Stocking Your Scout Team: Catchers
We spent the better part of a month running through our consensus rankings and while it may seem like we discussed every relevant player for dynasty leagues, there are plenty of players we left out that are worth monitoring. Unless you’re in an extraordinarily deep league, you can build your entire draft board with our rankings but I’m going to spend the next few weeks talking about some players that you should add to your scout team or watch list as we wait out the arrival of Opening Day.
Maintaining a group of players you’re keeping an eye on, even if you don’t think they are draftable or ownable at present, is an important part of being a dynasty league owner. Being diligent about keeping a scout team allows you to get to the big league promotions and fast-rising prospects more quickly and cheaply than your league mates.
There are two classes of players I like to track heading in to a season. The first are high-floor/low-ceiling prospects that are on the verge of major league playing time. Expectations are often low for this kind of player because they rarely place on well-publicized prospect rankings. Opportunity is an important part of fantasy relevance and being prepared to evaluate a prospect’s first taste of the major leagues can provide an early buying opportunity. You’re unlikely to find a franchise cornerstone in this group but you can discover the kind of back-of-the-roster depth that is critical in dynasty leagues.
The second class of player I track are high-upside lottery tickets in the low minors that have a chance at rising quickly up organizational and – if you’re lucky – league-wide prospect rankings. These players often come down to personal preference or reliance on a scouting report from someone you trust but can pay off big when you hit on the right player.
I’ll talk about three catchers that fall into these categories today and we’ll address other positions in the weeks to come.
James McCann, Tigers
McCann was selected in the second round of the 2011 draft following his junior season at Arkansas and has earned a reputation as a glove-first prospect. Other than providing assurance he will stick behind the dish, the defensive skills aren’t worth anything in fantasy but I think McCann can bring a serviceable amount of offense to the table.
His bat will never be good enough to push him into the top few tiers at the position but he has made great strides over the past two seasons. In his first full professional season, McCann slashed .239/.281/.314, splitting time between high-A Lakeland and double-A Erie. He repeated double-A in 2013 and took a big step forward, posting a .277/.328/.404 line. He followed that with another positive step in 2014 while spending most of the season at triple-A Toledo before getting a September call-up to Detroit, where he served primarily as a pinch hitter and defensive replacement. His triple-A line of .295/.343/.427 included 34 doubles, good for a top five total in the International League.
In a weak Tigers farm system, McCann is ranked second by Baseball Prospectus and ninth by Baseball America but his potential fantasy value is supported by the likelihood that he opens on Detroit’s 25-man roster. His .344/.406/.484 line against lefties last year has some speculating that Detroit will employ a platoon, which makes sense given Alex Avila’s .282 career wOBA versus southpaws. Portraying McCann as strictly half of a platoon undersells his bat to some degree, as he was good-not-great against same-side pitching and interestingly, all seven of his 2014 home runs came off of righties.
Despite the improving stat line, scouts still question McCann’s hit tool. He walked in only 5.4 percent of plate appearances last season and the lack of power will allow major league pitchers to challenge him aggressively. I’m a little more bullish than most because of his ability to drive the ball to all fields. Here is a spray chart of McCann’s hits in 2014 (hat tip to mlbfarm), which illustrates his gap-to-gap doubles power:
McCann had a 34.5 percent outfield fly ball rate last year, well above the International League average of 28.6 percent. That bit of knowledge makes it easier to poke holes in his .295 batting average when you consider he achieved it with a .355 BABIP, an unlikely result with his batted ball mix. It also opens the door for an argument that some of the doubles could turn in to homers as he continues to develop and as his home run power becomes less pull dependent. I would never suggest that McCann will regularly hit 15 or more but if he can turn in 10-12 with an average above .260, he can provide fantasy value. We’re talking about a position where Wilin Roasrio’s .267 batting average with 13 home runs and 100 R+RBI was a top 10 finish, according to ESPN’s player rater. The bar just isn’t very high.
Alex Avila as the only thing crouching between McCann and regular at-bats isn’t very intimidating. Avila is one foul ball off the facemask from being out of baseball and even if he can stay healthy, his performance is worsening and he’s a free agent after the 2015 season. There is a good chance that McCann will be an everyday player in 2016. He’ll always be a down-the-order hitter, which will limit his counting stats but if he spends this year getting some reps against major league pitching, refining his approach at the plate, and learning from two of the best hitters in baseball, McCann will be worth a dynasty league roster spot heading in to next season.
Jose Briceno, Atlanta Braves
Asheville is a great destination if you enjoy good restaurants, craft breweries, outdoor recreation, drum circles, hacky sack, or offensive baseball. For cautionary tales about what McCormick Field can do to prospect value, check out the dip in production experienced by Trevor Story and Rosell Herrera once they moved up to high-A Modesto, the Rockies’ Cal League affiliate.
Nevertheless, I fell for 22-year-old Jose Briceno after seeing him a few times this past summer in Asheville and Greensboro. The video below shows Briceno taking some batting practice cuts during spring training. There is too much length to the swing and looking at the swing plane it’s easy to see why he posts fly ball rates well above the league average. On the plus side, I see a fluid athlete with a free and easy swing who can do some damage when he quiets down and flattens out a little.
Watching him throw down to second will always be the main attraction but he has raw power in the stick and started to tap into it in the second half of the year after making some mechanical adjustments. Briceno didn’t hit a homer until mid-June but hit 11 more after that, including a torrid two week stretch in July where he hit seven long balls in eleven games. He played a little in Venezuela over the winter and had eight hits in 26 at-bats. Six of those eight hits were home runs.
There’s a pretty solid chance I will look foolish in the end, considering his .331/.399/.569 line in Asheville versus .232/.268/.381 on the road, but the home runs were nearly evenly distributed; he hit seven at home and five away from home. If you’re investing, you’re buying that the power will play in any environment and hoping for an average hit tool. Briceno was the main piece in the deal that sent David Hale to Colorado and he’ll likely open in high-A for the Carolina Mudcats. His long term future in Atlanta depends on whether Christian Bethancourt can hit enough to stick.
Oscar Hernandez, Arizona Diamondbacks
Hernanadez exists at a bizarre intersection of raw prospect status and major league opportunity. He is a Rule 5 draftee and given Arizona’s lack of alternatives, there is some chance that Hernandez not only breaks camp with the major league team but receives regular at-bats. His primary competition is Gerald Laird, who is 35 years old, hasn’t registered more than 200 at-bats since 2010, and is dreadful. Making the leap from low-A to the big leagues as a Rule 5 catcher would be unprecedented, but what Dave Stewart is doing in Arizona is also unprecedented.
The smart money is still on a return to the low minors in the Rays organization. A .249/.301/.401 line in his first year of full-season ball is a pretty obvious indicator that he’ll be in way over his head against major league pitching. Hernandez will always be known for his .402/.503/.732 performance in the Venezuelan Summer League as a 17-year-old and while he’ll obviously never reach those heights again, he has the raw tools to be an everyday catcher if the hit tool comes back around. This is a situation worth monitoring during Spring Training.