An undervalued catcher with offensive upside is one of the most elusive assets in fantasy baseball. If you think you've found one, you might be willing to target him a few rounds earlier than projections otherwise dictate. One could argue that the catcher who offers the most fantasy upside in 2016 while also flying under the radar in the preseason is Miami's J.T. Realmuto.
Realmuto spent 2015 languishing near the bottom of a bad Marlins lineup made worse by injuries and general underperformance on the part of everyone except Dee Gordon. While adjusting to the daily grind associated with being an everyday catcher in the major leagues, Realmuto posted a respectable-yet-uninspiring slash line of .259/.290/.406. Like many young players, he appeared to wear down at the plate as the long season dragged into July and August. Furthermore, nothing in his minor-league record (career .268/.335/.394) suggests that he soon will emerge as an elite offensive option at a weak position.
Reasonable doubts notwithstanding, Realmuto remains an intriguing player whose overall profile and circumstances justify some measured optimism.
First, there's more power potential here than meets the eye. Admittedly, Realmuto's 10 home runs in 2015--tied for 17th among catchers--look fairly pedestrian, and based on his minor-league totals it would be difficult to project with confidence more than 12-15 longballs in a single season. Other numbers, however, suggest that as a power-hitter he might be on the cusp of fantasy relevance, if not a full-fledged breakout. Realmuto's 21 doubles tied for 7th at the position, and they were not cheap doubles. Most reached the outfield wall. Some, like his 424-foot blast off the centerfield terrace in Arizona, needed only a bit more height to leave the yard. With the fences moving in at Marlins Park, a few of those long two-baggers might get the help they need.
Second, Realmuto offers elite speed at his position. In 2015 he led all major-league catchers with 7 triples and 8 stolen bases. This also was no fluke. In fact, across four minor-league seasons between Low-A and AA (he repeated AA in 2013-14), Realmuto stole 13, 13, 9, and 18 bases, respectively. Even a modest power-speed combo appeals to fantasy players, and one could argue that Realmuto has more potential to emerge as a significant power-speed threat than any other player at his position. A former high-school shortstop, Realmuto possesses the natural athleticism to maintain these speed numbers through his prime years. At a solid 6'1"-205 and still only 24 years old, he also boasts the physical profile of a dual-threat hitter who still has some room for development.
Third, Realmuto carries positive momentum into 2016. After struggling through July and August of last season, when at times he appeared physically worn out, the young catcher rebounded to post an impressive .907 OPS across 72 ABs in September. During the season's final month he reached base at a .351 clip, which was closer to his career minor-league average of .335 than was the .290 average he posted for the full season. Moreover, a closer look at his 38 combined extra-base hits in 2015 bolsters the case for a genuine late-season resurgence at the plate. Between April and June, according to baseballsavant.com, Realmuto's 17 extra-base hits left his bat at an average exit velocity of 95.4 MPH. From July through September, Realmuto's 21 extra-base hits averaged 101.8 MPH, including several September scorchers that reached 108 MPH. In short, by year's end Realmuto was playing better and hitting the ball harder than he had all season.
Fourth, returning health and increased production from Miami's young hitters should make for a deeper and more formidable lineup in 2016. Last season Giancarlo Stanton hit 27 homers, many of them gargantuan blasts, in only 74 games before suffering a season-ending injury. If Stanton returns to form, if Christian Yelich can build on an outstanding second half, and if new hitting coach Barry Bonds can work some magic on the talented Marcell Ozuna, then the Marlins will have the outfield-of-dreams they've anticipated for the last few years, and Realmuto will enjoy plenty of run-producing opportunities.
Finally, a year's experience behind the plate should give Realmuto tremendous confidence entering 2016. The arduous task of handling a major-league staff and playing defense on every pitch provides an essential context in which to assess a catcher's overall performance, including offensive stats. In 2015, Realmuto assumed full-time catching duties just as the Marlins' pitching staff was about to fall apart. SPs Henderson Alvarez, David Phelps, and Jarred Cosart suffered lengthy injuries. Superstar Jose Fernandez returned from Tommy John surgery in June only to land on the DL again in August. Closer Steve Cishek imploded, was sent to the minors, and later traded.
Chaos on the pitching staff meant that Realmuto had a lot to learn about a lot of different pitchers, and he lacked a veteran hurler to guide him. By midsummer Miami's rotation featured an underwhelming array of prospects and career middle relievers. Realmuto did not reach the majors with the reputation of a free-swinger at the plate, so would it be plausible to suggest that his exhaustive and exhausting defensive responsibilities might help explain his uncharacteristic 19:70 BB:K ratio? If so, then one could argue that the returning health of Fernandez and Cosart, as well as the recent signing of free-agent SP Wei-Yin Chen, will stabilize the rotation and thereby improve Realmuto's offensive outlook.
Blessed with a power-speed combo unique among catchers, Realmuto offers a nice ceiling at a premium position. There's also some hidden value to be found in the way he finished the 2015 season, in an analysis of his extra-base hits, and in his teammates' returning health. Realmuto posted steady-but-never-eye-popping numbers in the minor leagues, so fantasy players should keep their expectations reasonable. If, however, you're looking for a catcher with the right combination of skills and circumstances to emerge this season as a possible top-five option at the position, then Realmuto might be your strongest candidate.