Looking for value in catching prospects can have the feel of a fool's errand. For every Blake Swihart and Kyle Schwarber who comes up, hits, and becomes a valuable fantasy player, there remain the cautionary tales: Austin Hedges (who may never hit enough to be valuable even in NL-only), Christian Bethancourt (who gets to try to take away playing time on the same team), and others who never even reach the majors. It's a position where a prospect may still make it to the majors and have a reasonably long career, but can be ignored throughout their career because they're not being valued for their production at the plate.
The catcher position itself holds defensive value at more of a premium than nearly any other spot on the diamond, and because of that we tend to see a generally lower bar for what constitutes an average fantasy producer at the position. As a result, the development of catching prospects can take longer than most other positions. That potential extra time needs to be taken into consideration when drafting them, given how long it may take to get a return on your pick. It is a position where, unless your league is extremely deep in terms of starters (think 30+ in mixed, 20+ in single league formats), you may be better off waiting until prospects reach at least AA and potentially even AAA.
With that in mind, here are my top 20 fantasy catching prospects. I've used the same tiers as we did for our consensus top 100 and top 10 fantasy prospect lists from this offseason.
Tier 1 -- The Elite Prospects
These prospects are expected to be in the top 25-50 prospects overall and have the potential to be among the top options at their position regardless of format or league size.
There are no catching prospects who fall into this tier.
Tier 2 -- The Top 100 Candidates
These prospects are expected to be in the discussion for the top 100 prospects overall and are expected to be starting options in all formats.
1. Jorge Alfaro, Philadelphia Phillies
Alfaro remains an extremely toolsy prospect that can potentially be a top option behind the plate if he can put it together. There are questions about his defense and his approach at the plate, both of which could seriously derail his fantasy value. The best case scenario though is that he is able to stick defensively, and he hits enough to let his raw power play up to its' 20-25 homer potential.
Tier 3 -- The Next Group of Starters
These prospects likely would slot into the 100-200 range on an overall ranking list and would be starters in mid-depth formats such as 12- and 14-team leagues.
2. Jacob Nottingham, Oakland Athletics
The question marks surrounding Nottingham point primarily to whether his defense is good enough to stay behind the plate, and whether his bat may force the Athletics to move him to a new position to get him to the majors more quickly. If he can keep his catcher eligibility, he can be a top 10 option at the position with a high batting average and good power.
3. Gary Sanchez, New York Yankees
Expected to be the backup in New York this year, Sanchez likely will not play enough to be of value this year in most formats. However, reports are that his defense has improved, to the point where he should maintain his eligibility long-term. He's an interesting target in AL-only and two-catcher formats, as he could still provide solid value in both batting average and home runs in part-time opportunities.
4. Tom Murphy, Colorado Rockies
Like Sanchez, Murphy could serve as the backup in Colorado at some point , and is the long-term replacement for Nick Hundley following the 2016 season. He should provide good power production even if the batting average hovers below .250.
5. Chris Betts, Tampa Bay Rays
6. Tyler Stephenson, Cincinnati Reds
A pair of high school draftees this year, they both have the potential to develop into top 5 fantasy options at the position. Just remember that it might take them 4-5 years to reach the majors, and even longer to get to that level of production.
7. Willson Contreras, Chicago Cubs
8. Austin Barnes, Los Angeles Dodgers
Contreras and Barnes are both catching prospects who have seen time elsewhere on the diamond, but who should stick long-term behind the plate. Both should also be able to provide a good batting average with a little bit of power and a little bit of speed to go along with a good approach at the plate.
9. Max Pentecost, Toronto Blue Jays
10. Reese McGuire, Pittsburgh Pirates
Pentecost and McGuire are the reminder that it really can take a while for catchers to develop, and that that path is not linear by any stretch. Pentecost was a top draft pick in 2014, but missed all of last year with injuries. McGuire remains an excellent defense-first option from the 2013 draft who is expected to develop into a solid hitter, but has shown almost no power so far in his two-plus seasons as a pro. The tools are there for both, but question marks about the likelihood of them actualizing moves them down the list.
Tier 4 -- Single-League and Deep-Format Plays
These prospects likely would slot into the 200-300 range on a ranking list and would have the most value in mixed leagues with 16+ teams and single-league formats with 12+ teams.
11. Peter O'Brien, Arizona Diamondbacks
12. Chance Sisco, Baltimore Orioles
13. Andrew Knapp, Philadelphia Phillies
This group of three could be above-average producers at the position based on their bat, but only if they can stay behind the plate defensively. It's not necessarily likely with any of the three, with O'Brien having the most upside due to his power, but also seeming the least likely to stick.
14. Dom Nunez, Colorado Rockies
Nunez had an excellent second half of the season, hitting .309/.408/.529 with 13 HR and a 40:31 BB:K rate from June 1st onward. The question is whether he can keep up that performance moving forward, as he could skyrocket up this list if he can.
15. Jamie Ritchie, Houston Astros
Ritchie's numbers jump off the page a bit from 2015, as he posted a 19% walk rate between Low and High-A. He's more likely to end up as a high average, high on-base percentage player, but without very much power, he might get exposed as he moves up the system.
16. Aramis Garcia, San Francisco Giants
17. Francisco Mejia, Cleveland Indians
18. Chase Vallot, Kansas City Royals
19. Justin O'Conner, Tampa Bay Rays
20. Taylor Ward, Los Angeles Angels
The list closes up with a trio of catchers who can be solid bat-first catchers and a pair of defense-first catchers who could develop into good enough hitters to be useful in fantasy leagues. There's still a lot of development for all of them, and out of this group it's possible that Garcia or Mejia could jump up the list with a good performance this year.