MLB Spring Training 2017: The Top 10 Catchers to Watch
Whether it's at the lowest levels of amateur baseball or in MLB, few positions have a bigger impact on a team's success—or lack thereof—than catcher. Not only are these players expected to contribute offensively, but they must masterfully handle a pitching staff and control the opposition's running game.
Teams spend years trying to develop them and, when they develop a keeper, are hesitant to let one get away. For it can take years to find a suitable replacement. Just ask the Chicago White Sox, a team that has yet to recover from A.J. Pierzynski's departure as a free agent following the 2012 season.
Keep in mind that this isn't a list or ranking of the best catchers in baseball—that'll come as we get closer to Opening Day. Rather, this is a look at catchers who, for a variety of reasons, are among the most intriguing at their position as spring training approaches.
It's a list that includes current (and former) highly thought of prospects, as well as players who are working their way back from injuries. There's even one catcher who, thanks to his athleticism and his team's needs elsewhere, could transition from a full-time backstop into a utility player, the likes of which we've never seen before.
About whom, and what, are we talking? Let's take a look.
Jorge Alfaro, Philadelphia Phillies
The centerpiece of the package Philadelphia got from Texas in the Cole Hamels trade, Jorge Alfaro managed to stay healthy and put together a solid showing for Double-A Reading in 2016, enough to get his first taste of the big leagues after rosters expanded in September.
But with Cameron Rupp and Andrew Knapp ahead of him on the organizational depth chart and veteran journeyman Bryan Holaday in camp on a non-roster invite, it would seem that Alfaro's path to regular playing time in the big leagues is blocked.
That said, Philadelphia general manager Matt Klentak acknowledges that, at some point in the upcoming season, the team is going to have to find out what it has in the 23-year-old backstop.
“Andrew Knapp just finished his age 25 season in Triple A,” Klentak told CSNPhilly.com's Jim Salisbury in early December. “At some point for both he and Alfaro, we’re going to have to find out what those guys can do at the big-league level. During the 2017 season, we’ll have to find out — not just about those two guys — but others."
Nobody would dispute that Alfaro has the highest upside among the group, which begs the question: Could he play his way onto the Opening Day roster with a strong showing this spring?
Christian Bethancourt, San Diego Padres
It wasn't that long ago that Christian Bethancourt and Austin Hedges were considered two of the best catching prospects in baseball. Come spring training, we could see Hedges catching Bethancourt, who San Diego is trying to turn into a hybrid player who can catch, play the outfield and pitch.
In other words, the Padres are turning the 25-year-old into a baseball unicorn.
Dennis Lin of the San Diego Union-Tribune was the first to report on the team's plans for Bethancourt back in October, while the Padres' Bill Center confirmed as much recently in a piece he wrote for MLB.com, noting that the 25-year-old will be pitching in the Panamanian Winter League, which begins Jan. 6.
With Hedges seemingly entrenched as the team's starting catcher and Rule 5 draft pick Luis Torrens set to back him up (more on Torrens shortly), Bethancourt's athleticism and willingness to become more versatile could lead to a bigger role than he'd have as a backup catcher.
Could we see Bethancourt start a game behind the plate, trot out to a corner outfield spot halfway through the contest and then disappear beyond the outfield wall, only to re-emerge in the late innings as a relief pitcher?
It'll be fascinating to see how this all plays out in spring training.
Zack Collins, Chicago White Sox
Even if Chicago was still trying to contend in 2017, Zack Collins, the team's first-round pick in last year's MLB draft probably wasn't going to break camp with the White Sox. But with the team rebuilding, he's destined to start 2017 back in the minors.
"If he was a bat-only player he would come more quickly because the bat is more mature, more closer to big league ready than the receiving," GM Rick Hahn told CSNChicago.com's Dan Hayes. "However, we think he has a very good chance to be an everyday catcher with a premium bat and we're going to take the time to bring along the defense at the rate it requires."
How he handles himself while catching big league pitching early this spring will go a long way toward dictating what that rate is. More importantly, it'll serve as a good indication as to whether Chicago's seemingly never-ending search for its "catcher of the future" is finally over.
Given Collins' advanced approach at the plate, it's not inconceivable that he could begin to move quickly through the team's farm system if he shows enough improvement behind the plate in what limited playing time he'll receive in spring training.
Devin Mesoraco, Cincinnati Reds
Devin Mesoraco looked like one of baseball's best young catchers and a foundational piece that Cincinnati could build around in 2014, a season that saw him hit .273 with 25 home runs, 80 RBI and a .893 OPS while making his first All-Star appearance.
But injuries have limited him to just 36 games since, and the 28-year-old knows that this spring might be his last chance with the Reds. “They’re not going to wait around forever,” Mesoraco told the Cincinnati Enquirer's Zach Buchanan last month. “I’ve got to be out there playing."
Tucker Barnhardt did a respectable job in place of Mesoraco last season, and the Reds also have veteran journeyman Rob Brantly and Rule 5 draft pick Stuart Turner as potential fallback options. Mesoraco must not only stay healthy but show that he hasn't lost his touch after nearly two years on the sidelines.
“If I’m healthy and playing the way I’m capable of that’s somebody you want in the lineup,” Mesoraco told Buchanan. "I realize this may the last time I have an opportunity to be an everyday player and establish myself as one of better catchers in the game, the guy the organization invested in and knew they had."
Wilson Ramos, Tampa Bay Rays
Wilson Ramos won't be much more than a limited participant in his first spring training with the Tampa Bay Rays, as the 29-year-old is still working his way back from the torn ACL that ended his 2016 season—and ultimately his tenure—with the Washington Nationals.
But Ramos says that he's at least a month ahead of where he should be in his rehabilitation and believes he can start contributing far earlier than expected.
"The pace of my rehab, at the very least, I expect to be available for the team, getting at-bats, DHing, really from the beginning of May," Ramos said in mid-December, per Marc Topkin of the Tampa Bay Times. "The people doing my therapy (in South Florida) have been really impressed."
Tampa Bay would be really impressed—and downright ecstatic—if Ramos was able to return to action so soon. As Topkin points out, the team wasn't expecting to have him available until right around the All-Star break, if not later. He'd be ready more than two months earlier in this scenario.
Finding out just how far along he is in his recovery—and how close he is to a return—makes Ramos one of the must-watch catchers this spring.
Chance Sisco, Baltimore Orioles
Baltimore's addition of Welington Castillo all but ensured that top prospect Chance Sisco won't have any chance of breaking camp with the club in spring training. But Castillo's presence shouldn't be seen as a knock against the 21-year-old.
"We have a good left-handed hitting prospect in Chance Sisco,'' general manager Dan Duquette told the Baltimore Sun's Peter Schmuck in early December. "A lot of clubs would like to have Chance Sisco and we're glad we have him. I'm not sure he's going to be ready to start the season."
Sisco, who has played only four games at Triple-A, would certainly benefit from an extended run at the minors' highest level. But how he fares this spring will give the Orioles a good idea of just how much more seasoning he needs.
With the Orioles facing a potential free-agent exodus over the next two years (Chris Tillman after the 2017 season; Zach Britton, Adam Jones and Manny Machado a year later), Baltimore knows its window to contend could soon be closing.
If Duquette and manager Buck Showalter believe he gives the team its best chance of winning, it's not crazy to think that Sisco could become the left-handed part of a platoon with Castillo, bumping veteran Caleb Joseph out of the picture entirely.
Max Stassi, Houston Astros
Jason Castro's departure as a free agent should have, in theory, opened the door for Max Stassi to get more regular playing time in Houston. But the Astros went out and traded for Brian McCann, who along with Evan Gattis, will handle the team's catching duties.
Houston also signed Juan Centeno to a minor-league deal and has prospect Garrett Stubbs working his way through the upper levels of its farm system. That seems to leave Stassi, 25, as the odd man out and a candidate to lose his spot on the team's 40-man roster.
Injuries have limited Stassi's development, but he's young enough and has shown enough promise in limited playing time to be of interest to other teams. A strong showing in spring training could expedite his departure from Houston via trade, especially if another team suffers an injury behind the plate.
Blake Swihart, Boston Red Sox
Blake Swihart's days as an outfielder are over, according to WEEI.com's Rob Bradford, with the 24-year-old returning to a full-time catching role in 2017. Problem is, Boston already has two catchers ahead of him on the MLB depth chart—starter Sandy Leon and backup Christian Vazquez.
That wasn't lost on former Red Sox GM Mike Hazen, who currently holds the same title in Arizona and recently contacted his former employer about the availability of Swihart and Vazquez, per the Arizona Republic's Nick Piecoro. He was told that Boston was "unlikely" to move either player.
You can't blame the Red Sox for wanting to hang onto their catching depth, especially when you consider that none of the three are sure things. Leon was terrific in 2016 but lacks a track record of success; Vazquez has yet to hit consistently (career .602 OPS); and Swihart hasn't been great defensively.
Of that trio, Swihart has the biggest upside. Could a strong showing this spring push him ahead of Leon or Vazquez? Or is he destined to start the season in Triple-A, seeing as how he still has minor-league options remaining?
Luis Torrens, San Diego Padres
You don't typically see a 20-year-old make the jump from Single-A to the majors, but that's precisely what Luis Torrens will be trying to pull off this spring.
"He's a guy that, overall, has a chance to be a quality receiver, throwing out runners," Padres GM A.J. Preller told MLB.com's A.J. Cassavell. "He can control the strike zone and has a good swing. You're always looking for catching."
Selected by Cincinnati in the Rule 5 draft from the New York Yankees, San Diego traded for Torrens, sending infield prospect Josh VanMeter and cash to the Reds. While VanMeter isn't an elite prospect, he's more than a throw-away player. That leads Cassavell to believe the Padres intend on keeping Torrens around.
It's a conclusion that's hard to find fault with in light of what we know the team has planned for Christian Bethancourt, who otherwise would be San Diego's full-time backup catcher, making the trade for Torrens unnecessary.
Like Bethancourt's transition to a super-utility player, it'll be fascinating to see whether Torrens can make such a big leap and break camp with the Padres.
Mike Zunino, Seattle Mariners
Mike Zunino showed enough in 2016 for Seattle manager Scott Servais to proclaim his season an "absolute success" and "unbelievable" while a guest on 710 ESPN Radio's "Brock and Salk Show," per Brent Stecker of MyNorthwest.com.
But was it really?
Zunino didn't arrive in the big leagues until July, and his first 33 games were impressive—14 extra-base hits (nine home runs), 22 RBI and a .906 OPS. But his final 22 games were forgettable, with just five extra-base hits (three home runs), nine RBI and an .621 OPS with 31 strikeouts.
Can he build upon what he showed in July and August? Or are his late-season woes a sign that, try as he might, Zunino still isn't ready to take the next step in his development? How he looks in spring training will give us a good indication of which way he's headed.