When examining the catcher position in fantasy baseball, there isn’t too much certainty after J.T. Realmuto, Will Smith, and Salvador Perez. The position has been weak for years, to be honest.
However, I find Daulton Varsho’s profile fascinating. A catcher with the potential of stealing 20 or 25 bases? That sure raises some eyebrows.
The “Unicorn” Skill: Speed
The thing that makes Varsho so special, or at least so promising, is his unique skill set for the catcher position. He has the ability to hit at least 20 home runs and steal as many bases in a regular, 162-game season. If the Diamondbacks do the logical thing and give him regular playing time, he has a good shot to be the first 20-20 backstop since Ivan Rodriguez in 1999, as our own Joe Gentile points out. That season, I-Rod went 35-25, which is nuts, but I digress.
Varsho had 11 dingers and 19 thefts in 80 games and 342 plate appearances while playing in A+ ball in 2018; and 18 taters and 21 steals in 108 contests and 452 trips to the plate in 2019 in Double-A. In limited action last year in the bigs (37 games and 115 PA) he had three of each. It’s evident that, if given enough at-bats, he will likely reach the 20-20 club, especially if he doesn’t play catcher regularly—this would significantly decrease the wear and tear on his legs.
Daulton Varsho (#5 #Diamondbacks prospect) hit his first career homer last night.@MMarino31's take:— Prospects Live (@ProspectsLive) September 6, 2020
No concerns about his athleticism or hit tool; would make for one of the most athletic Cs in the game if he sticks, but otherwise, no question Varsho can hit.#RattleOn #PLive pic.twitter.com/OOjRnaTonH
Now, the question is, will he have a decent batting average? Will his counting stats make him usable, startable, or even more than that?
Establishing Varsho’s fantasy value
Fantasy value is more than just homers and steals. Yes, if Varsho knocks 15 balls out of the park and steals 15 bases, that’s a pretty good start. But if those numbers come with a .188/.287/.366 line, a .287 wOBA and a 76 wRC+ (like we saw in 2020) that’s another story. What will happen, then?
Given that Varsho completely skipped Triple-A because of the absence of minor league ball last year, it is quite likely that he was rushed to the majors. It’s a pretty big jump. Not uncommon, but big nonetheless.
Now that he has 37 games and 115 plate appearances in the bigs—not a whole lot, but at least it’s something—it’s possible that he is better prepared to deal with major league pitching, at least to some degree. He had a 28.7 strikeout rate in his limited time up with the D-Backs, but given that he had a 13.9% rate in a much broader sample (452 PA) at Double-A in 2019, I would say that the 2020 mark will come down in 2021. That would give his batting average some room to grow.
Another positive sign towards a respectable batting average is Varsho’s batting average on balls in play, or BABIP. If we consider that his .246 BABIP in the show was much lower than his career-low in the minors, which was .317, it should improve as he learns how to consistently hit the ball hard in MLB. He has great speed (he ranked in the 86th percentile according to Baseball Savant) so that also helps his BABIP.
Varsho was bad in 2020, with a .283 wOBA. And it’s not like he was unlucky: that theory goes out the window after seeing his .277 expected wOBA. He was overmatched, and Statcast backs it up as he was below-average in barrel percentage (4.4%) and average exit velocity (86.2 MPH).
I tell you this not because I want to discourage you from investing in Varsho for your fantasy teams, but instead, because I want you to prepare for a wide array of potential outcomes. He could flame out and never figure out MLB pitching, or he could blossom into a five-category star from the catcher position.
When examining Varsho’s 2020 MLB showing, let’s not forget that A) he was a rookie with no Triple-A experience, B) he has top-prospect pedigree, and C) he only had 115 plate appearances. He has all the potential in the world to develop into a very good contributor for your fantasy team as a catcher, at least for a year or two, depending on what the Diamondbacks decide with his playing time and position.
There isn’t much clarity about what Arizona will do, but he will play quite a bit of outfield and could lose the catcher eligibility down the road. If he is catcher-eligible in your league, you can take advantage of that situation in 2021, at least, and hope he makes a start or two per week and retains that little “C” next to his name in the future.
Performance-wise, perhaps it’s unfair to expect the .301/.378/.520 slash line he had at Double-A in 2019. But I would bank on at least a .250/.330/.440 showing with around 20 homers and 20 thefts (around means possibly a little more or a little less.) Runs and RBI? Arizona didn’t make any major acquisitions to improve an offense that was 26th in wRC+, at 88. Varsho should hit sixth or seventh most nights, which isn’t particularly encouraging for his runs and RBI totals.
Right now, I have Varsho as the 11th-best catcher for fantasy purposes, but I can easily see him finishing as a top 10 asset. A top five finish isn’t out of the question, although I would say that’s the best case scenario. But also keep in mind that he can struggle to hit the ground running, like it happened last year, and if you reach for him on draft day, you will likely suffer the consequences.