Monday, February 9, 2009

2009 Fantasy Baseball Position Preview: Catchers

Other positions: SP Closers

Last year, the catching position on draft day looked ugly. There were five stars you wanted: Martin, McCann, Martinez, Mauer or Posada. After that, there was a big dropoff. This consensus projection couldn't have been more wrong. In a rare twist, there were a pile of catchers that put up big seasons. Conversely, two of the 'reliable' catchers (Martinez and Posada) combined for just five homers.

Does that mean top catchers should be avoided this year? Not so fast. While there may be many catchers who can give you a dozen homers, you need to keep in mind the playing time difference that the top players enjoy. While Russell Martin has scored 87 runs in each of the past two seasons, a later option like A.J. Pierzinski will get you only 60. More on this later.

Brian McCann, ATL ($25) .301 AVG, 68R, 23HR, 87RBI, 5SB
It's debatable who is the best catcher between McCann, Martin and Mauer. McCann gets the fewest at-bats of the three but has the most power. He hits fourth in an Atlanta lineup that will present him once again with lots of RBI opportunities. has McCann and Martin being picked right one after the other in the late 4th round, right with pitchers Jake Peavy and Brandon Webb and outfielder Vlad Guerrero. As we did with closers, why not compare drafting a fourth-round catcher with a fourth-round outfielder?

McCann projection: .308, 72, 25, 95, 3
Guerrero projection: .308, 85, 25, 95, 3

Is it that unreasonable to say it's that close? Only thirteen runs? On one hand, it's another reminder that outfield isn't that deep of a position.

Does it make a difference if you're in a short-rosters league that only calls for one catcher or a deeper one requiring two? In a league where only 12 catchers are needed at any given time, you can always find someone to fill your roster, be it a Ramon Hernandez, Yadier Molina, etc. Let's create a composite:

.260, 50, 10, 50, 0

In a 2-catcher league, it's a lot tougher most years. Last year, though, it wasn't that much of a dropoff to a composite of, say, Gerald Laird/Jesus Flores/Rod Barajas, who were around that 24th best level:

.260, 42, 8, 45, 0

That's a miniscule difference. Either way, these players pale in comparison to the 36th best outfielder (if you play 3 outfield spots) or even the 60th (if you use 5). Here are some outfielders that will fill those spots:

36th - Raul Ibanez: .280, 75, 20, 85, 1
60th - Adam Jones: .270, 68, 12, 65, 12

Note how McCann was only 13 runs short of Guerrero- these aren't even close!

I am of the firm opinion that you should try to take a top catcher this year. It doesn't have to be McCann, but I like him best because he helps you in four categories, especially AVG, HR and RBI. I can't overstate how much I like to load up on those three hitting categories on draft day, because I find that while it's usually possible to find the occasional speedster on the waiver wire, it's almost impossible to find a guy who can hit for power AND average.

Russell Martin, LAD ($22) .280, 87, 13, 69, 18
Martin, thanks to the steals, is the most well-rounded catcher available. His playing time in the past two years is a minor concern, but you can take your chances given the impressive upside. Besides, every catcher is an injury risk to some extent. I have a slight preference for McCann, but Martin is just as good and is worth taking in the fourth round.

Joe Mauer, MIN ($23) .328, 98, 9, 85, 1
Mauer has been a risk-reward guy the past few years; if he's healthy, he'll get a ton of at-bats because he'll play at DH a couple days a week. By batting 3rd and being a strong baserunner, he'll score a pile of runs. He's a strong bet to get injured at some point of the season, which is why he's just behind the other guys. If you miss out on the top two, Mauer is a good fifth-round pick.

Geovany Soto, CHC ($21) .285, 66, 23, 86, 0
Soto was awesome as a rookie but there are reasons for concern. For one, he's already 26. It's unlikely he's got much upside beyond what he did last year. Secondly, he was very hit-lucky last year- he won't repet the .285 average when he strikes out once every four at-bats. Expect more of a .260-.270 average. With a fall in average, Soto won't sustain the same RBI numbers. I don't like him at all, particularly for a guy going in the sixth round.

Ryan Doumit, PIT ($18) .318, 71, 15, 69, 2
Doumit's value jumped last year as he cut down on strikeouts and upped his average. He should play a lot given the lack of competition in Pittsburgh, barring an injury. He was batting 3rd at the end of last season, and should open the season there thanks to the lack of veteran RBI men in the lineup. He'll probably be available in the 7th or 8th round and I'd happily take him there.

Victor Martinez, CLE ($18) .278, 30, 2, 35, 0
Martinez is now 30 and after last year's injury, will need a lot of things to go his way to generate big value. His playing time will be pinched by the fact that he has to share time with Shoppach, Hafner and Garko, and he never showed a power recovery. I'm wary of taking a risk on him.

Bengie Molina, SFG ($16) .292, 46, 16, 95, 0
Bengie is 34 this year. How did he get 95 RBIs in San Fran? I don't know either. I'm not touching him.

Chris Iannetta, COL ($14) .264, 50, 18, 65, 0
Iannetta finally came through on his potential last year, and he's only 25. Playing in Colorado doesn't hurt, either. Expect him to get a modest bump in playing time, but Torrealba is still useful so it may be no more than 400 ABs. That means he's not certain to deliver star value. Don't take him in the first ten rounds.

Pablo Sandoval, SFG ($12) .345, 24, 3, 24, 0
Eligible at catcher though he may only play a handful of games there this year. Instead, he's the Giants' first choice at third. That's good news for you, because he'll play every day and could get 600 at-bats as the #3, 5 or 6 hitter. Though he may not put up huge counting stat totals, it's basically impossible for him to get fewer than 70 runs and rbis. Oh, and he doesn't strike out much, so you can count on a .285-.300 average. All told, I'd willingly take him in the eighth round but you don't need to. Instead, he should be available in the eleventh or so. Check your league's preranks, but don't be afraid to stretch a ways for him. Someone else in your league might be looking for him, too. Sandoval has potential to return the biggest profit of anyone at the catcher position.

Mike Napoli, LAA ($12) .273, 39, 20, 49, 7
Napoli is an odd duck. He strikes out a ton- almost one out of every three at-bats. For that reason, he probably won't hit over .250 again this year. He gives you power and speed, but bats low in the lineup so doesn't get the big counting numbers. There's one way he could be an excellent value this year, though: if he gets off to a hot start, he'll catch more and could also see time in the Angels' scrap-heap DH rotation. If he doesn't, he may only get 300 at-bats on the year as Jeff Mathis is preferred on defense.

All this means Napoli is worth a gamble in a 12-catcher league (not before the 13th round, though), but not in a 24-catcher. There are safer options available.

Matt Weiters, BAL ($9)
Weiters projects so well out of the minors (.355, 27 HR last year) that he could be the best-hitting catcher in the Majors- if he makes the team. Though some call him 'Mark Teixeira with a catcher's mitt', the Orioles may keep him down on the farm to delay his arbitration clock. You must watch him in spring training- Gregg Zaun is the veteran who may be asked to hold the job for two months until Weiters gets called up. If Weiters makes the team, he's worth drafting in the eighth or ninth round (you won't need to pick him until the tenth). If he's sent down, only pick him if you have lots of bench spots. He's only worth taking in the 14th round or so if this is the case (he'll probably go before you).

Jorge Posada, NYY ($8) .268, 18, 3, 22, 0
Posada will play as long as he's healthy because there just isn't a good enough backup in New York to rest him. The Yankees will have a tough, season long playoff race so he'll play as much as possible. It's very much a possibility that his decline will be harsh; even if he only hits .260 with a dozen homers, he'll still get 70+ rbis. On the upside, he may hit .275 with 20 HRs again. Posada is falling to the 15th in some mock drafts, where he's a great value.

Jeff Clement, SEA ($6) .227, 17, 5, 23, 0
Seattle plans to use Clement mostly as a DH with a little catching this year. He may slump early and lose his job, but he's spent a lot of time in AAA so he's probably all set to succeed. He's an excellent speculative pick that you won't have to stretch for. 15th round or later is the time to look for him.

Dioner Navarro, TB ($5) .295, 43, 7, 54, 0
He's all batting average, which might not be sustained. Aside from that, he's not a great draft pick unless your league uses two catchers. Even then, I wouldn't bother.

A.J. Pierzynski, CHW ($5) .281, 66, 13, 60, 1
He puts up the same season every year. Nobody likes him, but there's something to be said for peace of mind. A very useful player in a 2-catcher league.

John Baker, FLA ($4) .299, 32, 5, 32, 0
The batting average is a mirage; the power isn't. He's a decent bet to hit .260 with 15 homers, but it's no guarantee. Don't plan around him.

Ramon Hernandez, CIN ($4) .257, 49, 15, 65, 0
He's not that great, but he'll play a lot in Cincy in a good lineup. Great American Ballpark can revive anyone's power game, too. He's an excellent option in a 2-catcher league.

Yadier Molina, STL ($4) .304, 37, 7, 56, 0
If La Russa keeps batting him ninth, it's unlikely he'll put up bigger counting numbers than this. No upside here.

Kelly Shoppach, CLE ($3) .261, 67, 21, 55, 0
Shoppach will catch at least half of Cleveland's games and could get more if one of Hafner or Martinez slips up. He's a perfectly good guy to own as a #2 catcher.

Jarrod Saltalamacchia, TEX ($2) .253, 27, 3, 26, 0
'Pits' will be in tough contention with Teagarden for the starting job, but Saltalamacchia's the better hitter and the one to own. Watch him in spring-if he picks up hits, he's a good speculative option late on draft day.

Chris Snyder, ARI ($2) .237, 47, 16, 64, 0
Snyder is pretty representative of the rest of the catchers-guys who can be expected to play about 60% of their team's games, bat seventh or eighth, and will be functional in one or two categories and poor in the others. Of a group that includes Kurt Suzuki, Miguel Olivo, Varitek, Gerald Laird and Rod Barajas, there is no one guy that stands out. In a 2-catcher league, there's no need to stretch for any of these guys because there is a surplus of them. In a 1-catcher league, these guys aren't on the radar.

To recap: the catching pool is stronger overall this year than usual. Part of the reason for this is because there are a few non-catchers eligible at the position- Clement and Sandoval will only get a bit of time there, while V. Martinez will split time at DH and first if he produces. Mauer and Posada will take a good chunk of their swings at DH too. Besides that, the emergence of several useful catchers last year (Soto, Doumit, Napoli, Iannetta etc) means there is some depth at the position. I'm still a big advocate of taking a top catcher in the fourth round, though targeting an undervalued Doumit or Sandoval a bit later is defensible. If you're in a two-catcher league, I'm even more strongly in favour of taking a top catcher and complementing him with a mid-round #2.

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