

    Susac is extremely close to being big-league ready.

    Of course, the Giants already have an MVP catcher in Buster Posey. However, there is a real possibility that the club will shift Posey out from behind home plate—possibly as soon as next season. In such a scenario, Susac could battle for playing time with Hector Sanchez, the club's current backup. 

5. Reese McGuire, Pittsburgh Pirates

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    Age: 19

    Current Minor League Level: Low-A

    2014 Stats: .222 (12-for-54), .259 OBP, .278 SLG, 2B, 3B, 8 RBI

     

    The Track Record

    The No. 14 overall pick in the 2013 draft, Reese McGuire, 19, is already a top-50 prospect in the minor leagues. On Scout.com's top-100 prospects list, the catcher lands in the No. 49 spot in the rankings. 

    McGuire's best attribute is his arm, but he also has excellent footwork behind the plate. Plus, as one scout explained to Josh Norris of Baseball America, he's a skilled game-caller. 

    The big question with the left-handed hitter is how much his bat will develop. This year, Reese is hitting .222 in 14 games for the West Virginia Power in the Southern Atlantic League. However, as Baseball-Reference.com notes, the catcher is two-and-a-half years younger than the average player in the circuit.

    Last summer, while splitting time between the Gulf Coast League and the New York-Penn League, Reese impressed with a .323 (62-for-192) average.

     

    When He'll Arrive in the Big Leagues

    Reese is currently on the West Virginia DL, per Tim Williams of Pirates Prospects. The catcher will likely play the rest of the season with the Power before moving on to High-A to start the 2015 campaign. Reese still has a lot of work ahead of him, but based on his current pace he could arrive in Pittsburgh at the end of the 2016 season. 

4. Jorge Alfaro, Texas Rangers

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    Age: 20

    Current Minor League Level: High-A

    2014 Stats: .274 (23-for-84), .315 OBP, .357 SLG, 4 2B, HR, 10 RBI

     

    The Track Record

    While watching Jorge Alfaro hit, it's impossible not to notice that the Colombian has remarkably quick hands. Bernie Pleskoff of MLB.com agreed with that assessment in his scouting report of the 20-year-old backstop.

    Pleskoff sees a bright future for the top prospect, who the Rangers signed in 2010.

    "He profiles as a legitimate power threat who can become a middle of the order game-changer."

    Then there's Alfaro's defensive skills to consider. As Pleskoff puts it, the catcher has an "absolute cannon" of an arm and has "cat-like quickness behind the plate."

     

    When He'll Arrive in the Big Leagues

    Alfaro doesn't turn 21 until June, so the Rangers have no reason to rush the catcher to Arlington. The right-handed hitter will likely spend all of the 2014 season in High-A before advancing to Double-A to start the 2015 campaign. Midseason 2016 appears a more than reasonable time for the catcher to make his big-league breakthrough.

3. Gary Sanchez, New York Yankees

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    Age: 21

    Current Minor League Level: Double-A

    2014 Stats: .299 (20-for-67), .382 OBP, .491 SLG, 7 2B, 2 HR

     

    The Track Record

    Gary Sanchez has easy power. 

    Last year, while splitting time between High-A and Double-A, the New York Yankees' top prospect clubbed 27 doubles and 15 home runs. In 2014, the right-handed hitter has already collected nine extra-base hits in 17 games while hitting just under .300.

    However, his "defense remains a question mark," according to MLB.com. In particular, there is considerable concern about his game-calling, blocking ability and general mobility behind the dish. Still, it's worth noting that Sanchez has a plus arm. This year, the Dominican has caught 44 percent of attempted base stealers.

     

    When He'll Arrive in the Big Leagues

    With Brian McCann just starting his five-year, $85 million deal, the Yankees don't have an urgent need for Sanchez in the Bronx.

    While a late-season promotion to Triple-A is possible, there's also a chance that Sanchez could remain in Double-A for all of 2014 and then spend 2015 in Triple-A. Such a timeline would have Sanchez ready for the big leagues at the start of the 2016 season, right around the time when the club might need to find a new defensive home for McCann. 

2. Austin Hedges, San Diego Padres

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    Age: 21

    Current Minor League Level: Double-A

    2014 Stats: .225 (16-for-71), .257 OBP, .324 SLG

     

    The Track Record

    Austin Hedges is widely described as the top defensive catcher in all of the minor leagues. 

    As Marc Hulet of FanGraohs explains, Hedges has the potential to be an incredibly valuable player.

    "There isn't really anything Hedges doesn't do well behind the plate. He's the type of backstop that brings out the best in his pitchers and he controls the running game with aplomb."

    However, for all the praise his defense receives, it's difficult to ignore the right-handed hitter's lack of offensive production. Last year, Hedges totaled just four home runs in 66 games in the notoriously hitter-friendly Cal League. This season, the 21-year-old is batting .225 in his first 18 games in the Texas League.

    Admittedly, catcher is the one position where an offensively challenged player can not only survive, but actually be a highly useful player. Still, Hedges' .554 OPS in the Texas League dating back to the end of the 2013 season is just too much of a red flag for the catcher to land in the top spot on this list. 

     

    When He'll Arrive in the Big Leagues

    With such rare defensive talent, the San Diego Padres will find a spot at the big-league level as soon as Hedges proves ready.

    The catcher could receive a call-up to San Diego this September, and should be ready to challenge for the everyday job next spring. However, if Hedges fails to adjust to advanced pitching this summer, his debut will be delayed. 

1. Blake Swihart, Boston Red Sox

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    Age: 22

    Current Minor League Level: Double-A

    2014 Stats: .338 (23-for-68), .368 OBP, .529 SLG, 5 2B, 3B, 2 HR, 13 RBI

     

    The Track Record

    In his first month of Double-A action, Blake Swihart is raking. 

    Through his first 16 contests, the 22-year-old is hitting .338 and has collected eight extra-base hits, including a pair of home runs. One of the most encouraging aspects of Swihart's rise is that he has improved consistently over the course of his minor league career. 

    In 2012, Swihart posted a .702 OPS before producing a .794 OPS a season ago. In the opening weeks of 2014, the switch-hitter owns a .877 OPS. However, Swihart is much more than just an offensive threat. 

    Last year, Swihart led the Carolina League with the highest caught stealing percentage, per MLB.com

     

    When He'll Arrive in the Big Leagues

    With A.J. Pierzynski and David Ross both set to become free agents at the end of the 2014 season, there could be a big-league job available for Swihart as soon as Opening Day 2015.

    Of course, before then the backstop will need to spend some time in Triple-A, where he'll encounter Christian Vazquez—the Red Sox's other top catching prospect. While Vazquez offers more defensive upside, neither he nor any other minor league catcher can match the all-around skill set that Swihart provides.

     

    Baseball-Reference.com and MILB.com were the go-to sources for stats. As for prospect rankings, MLB.comScout.comBaseballProspectus.com and Baseball America were all invaluable resources. Finally, player videos are courtesy of YouTube.com. 

    If you want to talk baseball, find me on Twitter @KarlBuscheck.

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