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'D'-Listers: Hedges headlines backstops
01/31/2014 10:00 AM ET

As a couple of soon-to-be Hall of Famers once said, "Chicks dig the longball," and in that spirit, elite offensive prospects garner most of the praise.

Though multi-home run games and double-digit hitting streaks are a good way to become A-list celebrities in this corner of the Internet, there's also plenty of love for MiLBers on defense. Realizing that we have an entire season's worth of compliments to heap on the Minors' best hitters, we thought this a fitting time to acknowledge the Minors' best fielders.

With that in mind, we're happy to bring you the D-Listers -- baseball's run-preventing stars of the future. Today, we begin with the Minors' best catching prospects, led by a prodigious talent working his way back to his home state.

The stud: Austin Hedges, Padres

Double-A San Antonio manager Rich Dauer finally got a good look at Hedges -- touted since high school as a premiere defensive catcher -- when the backstop was a late-season callup from Class A Advanced Lake Elsinore. The 21-year-old made a fast impression on the Missions' 61-year-old skipper.

"He handles himself well, carries himself with some confidence, that air of confidence which is necessary," Dauer said. "He has a pretty energetic personality, which I think will calm down as he gets older, but right now it serves him well. He controls the tempo of the game. Obviously, he has all the tools as far as a catcher can go."


A look at baseball's best defensive prospects:

Catchers (featuring Austin Hedges)
Center fielders (featuring Byron Buxton)
1B/RF (featuring Stephen Piscotty)
2B/3B (featuring Mookie Betts)
Shortstops (featuring Francisco Lindor)

As Hedges told MiLB.com in November, the building blocks of his defensive game were built in high school under the tutelage of Brett Kay, a 2001 eighth-round Draft pick of the Mets, who coached Hedges at Junipero Serra High School in San Mateo, Calif. Kay, an All-American catcher in high school, earned All-Big West Conference honors at Cal State Fullerton and instilled a professional approach in Hedges as a teenager, providing him with an excellent set of fundamentals while attuning him to philosophies and focuses that would serve him well as a pro.

Since the Padres drafted him in the second round in 2011, Hedges has developed his game under coaches such as Shawn Wooten and Brad Ausmus -- the latter was a roving instructor for San Diego before being hired as the Tigers' manager in November. Hedges has developed into a quiet receiver with excellent hands and framing skills. He boasts a strong arm -- MLB.com tossed a 65 out of 80 on it while ranking Hedges baseball's No. 2 catching prospect -- that plays up because of good footwork. Hedges can control the running game and block balls in the dirt.

Beyond his physical talents, Hedges' makeup is also a strength. He prioritizes the leadership and communication responsibilities that come with the position. When it comes to building rapport with pitchers, he always considers himself on the clock. He's also constantly studying hitters and earns praise for his game-calling abilities.

"There's no stopping the guy. He's going to make it to the big leagues," Dauer said. "I think it's just a matter of time until the pathway clears for him. He's not a guy who's going up there to sit. He's going to be a front-line catcher. The time will come, probably sooner rather than later."

The finished product: Christian Bethancourt, Braves

Bethancourt has been a defensive darling among evaluators for years. The 22-year-old Panama native boasts one of baseball's strongest arms and has long projected to be effective at limiting the running game. Over the past few seasons, he's made strides with the rest of his defensive game, becoming a quality receiver and game caller. Bethancourt is an excellent athlete, which translates to his agility and ability to block balls in the dirt.

The Braves have helped Bethancourt smooth his footwork and improve his approach as a game manager. He develops game rapport with pitchers and should be a solid game caller at the Major League level in short order.

The backstop has already earned time in the Majors, playing one game as a September callup in 2013 -- although he didn't do any catching. That should change this year, as Bethancourt could compete for a Major League roster spot. Only Evan Gattis -- a lackluster defender who also plays the outfield -- and Gerald Laird stand between him and a starting gig.

Name to learn: Christian Vazquez, Red Sox

Scouts have a name for the time it takes from when a catchers receives a pitch until his throw to second base lands in his teammate's glove -- pop time. In pro baseball, anything under two seconds is considered good enough for the Major Leagues, with the best settling into the 1.8-1.9 second range.With that in mind, we encourage you to play couch scout for a moment and time Vazquez's throw -- from the moment the ball enters his glove to the moment it reaches the second baseman -- in the embedded video below.

We timed Vazquez's pop time at around 1.7 seconds, which is beyond excellent. And that, according to the folks who see him regularly, is no fluke.

"He's one of the best I've ever seen coming through the baseball, timing the glove and the upper-half exchange," said Triple-A Pawtucket manager Kevin Boles, who managed Vazquez at Double-A Portland in 2013. "It's a super-quick release. He's one of the best I've seen turning the baseball around to second base."

Vazquez's mechanics are somewhat unorthodox. The 23-year-old Puerto Rican stabs out to get the ball in a manner more aggressive than other catchers, but he makes it work, mostly because of outstanding hands. Vazquez can transfer the ball from glove to hand with impressive quickness, allowing him to turn around 90-mph fastballs as quickly as anyone.

Beyond his catch-and-throw abilities, Vazquez has made strides as a game manager. What stands out most to Boles is Vazquez's self confidence, something that should help him commit to polished game plans as he picks up more pitch-calling strategies and experience.

"I think the next step for him is getting with a veteran staff, being around some older guys who can show him some more about pitch selection," Boles said. "He has conviction. Good catchers have that. They know what they know, read swings and match that up with the personnel on the mound. He has conviction and sticks to his guns on pitch selection."

The toolshed: Jorge Alfaro, Rangers

The first thing to know about Alfaro is that even the Royal Navy is envious of his cannon. The 20-year-old Colombian may be unrivaled in his arm strength, a gift that allows him to stand out despite lacking the polish of his peers, let alone those more advanced in the Minors and Majors.

"It doesn't matter if you stack him up against lower-level or big-league guys, it's the best one there is," Class A Hickory manager Corey Ragsdale said. "I know that's big praise for his arm, but there aren't many of them out there who have the arm he does."

Rangers fans can be forgiven if Alfaro's arm elicits visions of Ivan Rodriguez -- pictured here with Alfaro on the youngster's Instagram. Rodriguez is a good approximation of Alfaro's ultimate ceiling from a catch-and-throw standpoint, although the gap between future and present is a big one.

The Rangers signed Alfaro in January 2010 and quickly moved him from shortstop to backstop. Alfaro's athleticism is also exceptional for the position, but translating those abilities into defensive skills has been an expectedly slow process.

Ragsdale saw improvements from Alfaro in 2013, though. The catcher's footwork around the plate -- both blocking pitches and throwing to bases -- improved noticeably. The techniques necessary to receive at a professional level began to sink in, leaving Ragsdale optimistic that Alfaro could reach something close to his ultimate defensive ceiling.

Most notable to Ragsdale, though, was that Alfaro began to take on the mentality necessary to be an everyday catcher. "Ownership" is the word he used, referring to the pride Alfaro took in improving his fundamentals and especially as a game manager. He called his own pitches in every game, plotted game plans with pitchers and showed genuine enthusiasm for the process, and those things caught Ragsdale's attention.

"Catchers have to be a special breed, a guy who wants to get back there and get beat up all the time," Ragsdale said. "Jorge bought into that. … In the past, when he first started, he was more worried about other things than putting the fingers down. Now he realizes how important that is for a catcher."

Best among the rest:

A.J. Jimenez, Blue Jays: The 2008 ninth-round pick thwarted base runners with a 44 percent caught-stealing rate with Class A Advanced Dunedin in 2011, then underwent Tommy John surgery in 2012. He returned last year and showed no ill effects, hosing 42 percent of would-be base stealers, thanks to a quick release and a very accurate arm.

Pedro Severino, Nationals: Like Jimenez, Severino excels at controlling the running game, posting a 40 percent caught-stealing percentage with Class A Hagerstown in 2013. The 20-year-old native of the Dominican Republic is a long way from the Majors but has shown promise blocking and receiving pitches.

James McCann, Tigers: McCann could become a stellar backstop in the Majors and shows promise controlling the running game with a career 39 percent caught-stealing rate. Beyond his physical tools, he stands out for his leadership style and game management talents.

Kevin Plawecki, Mets: Beyond the usual hurdles that hinder young backstops, Plawecki faced something unique after being drafted by the Mets in 2012 -- a starting rotation without any native English speakers. His solution? Hit the Rosetta Stone. Plawecki committed to becoming bilingual to communicate with his staff, and that effort and aptitude is reflective of his makeup. Though his physical tools aren't as impressive as some of the rest on this list, his mental approach should make him a valuable defensive catcher.



This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.