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June 16, 2006

Fantasy Focus

Catching On

by Jeff Erickson

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Given the relative lack of good hitters at the position, getting good production from the catcher spot can give you a significant edge on the rest of your league. This is especially true in NL-only leagues, as nearly all of the top fantasy catchers this year come from the AL. The following is a breakdown of some catchers whose value has changed significantly since the start of the season.

I've seen Michael Barrett available in a handful of leagues on the waiver wire, by virtue of his upcoming ten-game suspension. His appeal will finally be heard on Friday, so be prepared to be without him next week. Don't drop him, however--how likely is it that you'll be able to find a catcher that's hitting .298/.365/.505 with eight homers on the waiver wire? You're better off biting the bullet and going without any stats for a week than dropping him and replacing him with someone else. Once Barrett begins serving his suspension, the Cubs will likely start Henry Blanco, and call up Geovany Soto to back him up. Both have good defensive reputations and little to offer at the plate, although Soto can at least draw the occasional walk.

David Ross has gone from being the third catcher for the Padres this spring, to Bronson Arroyo's personal catcher at the start of the year, to now catching four times per week for the Reds. He's averaging one homer for every eight at-bats, hitting .342/.419/.797 in 79 at-bats. While there's some evidence that this production is for real (check out his numbers in 2003 with the Dodgers, and his numbers in Triple-A in 2002), he's going regress eventually, and when he does, he'll lose some of that playing time back to Jason LaRue and Javier Valentin. The Reds plan on keeping their three-catcher arrangement for the bulk of the season, and that alone will likely ensure that LaRue gets another shot taking back the starting catcher job.

Russell Martin and Ronny Paulino have taken advantage of injuries to catchers on their respective teams to steal away the starting jobs. Both get high marks for their defensive work, and both are doing a good job of hitting for average. Martin's job looks especially secure--the Dodgers announced that Dioner Navarro will be optioned to Triple-A Las Vegas once he's completed his rehab assignment. Martin has been able to maintain his plate discipline at the major league level (13 walks, 14 strikeouts in 112 at-bats) while still hitting for some power as well. Paulino, meanwhile, took over for the injured (and then re-injured) Ryan Doumit for the Pirates, and has been a pleasant surprise with the stick, hitting well for average (.311), albeit not as much power. If you have to choose between Martin and Paulino, go for Martin, but both look to be good options for the rest of the season.

The Angels have been a big disappointment so far, but one bright spot has been the play of Michael Napoli since his recall from Triple-A Salt Lake. He's already hit six homers in 78 at-bats while putting up a .295/.402/.590 line for the Angels, replacing Jeff Mathis behind the plate. This sort of power production is consistent with his minor league numbers--he hit a combined 60 homers splitting time between High-A and Double-A the last two years. The one negative for Napoli is his high strikeout rate, but he walks often as well to go along with the strikeouts, making him an atypical Angel hitter. Meanwhile, Mathis is hitting better at Salt Lake (.296/.335/.441) after flaming out so badly with the Angels earlier this season, but at this point Napoli's job is pretty secure.

Gerald Laird has started to earn more time as the backup behind Rod Barajas in Texas, now getting one start per series rather than once per week. He won't be of much use in the 10-12 team mixed Yahoo League crowds, but if you're in a league that requires you to start two catchers, you can do worse than put Laird into the second catcher spot. Laird has never been a favorite of Rangers manager Buck Showalter, but his minor league numbers have always suggested he'd be able to hit major league pitching. He's done that this year, with ten extra-base hits in 71 at-bats. If anything ever happened to Barajas, Laird would almost immediately become a top 15 fantasy catcher.

If you're willing to take a leap of faith on a player, you might want to take a look at Yorvit Torrealba on the Rockies. He doesn't have the upside of some of the catchers listed above, but he's going to start earning more starts in Coors Field, and he does have some power. If he can stay healthy, he can provide a tidy profit for you in a minor trade or waiver wire pickup.

Mike Lieberthal's trips to the DL have given Sal Fasano a chance to play more often. Fasano has always offered a little bit of power, if not the ability to hit for average. The power that Fasano brings is mitigated somewhat by his high strikeout rate. What's interesting about the Phillies is that with Lieberthal's second trip to the DL, they opted not to recall Carlos Ruiz, instead running out Fasano and Chris Coste. Ruiz is the Phillies' top (and perhaps only) catching prospect in their farm system. He didn't hit in a brief trial with the Phillies (5-for-35, no extra-base hits) during Lieberthal's first DL stint, but is hitting .318/.400/.523 at Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre. He's already 26, so the Phillies have to decide fairly soon if he's going to be the catcher of their future, or if they're going to have to go outside of the organization next year. Lieberthal is in the last year of a contract and showing plenty of signs of age. Don't be surprised if Ruiz gets another chance later this year.

Jeff Erickson is the Senior Editor at RotoWire, and the host of XM Radio's "Fantasy Focus," heard every weekday at noon ET on XM Channel 175. He can be reached here.

Related Content:  Sal Fasano

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Premium Article Lies, Damned Lies: Jus... (06/15)
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