Daulton Varsho is coming to the Diamondbacks roster. Varsho was their Minor League Player of the Year in 2019 and he appears ready for this next step. And by waiting until today, Arizona retains an extra year of control through 2026.
Varsho has long been expected to be part of this team, but debate rages as to whether he can catch well enough to remain behind the plate at the major league level. At this time, it does appear that the Diamondbacks expect him to catch, but Varsho is so flexible and such a good athlete that he could play all over the diamond. Several highly placed scouts think his future lies in the outfield.That being said, MLB Pipeline ranked Varsho as a top ten catching prospect at the start of the 2020 baseball season.
If his name sounds familiar, it is because his father Gary played eight years as an outfielder in the major leagues and named his son for his beloved teammate, catcher Darren Daulton. Pretty cool lineage, eh?
Catcher has been a barren wasteland for fantasy owners longer than we care to remember. Owners seem to be of two schools of thought on the position: spend a high draft pick on J.T. Realmuto or Gary Sanchez, or take a chance on a younger prospect with some pedigree, a la Will Smith or Sean Murphy. Both Smith and Murphy have flaws; they should give you some power, but with a. 230-.240 batting average.
You can always take what I call a “do no harm” catcher as well; think of Wilson Ramos or Yadier Molina, who might give you a decent batting average and a handful of home runs; they won’t sink your team but they are not filling your stat sheet, and do not have much upside. Many owners simply take a flyer on a catcher late in drafts, refusing to overpay for production at the position. I generally stream catchers and have a “do me no harm” mindset.
So if you stream or are weak at the catcher spot, that is why you should consider picking up Varsho this weekend. Varsho has speed and versatility unseen at the catcher position. In addition, he is not a pure power hitter or a prototypical middle-of-the-order bat. Varsho is seen by the organization as a number one or two-hole hitter. He is an on-base percentage monster, posting a .378 OBP at AA last year, where he took the bulk of his at-bats from the two spot. He may be a bit of the proverbial unicorn at the catching spot: he makes great contact, gets on base at a high clip, and can steal bases.
Varsho was drafted out of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, not the exact hotbed of top prospects, in the second round in 2017. The Dbacks sent him to short-season Hillsboro, where he hit .311 with seven homers, 39 RBI and chipped in seven steals. The team decided to aggressively have Varsho skip low A (much to my chagrin, as their low A Kane County team plays ten minutes from my house in suburban Chicago) and go to High A Visalia.
But in 2018 Varsho was injured; he had a hamate bone injury in his hand, and there was some question as to how he would rebound from that. In only 80 games at Visalia, Varsho hit .286 with a .363 OBP with 11 homers, 44 RBI and a whopping 19 steals. Still, hamate bones can be difficult to heal, so Ariziona sent him to the AFL, where he hit a relatively meager .262 with no home runs but continued to show that rare speed for the position with eight steals. There were legitimate questions as to how Varsho would bounce back.
Varsho had something to prove in 2019, and prove it, he did.
In 108 games at Jackson in 2019, Varsho hit .301 with 18 home runs and 21 stolen bases. At the catcher position. Let that sink in a moment. He led the Southern League in runs with 85, slugging at .520, and led the league with a .899 OPS. He hit .391 in August last year with six home runs and five stolen bases, as he improved every month at the level. It’s important to note that the Southern League is pitcher-friendly with larger parks, and this makes his season even more impressive. Varsho does not seem to have much left to prove in the minor leagues.
Imagine that type of prowess at the major league level, and with catcher eligibility. Add that he has been successful on 40 of 48 stolen base attempts at the minor league level, and the recipe is there for an impact bat at the MLB level. That skill set would be a top 5 catcher in fantasy baseball, easily. Can you imagine getting a high batting average, with double-digit home runs and steals from the catcher position? Sign me up.
But caveat emptor here: Varsho will need to prove he can catch at the major league level, and this is no given. Keep in mind that Carson Kelly is considered a top defensive catcher even though his bat lags behind his defensive prowess, even though he did hit 18 home runs in 2019. Talent evaluators think Varsho might be best suited to a corner outfield spot, which would limit his value to that of a third or maybe even fourth outfielder in fantasy leagues. His value will be several rounds higher should he retain catcher eligibility. This is a situation that we will have to watch this year. But I would encourage a FAAB bid this weekend, especially if like me, you are thin at catcher. Cut an extra hitter or pitcher on your bench for Varsho, who has upside.
The best part of his package might be his walk to strikeout ratio. Last year he had 63 strikeouts and 46 walks in 452 plate appearance. This is a guy who will make contact, get on base, and not strikeout.
Look at those numbers above. Of note are the walk and strikeout percentages. A 9.3% walk rate in 2019 paired with a meager 13.9% strikeout percentage. Note the .220 ISO as well. What also jumps out at you is the decrease in strikeout percentage from 20.8% in 2018 to the aforementioned 13.9% in 2019. That’s a big change. Varsho’s OBP has been above .360 in every year of his minor league career.
The Rest of the Diamondbacks
What does this mean for Carson Kelly? Maybe David Peralta? These are questions that will demand answers. Look for Varsho to get starts behind the plate while not supplanting Kelly or backup Steven Vogt, and playing all over the field for the Diamondbacks. Kelly and Vogt have a combined two hits in 2020, so Varsho could get a look behind the plate.
You can see from the above chart that Kelly has struggled mightily to hit breaking balls in his career: in 2018, he hit .097 against breaking balls, and in 2019, he jumped to .197. Kelly has a career .204 average against right-handers. This is a weakness in his game that could lead to increased opportunities for Varsho. While Kelly is excellent defensively, this is a team in need of instant offense, and Varsho could be the remedy. If I had to speculate, I would say Varsho catches once a week at this point, while getting starts in left and right field the other days of the week.
In a corresponding move the Diamondbacks sent Kevin Cron to their alternate camp. Cron is no longer needed now that Christian Walker is healthy and Jake Lamb has been getting at-bats for the parent club. Varsho could spell David Peralta in left field, who is injury-prone, and could perhaps DH as well.
One word of caution: Varsho is not guaranteed any at bats on this team. The Arizona roster is a crowded space, with Walker, Lamb, Peralta, Kelly, Vogt and Kole Calhoun all vying for at-bats. It does not appear that Varsho’s at-bats will come at the expense of either of the Martes, Ketel or Starling. Yet given his top prospect pedigree, it would appear that he will be given opportunities; the Dbacks did not call him up to sit on the bench, They need offensive production, and if that means guys like Lamb, Calhoun, Peralta, and Kelly lose a few at-bats each week, I think Varsho will be playing every day in a super-utility type role.
Arizona is hitting .202 through the first week of the season with only 17 runs scored thus far. The hope is that Varsho can spark the offense to greater heights. Look for Varsho to get see at-bats in the corner outfield spots, catcher, and DH. It may not be safe to expect him to play every day, but as long as he hits, there is a possibility. Perhaps even near the top of the order.
His athleticism and potential positional flexibility remind me of another player who started out behind the plate but provided great value in center field and second base in his career: Houston Astros Hall of Famer Craig Biggio. Please note that I am not saying Varsho will have that type of career. Rather, the skill set reminds me of Biggio. My point here is more that he has the ability to play other positions and still provide value. But he ultimately gives you the highest value at catcher, and the hope is that he catches enough to retain that eligibility to really help our fake teams.
Varsho could be a much-needed addition for your fantasy team with his unique power and speed combo at a thin position. Scoop him up this week and give him a shot. He is definitely worth a roll of the dice, especially if you are weak at the catcher position. I will be bidding on him this weekend.