by Eric Stashin (aka The Rotoprofessor)
Who are the next wave of superstars in Major League Baseball? That’s what we are about to dive into, as we go position-by-position, looking for the best players who are 25-years old or younger (as of April 1, 2014). Obviously, things will be slightly skewed to those who have already reached the Majors and produced, but minor leaguers and their upside will not be ignored.
To kick things off, we will start with the talent behind the plate. The most grueling position in the game, it is often tough to find a player with tremendous offensive upside because teams will move them out from behind the plate in order to keep them healthy. That said, in recent years the game has seen an influx of young catchers with a few more on the way. Who is currently the best? Let’s take a look:
Honorable Mention – Gary Sanchez – New York Yankees (21-years old)
The addition of Brian McCann simply gives Sanchez a bit more time to develop on the minor leagues, but it won’t be long before McCann is forced from out behind the plate. There is no questioning Sanchez’ power potential, with 50 HR and 72 doubles over the past three seasons in the minors. In fact, his power potential could be scary in Yankees Stadium.
He took a step in the right direction by lowering his strikeout rate in 2013 (17.1%) and also reached Double-A. He needs to improve his line drive rate (10.8% in ’13, 13.9% over the past three years) as well as continue to limit the strikeouts if he wants to hit for a better average.
You could say that the Rangers’ Jorge Alfaro has more power potential, but his strikeout rate is enormous (26.6% in ’13) and there is a better chance that he is forced out from behind the plate.
5) Josmil Pinto – Minnesota Twins (25-years old)
He may not have the same upside as the three guys above him on this list (or arguably Gary Sanchez), but that doesn’t mean he should be ignored. With Joe Mauer moving to first base full-time, all that’s standing in Pinto’s way of regular playing time is Kurt Suzuki.
He followed up a strong minor league season between Double and Triple-A (.307 with 15 HR) by hitting .342 with 4 HR in 76 AB for the Twins. Yes, he’s not going to replicate a .440 BABIP, but he hit the ball hard (24.1% line drive rate) and should make good contact (16.3% strikeout rate the past three years in the minors).
The power has also been developing, having added 32 doubles in the minors and another 5 in the Majors. He’s not about to hit 30 HR, but there’s no reason to think he can’t regular hit .270 with 16-20 HR given the skill set and development.
There’s a lot to like here moving forward.
4) Mike Zunino – Seattle Mariners (23-years old)
Like d’Arnaud he struggled in the Majors (.214 with 5 HR in 173 AB), and also missed time due to injury. We also don’t have as much minor league data to try and extrapolate, as his career his just two years old.
Zunino did struggle at Triple-A as well, hitting .227 thanks to a 28.8% strikeout rate. He was significantly better than that in 2012, but that was also at the lower levels and it was in just 161 AB. He was at 25.4% in the Majors, so the number could become troubling.
That said, the power could be for real (24.5% HR/OFB in the minors) and is a very promising tool. You could argue either way between him and d’Arnaud for the second spot on this list, but Zunino’s potential strikeout problems do knock him down a peg for now.
3) Travis d’Arnaud – New York Mets (25-years old)
The question with d’Arnaud isn’t his talent, but his ability to stay healthy. He’s now lost a significant chunk of the past two seasons due to injuries, a very concerning trend.
That said, over the past three seasons in the minors he has slashed .316/.381/.557. Yes, his .364 BABIP over that stretch is inflated, but he did prove he could hit the ball hard (20.6% line drive rate) and make contact at a solid rate. Even if you don’t think he’s a .300 hitter, the makeup is there for someone who should hit .270.
He also had shown power, both in terms of home runs (40) as well as hitting 67 doubles in just 808 AB. Yes he spent time in the Pacific Coast League, but there’s no doubting the upside.
It’s easy to be down on him after he struggled in his taste of the Majors, but keep in mind his .244 BABIP and 3.6% HR/FB. There are much better days ahead.
2) Wilin Rosario – Colorado Rockies (25-years old)
There’s no doubt that he has the most power potential of anyone on this list and it is basically a 1 and 1a situation with Salvador Perez. That said, he comes in slightly behind Perez due to playing time and a potential drop in average.
In regards to playing time, he’s played in 117 and 121 games the past two season. Being in the NL he doesn’t have the DH to keep his bat in the lineup and the Rockies have shown a willingness to give him time off (as compared to Perez who plays virtually every day).
The average is another issue, despite hitting .292 last season. It’s hard to imagine any catcher maintaining a .344 BABIP and his line drive rate regressed to 20.8% in the second half (which is arguably closer to the truth). That means there is going to likely be a drop in average, which hurts his value (though just slightly).
1) Salvador Perez – Kansas City Royals (24-years old)
While the others on this list still have some projecting associated with them, Perez has proven he can do it at the highest level. Over the past three seasons he has hit .301 for the Royals courtesy of an 11.1% strikeout rate and 23.0% line drive rate. Even in a “down” season he hit .292 with a line drive rate above 20% in 2013.
There’s projectability in his power, thanks to his size and strength, though it’s not a guarantee it fully develops. That said, he did hit 13 HR last season and isn’t a complete black hole.
Worst case scenario he’s similar to Joe Mauer, just with more power and fewer runs scored. Would anyone complain about that? The upside, though, is a .300 hitting catcher with 20+ HR pop. That’s Mauer’s “glory” year, something he proved incapable of duplicating. Perez has the potential to do it on a yearly basis.
Honorable Mention – Devin Mesoraco – Cincinnati Reds (he’s struggled in the Majors, but will finally get full-time AB and a chance to prove himself); Max Stassi – Houston Astros (blocked by Jason Castro, he doesn’t have the same upside as Sanchez); Austin Hedges – San Diego Padres (should be the catcher of the future, but not in a favorable ballpark)
Sources – Fangraphs, Minor League Central
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Make sure to check out all of our 2014 rankings: