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February 13, 2013

Pre-Season Positional Rankings

Top 15 Fantasy Catchers

by Paul Sporer

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In the coming weeks, the fantasy team here at Baseball Prospectus will be rolling out our positional rankings. Each team member assigned to cover a position will create an initial top 15 (more for outfielders and starting pitchers) on his own. He will then send that list to the rest of the team for discussion, at which point we will debate the rankings, both in terms of each player’s specific placement and the merits on which he was included in the top 15. This back-and-forth debate will yield the final list, which will be presented by the original author with notes on the pertinent players. We encourage you to bring your opinions into the fray using the comment section below.

Today we kick off the rankings with a look at our top 15 catchers.

Catcher is a deep position in 2013, and if you play in a one-catcher league or use a 10-12 team mixed format, then waiting until late in your draft to address the position is a relatively low-risk strategy. It is fun to have an elite player at a premium position on your squad, but catchers are less impactful than superstars at other positions, because their counting-stat totals are limited by their regular rest days. The top couple of backstops will provide an excellent batting average, but if you choose to go with one of them in an early round, you could be left scrambling for home runs and steals later in your draft.

To illustrate the playing-time disparity between catchers and other sluggers, Joe Mauer, the top catcher in plate appearances last year with 641, was 47th in that category league-wide. There have only been four 600+ plate-appearance seasons at catcher in the last three years, and just one of those went north of 650 (Carlos Santana, who amassed 658 in 2011). This playing time deficiency also has intra-positional effects, because it enhances the value of catchers who spend their off days at first base or as the designated hitter instead of riding the bench.

Now, the list:

  1. Buster Posey, SFG
  2. Joe Mauer, MIN
  3. Carlos Santana, CLE
  4. Victor Martinez*, DET
  5. Yadier Molina, STL
  6. Miguel Montero, ARI
  7. Matt Wieters, BAL
  8. Wilin Rosario, COL
  9. Salvador Perez, KCR
  10. Jonathan Lucroy, MIL
  11. Jesus Montero, SEA
  12. Mike Napoli, BOS
  13. Alex Avila, DET
  14. Ryan Doumit, MIN
  15. Brian McCann, ATL

Honorable Mentions: Carlos Ruiz**, PHI and John Jaso, OAK

*Martinez does not qualify at catcher in default CBS leagues

**Ruiz was dropped from the top 15 due to his 25-game suspension for using amphetamines

Notes:

  1. Posey was the undisputed top choice, and even if you factor in a regression from his MVP campaign, his owners should reap elite results. The Florida State product’s 140-game average for the last three years includes 21 home runs, 90 RBI, and 71 runs scored, to go with a .317 batting average. Posey, like each of our top four, is able to bolster his counting stats by spending off days at first base.
     
  2. Mauer appears to have logged his final season with 100+ games behind the dish, which is great news for the fantasy community, as long as he keeps his count at or above 20 to maintain eligibility. If you select Mauer with dreams of 2009, you can wake up now: That was his career year and there is no reason to believe the power that he flashed is coming back.
     
  3. Santana’s 2012 second half looked like both halves of his 2010 campaign, except for his batting average. We’ve yet to see his peak, and he may be primed to reach his All-Star ceiling this year.
     
  4. Martinez won’t be asked to endure the wear-and-tear of catching, but his role as the Tigers’ designated hitter will keep him in the lineup nearly every day. In addition to improving his counting-stat upside, that gives him a chance to break his own record for the most catcher-eligible plate appearances since 2006 (672 in 2009).
     
  5. The flurry of career highs that Molina set last year screams regression, but with back-to-back big offensive seasons, you can still feel confident in his ability to produce.
     
  6. Out in the desert, (Miguel) Montero has quietly been one of the best catchers in baseball for three of the last four seasons; the fourth (2010) was cut short by a torn meniscus in his right knee. He has lapped the catcher field in RBI over the last two years, amassing 174 of them, 19 better than the next-highest total, which belongs to Santana.
     
  7. Wieters hasn’t become the otherworldly player he was expected to become as a minor leaguer, but his recent power surge has turned him into a fantasy asset. The switch-hitter’s next step to superstardom is improving his performance against right-handed pitching.
     
  8. Rosario offers considerable power upside, but if your league counts walks or on-base percentage, his lack of plate discipline implores a lower ranking on your list.
     
  9. Perez’s big-league samples are limited, but he is constantly adding new dimensions to his game. First, it was the extraordinary batting average in 2011. Then, last year, it was unexpected power. The more he plays, the more he seems to justify the Royals’ long-term investment.
     
  10. Lucroy just needs to avoid suitcases in 2013.
     
  11. It looks like the Mariners are committed to giving (Jesus) Montero regular burn at catcher. If you are worried about that affecting his bat, the numbers might calm your nerves, as he posted an 841 OPS as a catcher last year. Montero’s entire 553-plate-appearance season is a small sample, so parsing it can be dangerous, but this fits the league-wide trend of players hitting better when they are active on defense.
     
  12. It is hard not to be concerned about Napoli’s hip issues, though the benefit to his signing in Boston is that the Red Sox have enough catcher depth to avoid forcing him to put on the gear. If Napoli were healthy, he could have ranked five spots higher on this list, so he has bargain potential after being overvalued last year.
     
  13. Every catcher is below 100 percent the day after pitchers and catchers report, but Avila seemed to be running in the 70s for the bulk of the season and he was still a league-average contributor. Unfortunately, that didn’t pay the bills for where you drafted him, if you bought into his glorious 2011.
     
  14. You want Doumit as your fantasy catcher, but the Twins are better served when they use him as an outfielder, and they can't always field both him and Mauer at the same time. Last year, Doumit finally enjoyed the full season that fantasy owners have been waiting for since 2007.
     
  15. McCann’s health woes are of much greater concern than Napoli’s, and if the Braves backstop didn’t have such a lengthy track record of excellence, there would have been a strong case to leave him out of the top 15 entirely.

    Finally, one of the honorable mentions gets a note to cover those of you who play in CBS leagues, where Martinez is ineligible…
     
  16. Some are looking past Ruiz’s 25-game suspension with the idea that catchers miss 20-25 games a year all the time; the problem with that logic is that Ruiz is still going to need regular rest when he returns. He’s not a video-game character, and he won’t have the stamina to handle the squat everyday, whether the season is 137 games long or 162.

Paul Sporer is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Paul's other articles. You can contact Paul by clicking here

Related Content:  Carlos Ruiz

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