B/R's MLB 20 for '20: Projecting Top 20 Catchers in 2020

Joel Reuter@JoelReuterBRFeatured ColumnistMay 8, 2018

B/R's MLB 20 for '20: Projecting Top 20 Catchers in 2020

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    Jason Miller/Getty Images

    Baseball is a tough sport to predict on a day-in and day-out basis, and it becomes exponentially more difficult to predict looking years into the future. But that's exactly what we're going to be doing here.

    Back in the summer of 2015, I wrote a series that we dubbed "B/R's MLB 20 for '20" wherein I attempted to predict who the top 20 players would be at each position when the 2020 season rolled around.

    Three years later, it's time for an update.

    We'll kick things off with the catcher position, where Gary Sanchez and Willson Contreras will look to unseat Buster Posey as the game's top catcher between now and 2020.

    Before we dive into the top 20, we'll take a look back at that original list with the benefit of some hindsight and shine a light on a few prospects who could be making waves two years from now.

    Enjoy.

The Original List (Published: July 9, 2015)

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    Blake Swihart
    Blake SwihartTom Szczerbowski/Getty Images

    Original Top 20 Catchers List

    1. Salvador Perez, KC
    2. Blake Swihart, BOS
    3. Kyle Schwarber, CHC
    4. Yasmani Grandal, LAD
    5. Yan Gomes, CLE
    6. Justin O'Conner, TB
    7. Austin Hedges, SD
    8. Devin Mesoraco, CIN
    9. Derek Norris, SD
    10. Reese McGuire, PIT
    11, Andrew Susac, SF
    12. Mike Zunino, SEA
    13. J.T. Realmuto, MIA
    14. Jorge Alfaro, TEX
    15. Tom Murphy, COL
    16. Travis d'Arnaud, NYM
    17. Max Pentecost, TOR
    18. Kevin Plawecki, NYM
    19. Wilson Ramos, WAS
    20. Gary Sanchez, NYY

          

    Hindsight Breakdown

    Yikes.

    Aside from betting on Austin Hedges' bat to eventually catch up to his glove enough that he can be an everyday catcher and making the easy call to say Salvador Perez would still be elite in what will be his age-30 season, this has not aged well.

    More than a few people thought Blake Swihart was going to be the catcher of the future and a perennial All-Star in Boston. The same goes for expectations surrounding Andrew Susac as the heir apparent to Buster Posey in San Francisco.

    Speaking of Posey, I lumped him in with the first basemen the first time around, assuming he'd move out of the crouch full-time at some point. That no longer looks like the case.

    I went out on a limb with Justin O'Conner, and that limb clearly snapped. He had just posted a .782 OPS with 35 doubles and 12 home runs between High-A and Double-A and was widely regarded as one of the best defensive catchers in the minors. Unfortunately, he's stalled out in the upper levels and now looks like organizational depth.

    In my defense, stock on Gary Sanchez was trending down when this was first written. He had been a top prospect for a number of years, and it was starting to look like he might never take that next step. I'm going to consider the fact that I included him at all to be a win.

    All in all, not a great job projecting the catcher position. And really, that's not surprising. It's probably the most difficult position to develop, and there's a reason it's so hard to find that franchise guy.

Projected Top 10 Catcher Prospects for 2020

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    Before we get into predicting who will be the top 20 catchers at the MLB level in 2020, let's take a look at who might be topping the positional prospect list two years from now:

           

    1. MJ Melendez, Kansas City Royals (2020 Age: 21)

    Plus defender with a great arm. Has double-digit power potential from the left side of the plate. Assigned to Single-A as a teenager and could move quickly given his overall polish.

           

    2. Alex Jackson, Atlanta Braves (2020 Age: 24)

    No. 6 overall pick in the 2014 draft as a high school catcher and moved to the outfield upon signing with the Mariners. Didn't progress as hoped but has seen new life breathed into his career following a trade to the Braves and a return to catching. Leading candidate to be the long-term backstop for an up-and-coming Atlanta squad.

           

    3. Tyler Stephenson, Cincinnati Reds (2020 Age: 23)

    Bat is starting to catch up to what has always been a plus glove. 2015 No. 11 overall pick posted a .787 OPS with 22 doubles and six home runs at Single-A. Contract extension for Tucker Barnhart means he won't need to be rushed.

          

    4. Ronaldo Hernandez, Tampa Bay Rays (2020 Age: 22)

    Pop-up prospect last season hit .332/.382/.507 with 28 extra-base hits in 54 rookie-level games, following two seasons in the Dominican summer league. Still raw but with significant upside.

            

    5. Daulton Varsho, Arizona Diamondbacks (2020 Age: 23)

    Already looks like one of the steals of the 2017 draft as the No. 68 overall pick. Receiving skills are still a work in progress and athletic enough to move to the outfield if the need arises. His bat would still play at a corner spot but is more valuable at the catcher position.

          

    6. Connor Wong, Los Angeles Dodgers (2020 Age: 24)

    Turning heads in a Dodgers system loaded with catching prospects after going in the third round last June. Hitting .299/.358/.619 with eight home runs in 24 games at High-A.

           

    7. Sam McMillan, Detroit Tigers (2020 Age: 20)

    Signed an above-slot $1 million bonus as a fifth-rounder last year. Good hit tool presently and power potential. No question he'll stick behind the plate.

           

    8. Noah Naylor, 2018 Draft (2020 Age: 20)

    Younger brother of Padres prospect Josh Naylor. Safe bet to be the first prep catcher taken in this year's draft on the strength of his considerable offensive upside. Advanced approach at the plate with plus power. Could easily outhit this spot in the rankings.

          

    9. Luis Campusano, San Diego Padres (2020 Age: 21)

    First catcher selected in the 2017 draft, going No. 39 overall to the Padres. Still raw with significant two-way potential. Might still be finding his footing in 2020, but ceiling is high enough to warrant a mention.

            

    10. Will Banfield, 2018 Draft (2020 Age: 20)

    Rocket-armed prep with good receiving skills and plus raw power. Development of his hit tool will determine his ceiling, but upside is enough to land him a spot on this list.

          

    Other Prospects to Watch 

    • Riley Adams (TOR)
    • Zack Collins (CWS)
    • Hagen Danner (TOR)
    • Mario Feliciano (MIL)
    • Zach Jackson (STL)
    • Chris Okey (CIN)
    • Ben Rortvedt (MIN)
    • Anthony Seigler (2018 draft)

Honorable Mentions and Notable Veteran Omissions

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    Tomas Nido
    Tomas NidoEric Espada/Getty Images

    Next 5

    Welington Castillo, CWS
    Aramis Garcia, SF
    James McCann, DET
    Tomas Nido, NYM
    Garrett Stubbs, HOU

       

    Excluded Because of Age and Expected Regression

    Alex Avila, ARI
    Jason Castro, MIN
    Francisco Cervelli, PIT
    Robinson Chirinos, TEX
    Tyler Flowers, ATL
    Yan Gomes, CLE
    Chris Iannetta, COL
    Jonathan Lucroy, OAK
    Martin Maldonado, LAA
    Russell Martin, TOR
    Brian McCann, HOU
    Yadier Molina, STL
    Manny Pina, MIL
    Matt Wieters, WAS

20. Christian Vazquez, Boston Red Sox

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    Jim Mone/Associated Press

    2020 Age: 29

    The Boston Red Sox saw enough from Christian Vazquez last season to sign him to a three-year, $13.6 million deal that includes a team option for 2022.

    He's probably never going to be an impact offensive player. The 27-year-old posted a 90 OPS+ with 25 extra-base hits in 345 plate appearances last year, and that's probably going to be as good as it gets.

    However, with his defensive tools, that's going to be more than enough for him to be an everyday guy. He threw out 47 percent of base-stealers and graded out as one of the best pitch-framers in baseball, according to StatCorner.

    With Sandy Leon regressing and Blake Swihart falling well short of expectations, there's no present threat to his job.

19. Will Smith, Los Angeles Dodgers

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    Jamie Schwaberow/Getty Images

    2020 Age: 25

    Will Smith hit .382/.480/.567 with more walks (19) than strikeouts (14) during a breakout junior season at the University of Louisville in 2016, vaulting him into the first round (No. 32 overall to the Los Angeles Dodgers).

    He's the most MLB-ready catching prospect in a Dodgers system that has a handful of intriguing future receivers, but he doesn't have as high of a ceiling as Keibert Ruiz.

    MLB.com wrote: "His upside might be no more than a .260 hitter with 12-15 homers per season, though he does have an eye for drawing walks and his defensive ability will make him useful no matter how much offense he provides."

    Smith is good enough to start. He just might need to do it elsewhere with Ruiz looking like the future for the Dodgers, so don't be surprised if he's used as a trade chip between now and 2020.

18. Jorge Alfaro, Philadelphia Phillies

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    Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

    2020 Age: 27

    Jorge Alfaro has been one of baseball's top catching prospects since his time with the Rangers, and in 2015, he joined the Philadelphia Phillies in the deal that sent Cole Hamels to Texas.

    He hit .318/.360/.514 with six doubles and five home runs in 114 plate appearances last season in his first extended action at the MLB level, and that was enough for him to break camp with the starting job this season.

    While he'll never be more than an average defender behind the plate, there's no in-house threat to his job, so he'll be given every opportunity to secure his place as the catcher of the future.

    Best-case scenario: He's a perennial 20-homer guy who doesn't hurt you defensively.

17. Carson Kelly, St. Louis Cardinals

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    Rich Schultz/Getty Images

    2020 Age: 25

    Originally drafted as a third baseman in the second round of the 2012 draft, Carson Kelly moved behind the plate in 2014 and emerged as the heir apparent to Yadier Molina.

    He quickly took to the catcher position defensively and has made strides with his offensive game as well, hitting .283/.375/.459 with 10 home runs and 41 RBI in 68 games at the Triple-A level last season.

    The big question is whether he can hold off fellow prospect Andrew Knizner for the long-term gig.

    Otherwise, he could wind up being a trade chip because he has the tools to be a starter somewhere.

16. Danny Jansen, Toronto Blue Jays

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    John Minchillo/Associated Press

    2020 Age: 25

    Russell Martin is signed through the 2019 season, and with a $20 million salary next season, the Toronto Blue Jays will likely keep him in the starting role—at least to start the season.

    After that, all signs point to Danny Jansen as the future at the catcher position.

    A 16th-round pick in 2013, Jansen saw his development slowed by injuries, and entering last season, he had never played more than 57 games in a year.

    However, his stock soared after he hit .323/.400/.484 with 25 doubles and 10 home runs last season, splitting his time over three minor league levels and closing out the season at Triple-A.

    It always takes patience when it comes to developing a high school catcher, and it looks like that patience is going to pay off for the Blue Jays.

15. Andrew Knizner, St. Louis Cardinals

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    Jennifer Stewart/Getty Images

    2020 Age: 25

    Despite having one of the game's top catching prospects in Carson Kelly, the St. Louis Cardinals selected Andrew Knizner in the seventh round of the 2016 draft.

    Originally a third baseman at NC State, Knizner moved behind the plate for his sophomore season, and there's little doubt he has the defensive chops to stay there.

    The Cardinals aggressively promoted him from Single-A to Double-A midway through his first full season, and he didn't miss a beat, finishing the year with a .302/.349/.471 line that included 23 doubles and 12 home runs.

    That was followed by an impressive showing in the Arizona Fall League (72 PA, .358/.403/.537, 3 HR), and he's picked up right where he left off with impressive numbers back at Double-A Springfield.

    There's a good chance the Cardinals trade one of Kelly or Knizner at some point, and Knizner is quickly turning into the more intriguing prospect.

14. Tucker Barnhart, Cincinnati Reds

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    Aaron Doster/Associated Press

    2020 Age: 29

    Injuries to Devin Mesoraco opened the door for Tucker Barnhart to show he can be more than just a defensive-minded backup, and he seized the opportunity.

    He posted a 96 OPS+ with 24 doubles, seven home runs and 44 RBI in 423 plate appearances last season, showing marked improvement across the board offensively.

    That said, defense is still his calling card.

    He won his first Gold Glove last season while throwing out an NL-high 44 percent of base-stealers and tallying 11 DRS.

    That was enough for the Reds to offer a four-year, $16 million extension that includes a 2022 team option, and his ability to handle the staff will be paramount in the development of the team's stable of young arms.

13. Keibert Ruiz, Los Angeles Dodgers

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    Jamie Schwaberow/Getty Images

    2020 Age: 21

    Keibert Ruiz was one of the breakout prospects of 2017, and he's continued his rapid ascent through the Los Angeles Dodgers system with a strong start in Double-A this year.

    As an 18-year-old last year, he hit .316/.361/.452 with 23 doubles, eight home runs and 51 RBI in 411 plate appearances between Single-A and High-A.

    A switch-hitter with a 55-grade hit tool, Ruiz will be carried by his offense, but he's also a plus athlete behind the plate with strong receiving skills. While his catch-and-throw skills need work, he has a strong enough arm to improve in that area.

    Ruiz has the ceiling to rank higher on this list, but the fact that he'll still be just 21 years old in 2020 is reason enough to be conservative with his ranking.

12. Joey Bart, 2018 Draft Prospect

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    2020 Age: 23

    The timetable for when Joey Bart reaches the majors will depend greatly on where he winds up going in the draft next month.

    The Georgia Tech Yellow Jacket is the most hyped collegiate catching prospect since Florida's Mike Zunino went No. 3 overall in 2012 and perhaps the best all-around prospect at the position since Buster Posey starred at Florida State.

    MLB.com ranks him as the No. 9 prospect in the 2018 draft class, giving him the following tool grades:

    • Hit: 50
    • Power: 55
    • Speed: 30
    • Arm: 60
    • Field: 55
    • Overall: 55

    To put that into perspective, only three catching prospects possess a 55 grade or better for overall potential—Francisco Mejia (60), Carson Kelly (55) and Keibert Ruiz (55).

    Posey and Zunino were both in the majors the year after being drafted, so a 2019 debut sometime after the All-Star break is not out of the question, at which point Bart could quickly climb the ranks of the game's elite. 

11. Jake Rogers, Detroit Tigers

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    Mark Cunningham/Getty Images

    2020 Age: 25

    Jake Rogers has already reached the Double-A level after going in the third round of the 2016 draft out of Tulane University.

    Originally selected by the Houston Astros, he was traded to the Detroit Tigers last season as part of the Justin Verlander deal in the midst of a breakout season offensively. Between Single-A and High-A, he hit .261/.350/.467 with 25 doubles, 18 home runs and 70 RBI.

    That said, it's his defensive game that draws rave reviews.

    MLB.com wrote:

    "Few doubt Rogers' ability to make it to the big leagues on his glovework alone. He is an outstanding receiver who moves well behind the plate and works well with pitchers. His plus arm, a combination of solid arm strength with a very quick release and uncanny accuracy, continues to cut down the running game, to the tune of a 46 percent caught stealing rate in 2017."

    His defensive tools take a lot of pressure off his bat, and if he can continue to hit, he has a chance to be an All-Star in the majors. 

10. Chance Sisco, Baltimore Orioles

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    G Fiume/Getty Images

    2020 Age: 25

    Chance Sisco hit at every level in the minors, posting a .311/.390/.426 line over parts of five seasons after going in the second round of the 2013 draft.

    He's off to a slow start this season splitting duties with Caleb Joseph at the MLB level, but he'll be given every chance to settle in as the catcher of the present and future in Baltimore.

    There's still a fairly large gap between his offensive and defensive games, though he's shown steady improvement with the glove. There's every reason to believe he'll stick behind the plate.

    Joseph is under team control through the 2020 season and can continue to serve as a safety net of sorts while Sisco gets comfortable.

9. Austin Hedges, San Diego Padres

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    Orlando Ramirez/Associated Press

    2020 Age: 27

    Austin Hedges was regarded as a potential Gold Glove-caliber defender since the San Diego Padres selected him in the second round of the 2011 draft.

    The question was whether he'd hit enough to be an everyday player.

    A .326/.353/.597 line that included 21 home runs and 82 RBI at Triple-A during the 2016 season put that question to rest, and he held his own during his first full season in the majors last year when he slugged 18 home runs in 120 games.

    His overall approach still needs work, evidenced by his .214/.262/.398 line, but the tools are there.

    Meanwhile, his defense has been as advertised.

    While he didn't win Gold Glove honors last year, he racked up an impressive 20 DRS (second to the 22 by the Angels' Martin Maldonado) and threw out 37 percent of base-stealers.

    He'll be asked to be a central figure in the development of a number of promising young arms in San Diego.

8. Mike Zunino, Seattle Mariners

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    Jason Miller/Getty Images

    2020 Age: 29

    In hindsight, it seems like Mike Zunino was rushed to the majors to the point that it hurt his overall development.

    However, when the Seattle Mariners made him the No. 3 pick in the 2012 draft, most viewed him as more or less a finished product, so it was not surprising to see him in the majors roughly a year later.

    He finally started living up to his vast potential during the second half last season, when he posted a .943 OPS with 13 home runs in 60 games.

    Even when he's struggled at times offensively, it has never carried over to the defensive side of his game, and his plus receiving skills are a big reason the Mariners have continued to give him opportunities.

    If everything clicks, he can be a top-five guy at the position by 2020.

7. Sean Murphy, Oakland Athletics

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    Michael Zagaris/Getty Images

    2020 Age: 25

    Sean Murphy might wind up being the biggest steal of the 2016 draft.

    The No. 83 overall pick was the 10th catcher selected in that draft class, but he's ahead of all of those guys in these rankings after a stellar start to his pro career.

    A plus defender with a rocket arm, Murphy faced questions about his offensive upside after he went up against lesser competition at Wright State.

    He more than held his own in his first full season as a pro, posting a .723 OPS with 18 doubles, 13 home runs and 48 RBI while splitting the year between High-A and Double-A.

    That was followed by a .309/.413/.368 showing over 80 plate appearances in the Arizona Fall League, and he's off to a torrid start back at Double-A Midland this year.

    With Jonathan Lucroy signed only to a one-year deal, Murphy could be the guy in 2019.

6. Francisco Mejia, Cleveland Indians

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    Rob Tringali/Getty Images

    2020 Age: 24

    The fact that Francisco Mejia is splitting his time between catching and playing left field in Triple-A this year could raise some questions about his long-term place with the Cleveland Indians.

    However, there's a good chance that has more to do with current team needs and the organization making every effort to find a way to get his bat into the lineup at some point in 2018 than anything else.

    Mejia hit .297/.346/.490 with 21 doubles and 14 home runs in a full season at the Double-A level last year, and his 60-grade hit tool is the driving force behind his top prospect status.

    Blessed with a rocket arm, his overall receiving skills are still rough around the edges.

    If he can develop into even a league-average defender, he has the offensive skills to be a perennial All-Star and one of the best at the position.

5. Salvador Perez, Kansas City Royals

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    Tom Olmscheid/Associated Press

    2020 Age: 30

    It's hard to believe Salvador Perez will still be just 30 years old when the 2020 season rolls around.

    Pegged as the No. 1 overall catcher in our original 20 for '20 list, Perez has plateaued sooner than expected in terms of his offensive development.

    With a .302 on-base percentage and 3.6 percent walk rate for his career, there's a ceiling to his offensive value, although he's still a consistent threat for 20-plus home runs while showing good run-production ability.

    Meanwhile, Perez remains a horse behind the plate, capable of catching 130-plus games while controlling the running game and serving as a leader on the field.

    As the Royals enter a lengthy rebuilding phase, Perez is signed through the 2021 season and figures to be instrumental in ushering in the next wave of homegrown pitchers.

4. J.T. Realmuto, Miami Marlins

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    Rob Foldy/Miami Marlins/Getty Images

    2020 Age: 29

    It seems like a safe bet that J.T. Realmuto will be playing elsewhere by the time the 2020 season rolls around.

    Even if the rebuilding Miami Marlins hold onto him this season, he'll be entering a contract year in 2020, and he'll have gotten exponentially more expensive than the $2.9 million he's making this season in his first year of arbitration.

    Wherever he lands, that team will be getting perhaps the best athlete at the catcher position today.

    Realmuto hit .278/.332/.451 last year with 31 doubles and a career-high 17 home runs. He swiped eight bases while spending a good part of the season batting in the leadoff spot.

    He's also a steady defender who controls the running game well, though his pitch-framing remains a work in progress.

3. Buster Posey, San Francisco Giants

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    Nick Wass/Associated Press

    2020 Age: 33

    The first time we did the 20 for '20 series, we lumped Buster Posey in with the first basemen, assuming he'd make the move out from behind the plate at some point before the 2020 season arrived.

    However, that no longer looks like a foregone conclusion, as the San Francisco Giants may continue to shuttle him between catcher and first base as a means of keeping him fresh while still maximizing his value behind the plate.

    At any rate, Posey remains one of the game's superstars, and there's no reason to think he'll have regressed to the point that he's not still a top-tier catcher by 2020, even when entering his age-33 season.

    A career .308/.376/.473 hitter, Posey has never been a prolific power threat, so his offensive game should age a bit better than someone who relies more on over-the-fence production.

    It wouldn't be the least bit surprising to see Posey still worthy of the No. 1 spot two years from now, but with two budding stars at the position entering the prime of their respective careers and some inevitable regression to come, slotting him in at No. 3 seemed like the right move.

2. Willson Contreras, Chicago Cubs

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    Nam Y. Huh/Associated Press

    2020 Age: 28

    Willson Contreras exploded onto the prospect scene in 2015 when he hit .333/.413/.478 with 34 doubles and eight home runs in a full season at Double-A.

    He was in the majors the following season and took over as the Chicago Cubs' primary catcher last season. He posted a 119 OPS+ with 21 home runs and 74 RBI, despite missing roughly a month with a hamstring injury.

    Contreras is athletic enough that he's seen regular action in left field since reaching the majors, and that athleticism serves him well behind the plate, where he's capable of being a dynamic defensive player.

    If all the pieces fall into place, he could be a Gold Glove defender and a 30-homer, 100-RBI producer in the middle of a stacked Cubs lineup.

    Even if he falls short of reaching that ceiling, he's already one of the best all-around catchers in his age-26 season.

1. Gary Sanchez, New York Yankees

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    Seth Wenig/Associated Press

    2020 Age: 27

    Gary Sanchez occupied the No. 20 spot in these rankings the first time around.

    He was in his third season at the Double-A level at the time, and it was starting to look like his development was going to stall out in the upper levels of the minors.

    Clearly, that wasn't the case, as he burst onto the scene with 20 home runs in 229 plate appearances to finish second in AL Rookie of the Year voting in 2016 and then followed that up with a 33-homer, 4.1-WAR season last year.

    A lot was made of his AL-high 16 passed balls last season, but that speaks as much to how difficult it is to catch some of those electric arms on the Yankees staff.

    There's no reason to think he won't be at least an average defensive catcher, and he's already the position's most potent bat.

           

    All stats courtesy of Baseball Reference and FanGraphs, unless otherwise noted, and accurate through Sunday's games. A player's 2020 age refers to how old he'll be on July 1 of that year—roughly the midway point in the season.