Cal Raleigh was a third-round pick by the Seattle Mariners in 2018 and came to pro ball a bat-first option behind the plate, one with significant questions surrounding his abilities to defend.
Since then, Raleigh has hit for power, showed signs of an improved hit tool, and taken a full step forward defensively across the board.
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Raleigh’s left-handed swing is more powerful but he does a good job staying within his limits as a right-handed batter, and could end up a better hitter for average from that side of the plate.
As a lefty, the raw power is plus, and it’s shown up in games since he debuted in Everett in 2018 thanks to leverage, loft and what appears to be better bat speed.
He has average, perhaps slightly above-average arm strength, he’s accurate, and has improved his footwork and overall technique from catch to throw. Raleigh is not a great athlete in the traditional sense, but he’s worked hard to greatly improve his chances to develop, and is strong throughout his lower half and torso. In 2019, he showed he can handle a projectable workload.
Raleigh still has work to do controlling the strike zone and ultimately making more consistent contact, so he’s not likely to be on the fast track to Seattle, per se, but he’s come a long way defensively and now projects to land somewhere in the fringe-average to average range, with a chance at a bit more than that.
I suspect the club’s top catching prospects heads back to Arkansas (AA) to start 2020, but as long as he’s healthy there’s a non-zero chance he sees the big leagues in September. In fact, I’d bet on it, even though he probably sees more minor-league development in 2021 before sticking permanently.
On the upside, Raleigh is an average or so defender who is terrific handling a staff and game planning, with a power-first offensive approach that struggles a bit to hit for average but offers consistency and stability behind the plate. His peak years could border on All-Star offensive performances.
Why Raleigh at No. 5, Ahead of Marte, Lewis, White, et al?
While there’s little difference between No. 4 and No. 10 in these rankings, this one is easy for me. Considering the risk involved with Noelvi Marte and Kyle Lewis, among others, the relatively limited upside for Evan White, and the upside in value of Raleigh — despite some inherited risks with catchers — I’d trade the equivalent of more than one White, Marte or Lewis for one Raleigh. Here’s why:
Catching is the most difficult position in sports to fill with a player that doesn’t have to be graded on a severe curve.
In 2019, just 10 catchers played enough to receive 400 or more plate appearances. Not at-bats, plate appearances. Just eight of those posted a wRC+ of 100 or better — 100 is league average — and only five catchers with 400 or more PAs posted a 100 or better wRC+ in 2018.
J.T. Realmuto is among the top 5 full-time defenders at the position in baseball, which is why his career 108 wRC+ is worth so much, and he’s generally considered the best all-around backstop in baseball right now.
A 108 wRC+ is far from special — 103 batters with 400 or more PAs posted a 108 or better in 2019.
Did You Know?
Did you know only 13 catchers put up positive offensive runs above average metric via FanGraphs in 2019 (min. 200 PAs), and among those only nine put up positive defensive runs above average?
Nine catchers in Major League Baseball had 200 or more plate appearances and didn’t post below-average runs on either side of the game.
Again… NINE. That’s out of 42 catchers that had the 200 PAs to qualify.
Despite merely above-average — and slightly at that — offensive production, Realmuto was highly sought after when the Miami Marlins opened up talks, and the Philadelphia Phillies paid a premium to get him. In offensive numbers alone, Realmuto is far from a star. He’s rather ordinary most of the time. But he’s also the rarest commodity in sports and is probably going to cash in on a large contract sooner or later.
Yasmani Grandal is a bat-first catcher whose framing makes him above-average defensively, and he’s made $40 million in his career to date and will make $75 million more over the next four seasons ages 31-34.
I’m not saying Raleigh is Realmuto or Grandal (he’s not), but the scarcity of the catcher position alone provides an easy path to Raleigh’s ranking, but the rest of it resides in Raleigh’s profile and the offensive upside that comes with it, not to mention his timetable to get to the big leagues.
Corner outfielders with plus power and above-average athleticism are a dime-a-dozen in comparison to even league-average catchers. Same goes for even good first baseman, let alone those that project to the league-average range.
White, specifically, is a lot more likely to get to and stay in the majors than is Raleigh, and more likely to be average or better. But isolated from organizational context, I’d trade more than one White for just one Raleigh any day of the week and twice on game day.
And I bet Jerry Dipoto would, too.
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