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In any two-catcher format, catcher is a challenging position to fill. This is particularly true in mono leagues, where nearly every team must carry at least one backup and some teams fill both slots with a reserve. Entering 2016, only seven AL catchers were assigned a bid of $10 or more in my final AL-only bid limit update, with the top catchers – Brian McCann and Salvador Perez – sporting a modest bid limit of $16. Where in previous years AL-only fantasy managers pushed the envelope and spent on position scarcity, last year the expert market recognized that pushing too far past the earnings ceiling was foolhardy. However, two new additions – Jonathan Lucroy from the National League and Gary Sanchez in his first full season – may provide new life to the catching pool in the AL, once again offering the opportunity to spend aggressively. Evan Gattis regaining catcher eligibility also adds to the fun.

How bare was the cupboard entering 2016? You have to go back to 2013 to find an AL catcher who had earned $20 or more (Victor Martinez). Including Martinez, 17 catchers earned $15 or more; however, nearly 50 percent of these $15+ seasons occurred in 2014. The shift in earnings has less to do with a lack of production and more to do with the changing earnings dynamic. Eleven AL catchers hit 10 or more home runs in 2016, a miniscule drop from 13 catchers in 2015 and 12 in 2014. With the value of a home run in the AL dropping from 27 cents per home run in 2014 down to 20 cents in 2016, a position that relies mostly on power to produce value was bound to lose ground. The expert market was more aggressive than my bid limits, but not by much. McCann cost $18 while Perez cost $16. The 10 most expensive AL catchers cost $12 on average. The days of spending for position scarcity behind the dish might be over.

Half of the best AL catchers in 2016 cost $11 or more, three cost under six dollars and two were not purchased in CBS, LABR, or Tout Wars. Thus, the most expensive catchers in 2016 were a mixed bag and that bag was filled with lint.

Table 1: Ten Most Expensive* AL Catchers, 2016

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Rank

Player

$

Price

+/-

1

Brian McCann

$10

18

-8

2

Salvador Perez

$11

16

-5

3

Russell Martin

$11

15

-4

4

Matt Wieters

$10

14

-4

5

Stephen Vogt

$9

12

-3

6

Yan Gomes

$0

12

-12

7

Blake Swihart

$1

11

-10

8

Robinson Chirinos

$3

8

-5

9

James McCann

$5

6

-2

10

Jason Castro

$4

6

-2

Average

$6

12

-6

*Position eligibility in Table 1 is determined based on preseason eligibility.

Getting an ROI of 50 cents on the dollar sounds terrible, although Gomes and Swihart were most of the problem. If you did spend at catcher last year, the best outcome you could hope for was what Perez, Martin, or Wieters did: $10-11 worth of stats and a loss, but not a loss that was absolute. Most of the fantasy experts shied away from even this proposition, preferring to play in the shallow end of the pool with catchers like Chirinos, James McCann, or Castro and hoping to break even. For the teams that did buy Gomes and Swihart, starting in a $10-12 hole isn’t the end of the world but it certainly isn’t optimal. Playing time or lack thereof is almost always a factor with catchers, and once again the shift toward framing has created more situations where teams look for defense first and worry about offense later. This is particularly true in the AL, where the pitcher doesn’t have to hit.

For years, my preferred strategy in AL-only was to pair one stalwart with a one-dollar catcher and hope that my primary catcher could earn about $15. Even if I spent $18-20, getting production from at least one of my two catchers felt like a tactical advantage. In late July, I was ready to abandon this strategy because the position was so bad. But Gary Sanchez and Jonathan Lucroy have altered the landscape, and both offer the potential for a $20+ season from a catcher-eligible hitter. My goal in my AL-only leagues will be to grab one or the other. If someone else has the same idea and gets too aggressive, I won’t be afraid to spend next to nothing at catcher or even to go as far as obtaining two one-dollar catchers, in which case I’ll get my production at another position.

This newfound frugality is based on the harsh realities behind the mask.

Table 2: Top 10 AL Catchers, 2016

Rank

Player

$

Price

+/-

1

Evan Gattis

$15

11

4

2

Gary Sanchez

$12

3

9

3

Salvador Perez

$11

16

-5

4

Russell Martin

$11

15

-4

5

Brian McCann

$10

18

-8

6

Matt Wieters

$10

14

-4

7

Sandy Leon

$10

8

Stephen Vogt

$9

12

-3

9

Kurt Suzuki

$7

2

5

10

Jonathan Lucroy

$6

Average

$10

11

-1

Gattis’ shift back to catching saved the position from being a complete disaster. The best catchers were predictable (five of the 10 most expensive catchers appear on Table 2), but with such a low threshold to crack the Top 10, it didn’t take much in the way of statistical contributions to appear on this list. While overspending for the handful of catchers who can earn in double-digits is foolish, it would be even sillier to assume that you’ll be the lucky soul who gets the 2017 versions of Sanchez and/or Leon. Only 18 catchers earned $3 or more last year. There are few if any fun players to dream on at this position.

With so many fringe options to choose from, someone is going to stumble into this year’s Leon, either during the auction or later during the regular season. Attempting to figure out which of this year’s one-dollar catchers will turn into the 2017 version of Leon is a quixotic endeavor and it is quite possible that there is no Leon in this year’s crop. Below are a few catchers who are primarily AL-only options, who will likely not be profiled on any other fantasy website. Leon was not profiled in this space last year, but Sanchez, Suzuki and James McCann were. Suzuki is an excellent example of the sort of modest expectations you should have for profits when it comes to your catching corps in AL-only.

Jason Castro – Twins. (2016 AL-only earnings: $4)
Castro parlayed the industry’s analytic focus on framing metrics into a sizeable free agent contract, leaving Houston to sign a three-year, $24.5 million deal with Minnesota. With Suzuki out of the picture and former Yankees prospect John Ryan Murphy looking more like a steady backup than a future starter, Castro should see the vast majority of starts behind the plate. Castro presents the dilemma that many of the starters in the AL do. Is it worth taking a significant batting average hit for the modest power that Castro can provide? The best case scenario for Castro is probably something like his 2014, when he hit 14 home runs, drove in 56 runs, and had a .222 batting average. Castro earned $8 that year, but in 2016’s context that season would have been worth six dollars. Castro is fine as a $4-6 play but is not worth chasing anywhere past that price.

Martin Maldonado – Angels ($2)
The Angels swapped catchers with the Brewers this winter, shipping the awesomely named Jett Bandy to Milwaukee in exchange for Maldonado. While Maldonado looks like a career backup, it is likely that the Angels will use him as the primary catcher over Carlos Perez. Maldonado’s career .217 batting average across five major-league seasons and a cup of coffee in 2011 is cringeworthy, but the Angels didn’t bring Maldonado to sunny California for his offense. Maldonado has posted a positive FRAA every year of his career, and the Angels are hoping he can continue to do so as a regular. From a fantasy perspective, the hope is that Maldonado’s .149 ISO in 2016 is predictive and that a moderate power boost is coming. The move from frigid Milwaukee to sunny California harkens back to ABC’s hit comedy Laverne and Shirley, and their move from Wisconsin to California. Hopefully, Maldonado is more memorable than Sonny St. Jacques, one of the characters added to the show for the 1990-1991 season. You probably don’t know what I’m talking about because I’m #old.

Bruce Maxwell – Athletics ($2)
Maxwell started 2016 as an afterthought in both real life and fantasy. Maxwell was profiled as a “quest to be a thief-stopping caddy to an offense-oriented catcher” in 2016’s Baseball Prospectus Annual. Maxwell hit 10 home runs with a .393 OBP and .539 SLG at Triple-A Nashville in 60 games, leading to his call-up by the A’s in mid-July. Even though the home run power wasn’t there, Maxwell continued to hit, putting up a .283 batting average in 101 plate appearances. With the A’s planning on using Stephen Vogt primarily at DH, Maxwell has an opportunity to parlay his defense and modest offensive numbers into regular at bats in Oakland. It is possible that Josh Phegley steals some or most of the at bats from Maxwell and it is also possible that Vogt appears more behind the plate and that both Maxwell and Phegley are primarily backups, with Maxwell heading to the minors if the A’s don’t want to carry three catchers. As a low-end, two-to-three-dollar flier in AL-only, Maxwell is worth the modest speculation.

Robinson Chirinos – Rangers ($3)
With Lucroy in the fold in Texas for at least one more season, Chirinos moves back into a backup role. His power potential in AL-only is enticing. Chirinos had nine home runs in a mere 147 at bats last season and for his career has 33 home runs in 871 plate appearances. Only 11 Chirinos’ home runs have been in Arlington, so the power plays nearly anywhere. Chirinos was stretched as a starter entering 2016 but is a nice insurance policy for the Rangers to have for Lucroy. With Lucroy’s ability to play first, it is possible that Chirinos sees a few more at bats behind the plate than projected. He earned six dollars in 233 at bats in 2015, and that is a realistic ceiling this year as well.

Omar Narvaez – White Sox ($2)
Narvaez is expected to split duties with Kevan Smith for the White Sox. He has seven home runs in nearly 1,900 professional plate appearances and despite his youth isn’t expected to develop further power. Narvaez stands in for the many one-dollar catchers who will be purchased in AL-only this spring. There is very little if any upside. The hope is that he won’t be awful. A .250 batting average with 300-400 plate appearances this season is worth having on your AL-only roster. Sentences like these make me sad and also make me wonder what I am doing with my life. The bottom rung at AL catcher is The Bell Jar personified.

Josh Phegley – Athletics ($2)
If you’re wondering why the heck I’m including Josh Phegley here when I mentioned him above, it is so I can close out this article with the table below.

Table 3: All Other AL Catchers Purchased in 2016

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Rank

Player

$

Price

+/-

11

James McCann

$5

6

-2

12

Chris Iannetta

$1

4

-3

13

Dioner Navarro

$2

4

-2

14

John Ryan Murphy

-$2

3

-5

15

Gary Sanchez

$12

3

9

16

Carlos Perez

$2

3

-1

17

Josh Phegley

$2

2

-1

Caleb Joseph

-$3

2

-5

19

Kurt Suzuki

$7

2

5

Alex Avila

$1

2

-1

Curt Casali

$1

2

-1

22

Hank Conger

$0

2

-2

23

Geovany Soto

$2

1

1

24

Michael McKenry

1

-1

25

Jarrod Saltalamacchia

$2

1

1

26

Mike Zunino

$3

0

3

Chris Gimenez

$1

0

1

Christian Vasquez

$1

0

1

Robert Perez

$0

0

-1

Ryan Hanigan

-$1

0

-1

Average

$2

2

-0

Even with the inclusion of Sanchez, the cheapest catchers in the AL couldn’t manage to break even in 2016, even though they only cost two dollars on average. While McKenry’s inclusion in Table 3 seems funny, keeping him as a complete zero on your fantasy roster all year wouldn’t have been much worse than drafting most of these guys. Sixteen of the 20 catchers in Table 3 earned $2 or less.

Josh Phegley was the sixteenth most expensive catcher last year. He was coming off a 2015 where he hit nine home runs in 243 plate appearances. Betting $2 on a catcher who could potentially reach double-digits in home runs is a reasonable proposition. It didn’t amount to much of anything. This was a common theme. They wore the tools of ignorance, but we were the ones who were the motley fools, the cuckholds of the fantasy realm.

This is what it comes down to at catcher in an only league. I could profile a few more catchers, squint at their 2016 numbers, and gush over their miniscule upside. But there is a good deal of luck at the bottom of the barrel, and most of it is bad. It’s okay to push a personal favorite to two dollars at auction this year. Just know that your odds of getting any kind of return on your $1-3 lottery ticket are extremely poor.