Diamondbacks prospect Daulton Varsho has a short, stocky build, a compact swing from the left side, more power than expected and enough speed that some scouts think he could one day steal 20 bases in the big leagues. He’s also a catcher.
If he weren’t already aware of how unusual his skill-set is for the position he plays, he gets reminded of it regularly, something that’s been happening during the first few weeks of play in the Arizona Fall League, in which he has seven steals while hitting .381 in 11 games for the Salt River Rafters.
“There’s a lot of guys here who have said some things like, ‘Man you’ve got some speed for being a catcher,’ ” Varsho said. “I pride myself on that. I like stealing bases and being on the bases.”
Varsho has been on base a lot during his 1 1/2 years as a professional. Drafted by the Diamondbacks in 2017 out of University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, he has compiled a .301 average and an .865 OPS (on-base-plus-slugging) in 509 at-bats in the minors, and he’s begun convincing scouts he can stick behind the plate at the major league level.
If he can – and if he continues to swing the bat the way he has – he’d be a fairly unique player, not just a catcher who can hit, but one with left-handed power and impactful speed.
The list of catchers in recent generations who can hit, run and excel defensively is not long: Only Russell Martin, Jason Kendall, Pudge Rodriguez and Craig Biggio have logged 20-steal seasons as a catcher in the past 30 years. J.T. Realmuto is the only catcher in the past half-decade to even reach double digits in steals. All have spent time wearing the proverbial crown of the game’s best catcher.
“I think that’s probably the first thing that jumps out at people when they spend a little time around him – it’s a unique skill-set,” said Rick Short, who, as a Diamondbacks area scout, signed Varsho out of the draft. “Probably what stood out to me first was his athleticism. He’s behind the plate and he’s more athletic than a lot of catchers, in my opinion. He can run; he’s got an extra gear. And then at the plate, the ball came off his bat better than anybody who was in my area that particular year.
“I think it was kind of a mixed bag amongst the scouts in the area just because of his size and all that. But the more and more I watched the kid play, his competitiveness, his athleticism, his feel for the game, his background in the game with his dad (former big leaguer Gary Varsho), I had no concerns with where we took him.”
Aside from his size – he is listed, generously, at 5-foot-10 – another common knock on Varsho is his arm strength, which is below average for a catcher. But scouts and coaches say he makes up for it with his footwork, quick exchange and throwing accuracy, and he typically records average or better times on his throws to second.
“For me, it’s about getting the ball in my hand as quick as possible and getting it out,” Varsho said, adding that if his throw gets to second base in less than two seconds, “I should get most of the runners trying to steal.”
Varsho still has work to do in terms of refining the defensive side of his game, but most seem to believe he’ll get there, in large part because of his athleticism. But that’s also the reason that, if it doesn’t work out behind the plate – or if the Diamondbacks have a need at the big league level at another position – there’s a sense that he would have no trouble adapting to new position, whether it be left field or second base.
Varsho likely will open next year at Double-A, meaning he could be knocking on the door of the majors.
“He’s been consistent with the bat, and when you do that, you push your way to the big leagues,” Diamondbacks Assistant General Manager Amiel Sawdaye said. “I’m not saying he’s going to get to the big leagues at a certain point in time, but sometimes you bring guys to the big leagues for needs, and I think he’s shown us the ability to go out, take good at-bats and drive the ball for extra-base hits.
“Our goal is to get him to the big leagues as a catcher because we think he has a chance to be an impact guy behind the dish. But if something were to happen where we need to move him around, he’s athletic enough to do that. And if he’s the best bat out there, he might end up pushing his way there.”
And If he can get to the big leagues and establish himself at the position, he would be the first such frontline catcher the club has produced since Miguel Montero debuted in 2006. It’s not for a lack of trying. The Diamondbacks have used high draft picks (Stryker Trahan, Andy Yerzy, Ed Easley), big international dollars (Jose Herrera) and a Rule 5 selection (Oscar Hernandez) in search of their next everyday backstop but none have yet to stick.
“Catching is a precious tool for every organization,” Varsho said. “There’s never enough catching out there. It would kind of be an honor to be a catcher and go through a system and hopefully make it there.”