Toolshed: D-backs' Varsho gets up to speed

Catching prospect ready for AFL after showing complete skill set

Arizona's No. 5 prospect, Daulton Varsho swiped 19 bags in only 80 games with Visalia this season. (Tim Cattera/MiLB.com)

By Sam Dykstra / MiLB.com | September 14, 2018 12:30 PM

There were 130 players in the Minor Leagues this season to reach double digits in both home runs and stolen bases, and only two of them were catchers: Rays No. 7 prospect Ronaldo Hernandez (featured in Toolshed last month) and D-backs No. 5 prospect Daulton Varsho.

Since 2010, only three backstops have stolen more than 10 bags in the Majors: Jason Kendall in 2010, Yadier Molina in 2012 and J.T. Realmuto in 2016, each of whom swiped 12. But if there's a Minor Leaguer who could join that list, it's Varsho, to whom MLB.com has assigned a 60 (above-average) run tool. (Hernandez is considered a 40-grade runner and had 10 steals this year.) That makes the 5-foot-10, 190-pounder stand out at a position known for stockier, slower types, but it also makes him a candidate for a position change. If there's one way Varsho wants to be defined, however, it's as a catcher first and toolsy second.

"I feel like my value is at catcher," said Varsho, who belted 12 homers and had 19 steals between the AZL D-backs and Class A Advanced Visalia this season. "I do a lot to show I can provide that value there. That was my love coming out of college, and I think I can help any team that I'm on from back there. I hope teams see me as a catcher, but I want to be a front-line catcher. Everything I do goes toward that goal. If I'm trying to help the team win, of course I'll move and help out how I can. Playing is better than not. But catching is what I do."

The way 2018 went for Varsho, there's little reason to doubt that he'll stick at his preferred position.

MiLB include

The D-backs showed that they believed in Varsho's potential in 2017 when they took the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee product with the 68th overall pick in the Draft, making him the highest pick in his school's history by a good margin (84 picks ahead of Josh Uhen in 2013). MLB.com had Varsho ranked as the 110th prospect entering the 2017 Draft, noting that his below-average arm may hurt his chances behind the plate.

Varsho answered those questions in his first assignment to Class A Short Season Hillsboro, where he threw out 11 of 34 attempted basestealers (32.3 percent), and he continued to do so this season in the California League, nabbing 29 of 78 (37.2 percent). Only Lake Elsinore's Luis Torrens (32) and San Jose's Matt Winn (31) caught more potential basestealers in the Cal League this season, despite the fact that Varsho only played 55 games behind the dish. (He also threw out all three attempted basestealers during his rehab stint in the Arizona League.)

So even if no one ever considers Varsho to have a cannon, he can still keep the opponents honest on the basepaths, in part because he's so athletic.

"I can have a little bit more explosion coming out of my legs, and I can do some different things than maybe others can," Varsho said. "Even going back to Spring Training, [Minor League field coordinator] J.R. House and I worked on some things to figure out what stance would be best for me not only to throw and block but also receive. ... For me, I used to go down to a knee a lot. Now, I'm a little more up in my stance and feel like I've found the right positioning to the point where when I'm there, I can do anything."

While his arm was a question mark entering his first full season, Varsho's offensive tools had fewer doubters, though he was tested at times. The left-handed hitter produced a .290/.377/.467 line with eight homers over 57 games and had just been named a Cal League midseason All-Star when he stepped to the plate in the seventh inning on June 14 at home against Modesto. In the middle of the at-bat, he felt a pop in his right hand and knew something was wrong when he couldn't hold the bat any longer. He was replaced immediately and later diagnosed with a broken hamate bone, which required surgery. Six weeks of rest and rehab later, he moved to the Arizona League for a three-game stint -- he hit for the cycle in his third game back at the complex -- and returned to the Rawhide on Aug. 3.  

Hamate injuries are often followed by power droughts as sluggers learn to trust their hands again, and that was somewhat the case with Varsho upon his Class A Advanced return. His first Cal League homer since the injury didn't come until Aug. 27 in his 17th game back, but from there it took off. He went deep three times in his final seven games of the regular season and has gone deep twice in seven postseason contests. (Visalia is currently down, 2-0, to Rancho Cucamonga in a best-of-5 Cal League Championship Series.) He finished the regular season with a .286/.363/.451 line and 11 homers in 80 games for the Rawhide, and with a 121 wRC+, he was clearly an above-average hitter in a league known for its bats, despite an injury that could have made for an easy excuse for a down year.

"It's all about getting reps again," Varsho said of his ability to bounce back. "I was just getting good pitches and doing something with them, taking advantage. I don't know how I'm supplying power, but I think it's just from creating good at-bats. As of coming back, I've tried to hone in not getting struck out. Sometimes, that's meant swinging at pitchers' pitches, but that's proved to them that I can get to their stuff. It's a good sign to me to come back like this, and it's definitely helped my confidence."

Video: Daulton Varsho goes yard

Of course, the hamate injury never affected Varsho's speed. He swiped four bags in his final 23 regular-season games to finish with 19. No other catcher in the Cal League had more than 11, so the son of eight-year Major Leaguer Gary Varsho got more than a few looks around the league whenever he could show off his run tool in 2018.

"A lot of coaches here always ask me, 'Where did you get your speed?'" Varsho said. "Guys who have known my dad know he was very fast, so it's nice to get that from him, I guess. I came out of high school saying I was a fast catcher, so it was good to hear from people that they still think that. Knowing I have that skill only makes me more of a threat."

When Visalia's postseason eventually comes to an end, Varsho will try to carry that confidence in all his tools with him to the Arizona Fall League, where he'll not only make up for some of those lost innings but will take a crash course in what it's like to face top pitching prospects regularly -- not to mention being their batterymate. The D-backs have already placed four pitchers on the Salt River roster -- Jon Duplantier, Kevin Ginkel, Tyler Mark and Bo Takahashi --so there will be some familiarity there. He's also looking forward to working with Twins right-hander Griffin Jax, a teammate from the Eau Claire Express in the Northwoods League from the summer of 2015.

Otherwise, the Fall League is going to be a learning experience and a measuring stick for one of the game's most interesting catching prospects, who has his own definition of that role and his own plan on how to fulfill his own high expectations.

"I would say [a good catching prospect] has to have full trust with every pitcher," Varsho said. "If he doesn't, things will go a lot differently. Things can spiral out of control, if they don't trust you back there, so trust is a big one. Next is receiving. With Statcast and everything else now, we can see where the hot and cold zones are for batters, so we need to use that the right way. You look at someone like Tyler Flowers, and he makes things a lot easier because of what he can do for pitchers as a receiver. But it's different from Yasmani Grandal. Both are top-line catchers that do it in different ways, so you have to choose what aspects of their game can work for you and learn to how catch yourself as an individual. Hitting, running, that's all lower on the board for me because teams are looking for you to catch first. They want you to be the best catcher you can be, and that's where my focus is."

Sam Dykstra is a reporter for MiLB.com. Follow and interact with him on Twitter, @SamDykstraMiLB. This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.

View More