Because I am a prospect geek with poor social skills, one of the things I have always found fascinating when talking to people who also like prospects and/or work in the industry is the idea of building a farm system. If you had your chance to build a farm system from scratch, which guys would you want to become the staples of that system?
So, instead of talking about it, I decided to do it. Well not literally; none of these prospects will end up leaving his organization, as I don’t have that kind of power. Instead, I polled five members of the industry—two front-office members and three scouts who have seen these players multiple times—if they could start their franchise with any player at each position, who would it be? I then asked them to give me a “prospect MVP ballot” which ranks their top five at the position, and they graciously accepted the challenge. Five points were awarded to the winner, four points for second place, etc.
First up, catcher. With the recent promotions of Blake Swihart and Austin Hedges to the big leagues, this isn’t exactly a stacked position, but the cupboard isn’t empty.
Here’s who the industry selected to be their backstops of the future.
AL front-office member: Reese McGuire, C, Pittsburgh Pirates
Why: “Well, the big thing for me is that I’m sure he’s going to catch, and to me, that’s sort of invaluable. So many players get moved off the position, and very few of them can actually justify a move to a corner infield or outfield position—especially when you consider that an overwhelming majority of them seem to all move to first base. A guy like [Chicago Cubs prospect Kyle] Schwarber could probably justify a move to another position because of the offensive upside, but that’s really it.
“McGuire doesn’t have anywhere near Schwarber’s upside, but he’s a special defender. He could come up and hold his own defensively right now; I don’t know how many teenagers you could ever say that about. The hit tool has a chance to be average, and the power tool could get to fringe average as he gets bigger. If there’s one catching prospect I could project to make an impact at the big-league level, it would be McGuire.”
His top five: 1. McGuire, 2. Schwarber 3. Justin O’Conner, Tampa Bay Rays 4. Jorge Alfaro, Texas Rangers 5. Max Pentecost, Toronto Blue Jays
NL West scout: Kyle Schwarber, C, Chicago Cubs
Why: “He’s easily the best offensive backstop prospect right now, and he may be the best offensive catching prospect I’ve seen since Mike Zunino. The power tool is plus-plus, the hit tool is plus and he’s gonna get on base.
“Obviously, the big question is whether or not he can stay behind the plate, but look, if teams are going to give guys like Jesus Montero a chance to play catcher, the Cubs would be foolish to not give Schwarber a shot. The good news is, he’s actually progressing there and he looks like he’s getting more athletic and less stiff back there. It wouldn’t surprise me if he was a perennial All-Star behind the plate; he’s a really good player.”
His top five: 1. Schwarber 2. O’Conner 3. McGuire 4. Tom Murphy, Colorado Rockies 5. Francisco Mejia, C, Cleveland
AL Central scout: Schwarber
Why: “I was just as stunned as everyone else when the Cubs took Schwarber as high as they did, I thought he’d go in the top 15 or so, but no way did I think he belonged in the top five. Turns out they knew what they were doing. The ball just explodes off of his bat, and I’ve been really impressed with his ability to drive the ball the opposite way.
“When you have those kind of offensive chops, you don’t need to be Yadier Molina with the glove, though everyone tells me he’s a much better receiver than people expected him to be out of Indiana. I just watch that swing and think that guy has a chance to be a player anywhere, but catcher? Forget about it.”
His top five: 1. Schwarber 2. McGuire 3. Alfaro 4. Murphy 5. Pentecost
AL East scout: Jorge Alfaro, C, Texas Rangers
“I’m guessing I’m going to be in the minority here, but I would take Alfaro, as I’m just not ready to give up on his talent yet. He’s got two 80 tools in his raw power and his arm, and there’s no catching prospect in baseball who can say that they have two 80 tools. Heck, there aren’t many players period who can say they have one 80 tool, and even a smaller amount who have two. Of course, that power is useless if the approach doesn’t improve, but he’s not even 22, lots of guys have seen the approach improve at that age. There are better defenders, but the athleticism is fine, and again, the arm strength is fantastic. If I was going safe I’d go McGuire, but I’ll take the risk and say Alfaro becomes an above-average catcher, maybe even an All-Star.”
His top five: 1. Alfaro 2. McGuire 3. Schwarber 4. O’Conner 5. Sanchez
NL front-office member: Kyle Schwarber
“The approach is just so advanced. He recognizes pitches at an elite level, and in the dozens of at-bats I’ve seen, I’ve never come away saying ‘that was a wasted at-bat.’ I think you’re looking a player who can hit .300 and hit 20-25 homers, and get on base in that .340 to .360 range. If I had one concern offensively, it’s whether or not he’ll be a platoon guy, but that’s a question I have in my head about a lot of left-handed hitters.
“Defensively there’s a lot of work to be done, and maybe he ends up being a guy who only ends up catching 40-50 games a year, but those 40-50 games could be extremely valuable. The Cubs have another good one.”
His top five: 1. Schwarber 2. O’Conner 3. McGuire 4. Alfaro 5. Murphy
Points: Schwarber 22, McGuire 19, O'Conner 13, Alfaro 12, Murphy 5, Pentecost 2, Mejia 1, Sanchez 1
In addition to the scouts, I asked some members of the prospect team which catching prospect they’d start a franchise with.
Craig Goldstein: I'll take Reese McGuire. Premium defense, surviving in the Florida State League as a 20-year-old. I like that he has a contact-oriented approach right now, and think that as he develops (even if it comes later than anticipated, as so happens with catchers), some of those singles turn into doubles and some of those doubles turn into homers. It's not an extreme profile offensively, but low-end double-digit homers seems feasible, along with a .270-type average. Given his defense, which is built on great footwork, I think that's a first-division catcher. There's less ceiling here than some other obvious names, but if the realistic floor is an everyday player and a realistic ceiling is a role 55, then it's something I'm interested in.
I'll also note that I'm not sure how to gauge a guy like Schwarber in this discussion. He's a catcher now, and I've heard some positive reports on his ability to play there—at least some—from those outside the organization. That said, I'm not sure how to value his defense if he's going to be protected by only catching part-time, etc.
Mauricio Rubio: I think it's McGuire because he brings a bat/glove combination that's difficult to find in the minors. I think Alfaro still deserves some love, but I don't really like how the skills behind the plate haven't matured to this point. I think Carson Kelly on the Cardinals deserves some attention here, he's got a good arm and if the glove can get to a 55 level he's going to be a good one. I do like Deivi Grullon's defense quite a bit, and I'm eager to check in on his progress at the end of the year.
I do knock Schwarber down a few pegs as a catcher because his defense is just okay. I know there are people who are convinced he can catch out there, but I'm still not quite buying in. He's a hard worker and I think he can be a part-time guy, but for me that's a different type of archetype. In my mind, if he's a part-time guy, he's an Evan Gattis type, and I don't think anyone outside of fantasy circles (who certainly have the right mindset to do this) are ranking Gattis highly as a catcher only.
Tucker Blair: I’d go with Jorge Alfaro. He needs refinement in a few areas, but the raw tools are some of the best in the minors. His aggression is a double-edged sword, but I like the freight train mentality on the basepaths and behind the plate. He's getting better and more consistent as a catcher. The arm is a true weapon and I've had pop times in the 1.80 range. The approach will hopefully catch up with the raw tools, but there's potential for an everyday guy with above-average power—if he can make enough contact.
Mark Anderson: Given my propensity to gravitate toward toolsy, higher-impact players, I lean toward Jorge Alfaro here. I acknowledge the considerable risk in his game, but what he can provide, even without reaching his immense ceiling, brings substantial value to a big-league club. He's likely to be a low-average, low-OBP hitter with some pop and speed; and as the defense continues to mature, the overall package behind the dish will become more appealing than just impressive raw arm strength. Given that the average major-league catcher is hitting around .230/.300/.360 this year, Alfaro doesn't have to reach his ceiling to eclipse that bar and provide punch to a big-league club as their everyday backstop. Combine that with the chance he does approach his ceiling, and there's no way I can pass on Alfaro given the relatively weak crop of catchers still in the minor leagues.
Who I’d go with: This is a tough one. On one hand, I think Schwarber is clearly the best offensive backstop prospect in baseball, there are two above-average offensive tools here, and no other minor-league catcher—Alfaro included—has that kind of offensive potential.
On the other hand, as good as he is offensively, the defensive skills just aren’t there for me. The hands are only average, as is the arm strength, and the footwork is worlds away. Compare that to a guy like McGuire who has a cannon for an arm and is as advanced defensively as any teenage catching prospect I’ve seen, and it’s easy to understand why many prefer McGuire.
And yet, I think I still have to go Schwarber, for all the reasons the scouts listed above. Do I think he’s going to catch 120 games a year? No, but I don’t think he has to. The bat can play anywhere, and if you get a third to a half of those games at catcher, I think you get something that will be a four-win player at the big-league level.