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'D'-Listers: Hedges, Swihart tops behind dish

2011 Draft picks considered Minor Leagues' elite defensive backstops
February 23, 2015

In this corner of the internet, it's routine for a heavy-hitting Minor Leaguer to work his way into the headlines. Home runs and four-hit games tend to jump off the box score, giving fans a tangible piece of information on their favorite prospects.

We don't want to ignore those who specialize with the leather, though. Having spent most of the year making A-list celebrities of the Minors' best hitters, it's time to heap a little praise on the glove men. Here, we present the "D"-Listers -- baseball's run-preventing stars of the future.

We start with a look at the Minors' best catchers.

The Reigning Stud: Austin Hedges, Padres

When we started this series last year, Hedges was a no-brainer selection as the Minors' best catcher. Not much has changed in the past 12 months, so we'll keep this writeup short. Basically, Hedges does it all behind the plate. He has a great, though not quite elite, arm that plays up due to advanced footwork and fundamentals -- he nailed 38 percent of attempted basestealers at Double-A in 2014.

Hedges' receiving is considered a plus, among the best in the Minors. His game has been influenced by several coaches, including former Padres catching coordinator Brad Ausmus, who was one of the game's best receivers through the 1990s and 2000s.

Having established the physical aspects of catching by his 21st birthday, Hedges prioritized rapport-building with the pitching staff at Double-A San Antonio last season. Increasingly, he's begun working with pitchers who'll join him in the Majors at some point, meaning the groundwork for San Diego's future batteries already is being laid.

Expect Hedges to get an extended look with the big league team in Spring Training before heading to Triple-A El Paso to open 2015. He'll likely spend most of the season there, improving his offense, but would benefit from a September callup to begin familiarizing himself with Major League scouting reports. If the bat ticks up enough, Hedges could join San Diego early in 2016.

The Next Best Thing: Blake Swihart, Red Sox

This time last year, evaluators were pretty quick to nominate Hedges as the Minors' best defensive catcher, with a gap between him and the field. A year later, Swihart has jumped up from the peloton to join Hedges in the conversation for top dog.

Hedges and Swihart profile similarly in that both are considered well-rounded, although Hedges is probably more polished as a receiver. Unlike Hedges, Swihart was more projection than polish as a high school Draft pick. Swihart began catching the summer before his senior season, leaving little time to learn the position. Even without much experience, Boston liked his athleticism and makeup enough to take him 26th overall in the 2011 Draft -- Hedges went 82nd to San Diego. In his full-season debut in 2012, Swihart allowed only three passed balls and threw out 31 percent of basestealers but still showed room for improvement. A year later, his caught-stealing percentage jumped to 42 percent and opinions of his defensive game began trending up.

Last summer, Swihart really began turning heads with the leather. The 22-year-old hosed 46 percent of basestealers between Double-A and Triple-A while earning rave reviews for his mature fundamentals and leadership.

Swihart's personality is a good fit behind the dish, something Pawtucket manager Kevin Boles noticed shortly after Swihart was promoted to Triple-A. The backstop already was familiar with some of the PawSox pitching staff, but even dealing with a batch of new hurlers, he quickly established himself as a leader. Swihart -- whom Boles describes as "high energy" -- slid seamlessly into an everyday role and helped Pawtucket win the International League championship. The route included a remarkable tag on a play at the plate:

Swihart's makeup has helped him maximize his athletic tools. Boles puts above-average or better grades on his arm, release, footwork and athleticism, giving him a solid foundation for the position. That said, Swihart isn't quite an MLB-ready product. Boles saw growth in his pitch selection but wants to see more in that regard in 2015. He also has room to hone his receiving.

"From a polish standpoint, his game is going to evolve in time," Boles said. "He's refining these tools and making sure with the quickness and athleticism -- there's also some polish there and consistency. You started to see that.

"He has a lot of things going for him. The total package, it's one of those where you say, 'What's this look like five, six years down the road?' It has a chance to be very exciting."

Mr. MLB-Ready: Christian Bethancourt, Braves

Last year, Bethancourt was profiled in this same slot and, after another full season at Triple-A, he has nothing left to prove defensively in the Minors. He's as ready for the Majors as any rookie-eligible catcher, especially after playing in 31 games with Atlanta last season.

Bethancourt's strengths have been well-documented by the internet scouting community. gives his arm a 70 grade on the 20-80 scale, putting him nearly at the top of the chart. That's the main reason he threw out 36 percent of basestealers at Triple-A last season.

One new feature for Bethancourt was exposure to advanced video scouting. The backstop was able to inform his game-calling with video research for the first time, and Gwinnett manager Brian Snitker was pleased with how Bethancourt utilized the technology. Scouting and game preparation in general is more advanced at Triple-A than at other levels in the Braves system, according to Snitker, and Bethancourt handled the extra information well.

Bethancourt will have to continue to acclimate himself to the daily mental rigors of catching in the Majors. Beyond that, Snitker thinks he faces a challenge in maintaining his setup and mechanics because of his size. At 6-foot-2 and 205 pounds, Bethancourt has longer limbs than the average backstop.

"His setup and all that is always going to be something he has to work at because he's a tall kid," Snitker said. "It's harder for those guys to manipulate and get in a good receiving position. It's something he has to work at."

The Toolshed: Justin O'Conner, Rays

The 31st overall pick in the 2010 Draft, O'Conner turned pro with a big arm and some power potential but didn't show much else in his first few Minor League seasons. Reports changed rapidly in 2014, though, as he broke out offensively while showing impressive defensive refinement with Class A Advanced Charlotte. The performance earned him a late-season promotion to Double-A and a trip to the Arizona Fall League. He picked up a lot of fans along the way.

"He's one of the best I've seen in the Minors in a long time behind the plate," said a rival Florida State League manager. "He's a little unorthodox. He's kind of a slinger, but I don't think I had him over a 1.9 (seconds) on the throw to second, and that includes between innings."

Others echoed that manager's sentiments. One front-office person who saw O'Conner in the AFL even suggested the Rays farmhand belongs right next to Hedges and Swihart in the conversation about the Minors' best defensive catching prospect.

O'Conner consistently posts plus-plus times on throws to second, with some reports putting his pop times -- the time it takes to throw to second base -- between 1.7 and 1.8 seconds. As the FSL manager above mentioned, his release is a bit unusual. He wings the ball from a three-quarters slot, an unusual process that speeds his transfer but only works because he might have the strongest arm in the Minor Leagues. Jared Sandberg -- O'Conner's manager at Charlotte last year -- puts an easy 80 grade on it, saying he thinks it's the first 80 arm he's been around since he played in the Minors with Josh Hamilton.

The rest of O'Conner's defensive game came along last year. The Rays prioritize receiving and pitch-framing with their catchers, evidenced by their recent reliance on Jose Molina, Ryan Hanigan and Rene Rivera, all of whom excel at expanding the strike zone. Tampa Bay's emphasis extends to the Minors, where Jamie Nelson (catching coordinator until 2012) and Paul Hoover (current catching coordinator) have helped shape O'Conner's receiving skills.

The 22-year-old has labored in a few areas to improve his receiving. For starters, his flexibility needed work coming out of high school, but Sandberg has seen vast growth in that regard. As that's developed, O'Conner's mechanics and positioning have improved, allowing to him to "work under the ball" -- Sandberg's words -- and present pitches better on the periphery of the strike zone. He's also improved his technique blocking pitches in the dirt.

"He's put the time in and he's going to continue to put in more time and get better," Sandberg said. "He's not perfect yet, but he's come a long way, and with his work ethic, he's going to continue to get better."

O'Conner will transition into the upper Minors this year with room to develop his intangibles. In a year-end conversation with Sandberg, he informed the skipper his goal for Double-A was to "learn a whole new staff and refine those leadership skills." Double-A and Triple-A are usually where backstops focus on polishing things like rapport-building and pitch-calling, and O'Conner is no different.

"He knows that's one of those things he needs to get better at as he moves and changes teams and learns new pitchers," Sandberg said. "He's doing a better job of that."

Under the Radar: Roberto Pena, Astros

Pena hasn't gotten the same publicity as the other backstops, and a lot of that is because he lacks their offensive upside. The 22-year-old batted .249 with a .720 OPS in the hitter-friendly California League last year, about 15 percent worse than the league average, so there's work to do.

But when it comes to controlling the running game, Pena is considered elite. His pop times are among the best in the Minors, as he's one of the few guys who can regularly clock a sub-1.9-second pop time. Last year, he nailed 52 of 92 basestealers for an unheard of 57 percent caught stealing percentage. It was his second straight season hosing more than half of attempted basestealers.

Houston, like Tampa Bay, is known to place a priority on catcher defense, specifically pitch-framing. In that regard, it's notable just how highly the Astros think of Pena's overall game, even beyond the catch-and-throw.

"He's without question one of the best defensive catchers in the Minor Leagues," Astros director of professional scouting Kevin Goldstein said in October. "The guy is crazy special back there."

Pena grades strongly with the Astros for his makeup and handling of the staff. He's advanced in most areas defensively and is expected to grow into an above-average receiver. His ultimate ceiling is limited because he's not expected to hit, but it's a good bet Pena will work his way onto a Major League roster as a glove-first backup in the next few years.

Five more of note:

Jorge Alfaro, Rangers -- We featured Alfaro last year, highlighting his promising tools and inconsistent performances. In 2014, he continued to flash one of the Minors' strongest arms but also struggled to polish the rest of his game. Alfaro's biggest hole remains consistency. Opposing managers watched him receive and block pitches like a budding All-Star one day, then drop pitches for seemingly no reason the next.

"That's just a plus arm behind the plate," a rival Carolina League manager said. "He was really able to neutralize the running game with that arm.

"I think he'll get better as a receiver. I think that was typical of a guy still working on his craft. You can see the talent is there."

J.T. Realmuto, Marlins -- Swihart is undoubtedly the best two-way player of the Major League-ready catchers listed here, but Realmuto also boasts a well-rounded profile. The 23-year-old transitioned behind the dish after Miami selected him in the third round of the 2010 Draft, and he's made steady progress since. Realmuto repeated Double-A last year and used all that experience to his advantage. Jacksonville pitchers raved about the way he helped with scouting and pitch selection, thanks largely to his familiarity with the Southern League. Physically, he gets strong marks for receiving and his ability to control the running game. He was excellent with the latter, throwing out 39 percent of would-be basestealers and posting pop times in the 1.9-second range.

James McCann, Tigers -- McCann's tools are more solid-average than flashy, but he's effective as a receiver and at controlling the running game. The University of Arkansas product stands out most for his intangibles, though. One opposing International League manager praised McCann's pitch selection and command of the Triple-A Toledo staff. Pitchers who've worked with him have said the same. Catchers have a lot of information to balance once they reach the Majors, and indications are that McCann has the makeup and smarts to thrive in the modern game.

Reese McGuire, Pirates -- McGuire made his full-season debut with Class A West Virginia last summer after going 14th overall in the 2013 Draft. He didn't disappoint. No catcher impacted the South Atlantic League more with his defense, which included nailing 39 percent of attempted basestealers.

"He slams your running game," an opposing SAL manager said. "We couldn't run against him at all."

McGuire's game goes beyond his pop times. Those who saw him came away impressed with his blocking and game management, and the Pirates rave about his makeup. As player development director Larry Broadway said last year, "He has an advanced feel for being a teammate and leading staffs."

Francisco Mejia, Indians -- Mejia is well behind those listed above, having just reached short-season ball in 2014. Still 19, the native of the Dominican Republic has an excellent starter kit for a big league catcher, featuring a big arm -- puts a 70 on it -- and promising receiving skills. Coaches have had good things to say about his makeup, and his English has progressed, too. Mejia could rocket up this list and become one of the Minors' premiere defenders in the next few seasons.

Honorable mentions: Tucker Barnhart, Reds; A.J. Jimenez, Blue Jays; Carlos Perez, Angels; Kevin Plawecki, Mets; Elias Diaz, Pirates; Bruce Maxwell, Athletics; Joe Hudson, Reds; Jose Briceno, Braves.

Jake Seiner is a contributor to Follow him on Twitter at @Jake_Seiner.