The Jerry DiPoto era for the Seattle Mariners has seen a lot of trades — I mean a lot a lot of trades — which is to be expected after his tenure in Los Angeles. It has also netted the Mariners an excellent farm system, with the franchise making a steep, sudden turnaround in that department in a very short amount of time. In fact, our most recent farm system rankings have them fourth overall, behind the Rays, Padres and Dodgers. And that was before they loaded up on talent in the MLB Draft, netting right-hander Emerson Hancock and outfielder Zach DeLoach, among others.
The Jarred Kelenic trade of course has a lot to do with the team’s resurgence down on the farm, but other, smaller deals have netted the team quality minor league talent like Justus Sheffield, Jake Fraley, Erik Swanson, Juan Then, and Dom Thompson-Williams.
Plus, the team’s recent additions on the international market, Julio Rodriguez and Noelvi Marte, are studs, and the 2017-2019 drafts netted them potential star arms like Logan Gilbert, George Kirby, Isaiah Campbell and, if he can get healthy, Sam Carlson.
As if that all wasn’t enough to get people to start believing in the team out west — fans who have waited 19 years for a playoff run tend to be skeptics — Seattle has also dramatically altered their development strategies. The previous front office was quick to rush Seattle’s top-tier prospects to the big leagues, which often caused them to struggle and eventually caused many of them (Dustin Ackley, Mike Zunino, Nick Franklin) to flame out at the game’s highest level.
The combination of smarter drafting and a patient, more analytically driven process gives reason to get excited about a huge chunk of Seattle’s top prospects, and not just the few who are on everyone’s top-100 list.
One of the most exciting names who may not be as well-known outside of prospect circles, is catcher Cal Raleigh.
I’m a-hopin’ for Raleigh, I can see my baby tonight
The Mariners originally selected Raleigh in the third round of the 2018 MLB Draft out of Florida State University. He has appeared in 159 minor league games so far, but only 39 of those games have come above High-A.
This is important because it shows the patience the Mariners have showed with their presumed catcher of the future. For reference, Mike Zunino was in the major leagues after less than 100 minor league games, a fact many attribute to his lack of success at the big league level.
Raleigh’s numbers in those 159 games have demonstrated why he is such an appealing prospect: he’s blasted 37 home runs, driven in 111 runs, mashed 35 doubles, and hit .260/.334/.506. That’s an average mark in on-base percentage and above-average ones in average and slugging.
Raleigh did most of his damage at High-A in 2019, smashing 22 home runs with a 134 wRC+ in just 82 games played. His 9.5% walk rate and 19.8% strikeout rate were encouraging signs that he has the necessary plate discipline to contribute in more than just the power categories, although he regressed to a 8.8% walk and 29.8% strikeout rate in those 39 games at AA. There could still be plenty of work to do.
As if 29 home runs in just 121 games in a pitcher friendly environment wasn’t enough for you to believe in Raleigh’s power, check out this video of him mashing one to straight away center field, posted by the incomparable Shelly Verougstraete:
I love it when you are watching a MiLB game for one player and catch a BOMB to CF from one of your 'guys'.
Cal Raleigh, catcher for Seattle, got all of that! pic.twitter.com/eFXhnmA2tV
— Shelly Verougstraete (@ShellyV_643) April 12, 2020
The power is real but the plate discipline is a work in progress, and the development staff for the Mariners seem at least somewhat aware that rushing him to the big leagues would be a mistake. The team that seems to have figured it out with Kyle Lewis and Evan White is taking a similar approach with Raleigh, and that’s enough for me to target him in deeper dynasty formats.
Ultimately, the big fantasy kicker — not just with Raleigh, but with all catching prospects — is whether they will need to undergo a position change. I can see a reality where Raleigh routinely hits 20-25 home runs with a .240 average and a so-so OBP, which are numbers that would make him among the best fantasy catchers in the game. (For reference, Salvador Perez averaged 23 home runs and 78 RBI while hitting .254/.285/.436 from 2014-2018). However, that kind of production is basically unusable as a 1B/DH in most fantasy formats.
So, the real question you, dear dynasty player, need to ask yourself is if Raleigh has the defensive chops to stick behind the dish.
How’s Raleigh with a Rawlings?
Perhaps no position in baseball is undergoing more of a philosophical shift than the one behind the dish. Catchers have long had two extraordinarily important roles: throw out would-be base stealers with above-average consistency, and frame pitches to help fool umpires into giving the pitcher extra strikes.
Now, with a sabermetrically inclined push away from stolen bases, and the potential for robot strike zones in the not too distant future, those two roles have diminished greatly, potentially opening the door for some less defensively focused catchers to emerge.
That’s not to say catching still isn’t very difficult — it requires the quick-twitch muscles necessary to block a ball in the dirt, the baseball IQ to call pitches and work with an entire pitching staff, and the need for a quick pop time and a strong arm are still necessary. While runners aren’t stealing as often, they will know if they can nab an extra base or two off a catcher who isn’t quick enough out of their stance, or doesn’t have an strong enough arm.
And of course, robot umpires aren’t here yet, so a catcher still needs to frame. The Mariners have done a good job of making sure Raleigh excels in that area, in part by making an organizational shift that seems to be increasing in popularity around the MLB: have their catchers position themselves on one knee. This allows Raleigh to better frame pitches, while also protecting his knees, although it does impact his ability to come out of his stance quickly and nab would-be base stealers.
As long as that trend away from swiping bags continues, however, a guy like Raleigh can not only maintain a career behind the dish (his six-foot-three, 215 pound frame might otherwise be viewed as a glaring concern) but he can actually excel.
While Raleigh is not the only minor league catcher who could use this to advantage (Sam Huff of the Rangers comes to mind) he is probably the closest to the big leagues, and will be an interesting case study in this new movement.
Raleigh is currently not being placed anywhere near most top-100 prospect lists, and he’s often not even considered a top-200 guy. As such, I think he is a sneaky valuable asset in dynasty leagues, and I’d be happily trying to scoop him up in most deeper dynasty formats where he is available — or buying low from an impatient owner if possible.
Catching prospects are volatile, to say the absolute least, but Raleigh has made it to the higher levels of the minors while still maintaining his power and his ability to stick behind the dish. If and when the plate discipline stabilizes, I think he can easily settle in as an annual top-15 fantasy catcher, and that makes him an immensely worthwhile dynasty league asset.
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