The beginning of each week of pre-season positional coverage here at BP is going to kick off with a high-level view of that position before we start diving too deeply into rankings, individual players and the like. And as a reminder, here is what the rest of the week’s schedule will look like:
- Today: State of the Position, Players to Target (staff post)
- Tuesday: 2014 Tiered Rankings (top-25), Corresponding Infographic
- Wednesday: Three-Year Rankings (top-30), Prospect Overview
- Thursday: Dynasty League Rankings (top-40), Tale of the Tape
- Friday: Scoresheet Strategy, Players to Avoid (staff post)
And before we jump into the meat that is the catcher position, I wanted to talk briefly about one of the additions to the weekly lineup (and beyond). I am very happy to announce that we have a three-headed monster of knowledge joining the fantasy staff to provide ongoing Scoresheet coverage throughout the season. Ben Murphy, Ian Lefkowitz, and Jared Weiss will bring their years of experience to BP both to write content for the site and to provide audio content through their new podcast, Three True Outcomes. After rankings season is over, they will continue to write about the format, both through analysis of their own and critiquing me in my adventures as a first-time Scoresheet owner.
Now, the aforementioned meat. Catcher has always been one of those positions where the concept of value doesn’t come into play nearly as much as the concept of strategy. And by that I mean that you have your owners who come into the auction with the specific intent to not draft a catcher until all of their other starting spots are filled, or only spend $1-2 on the position. These owners, who exist in every league, can often have the added effect of artificially lowering the prices on some of the catchers who are target-worthy from a value sense. However, those owners who write off drafting a catcher outside of the endgame before the draft starts should be more flexible when it’s appropriate.
The depth of the catcher position has been discussed at relatively great lengths over the past season or two, but this year something interesting happened to the class—the top got stronger. Last year, it was Buster Posey and then everyone else. This year, some of the players who would have been clear steps down from Posey have seen their values rise for different reasons. Joe Mauer is going to be playing first base full-time in 2014, so his playing time should increase nicely along with his potential to stay healthy. Brian McCann is moving into a cozy new stadium (Yankee Stadium) and with Robinson Cano out of town, the Yankees may choose to increase his playing time by occasionally using him at DH against right-handed pitching. Jonathan Lucroy has established himself as a reliable name with his second straight strong season.
It has also has been true that historically catchers have not been known as a hotbed of stolen bases. This is only more noticeable from 2013. Between 2008 and 2012, the position as a whole averaged over 93 steals per season (yes, that’s EVERYONE combined), and there were 23 individual player seasons of more than five steals. But in 2013, that total dropped to 73 stolen bases and Jonathan Lucroy (9) and Russell Martin (9) were the only two players who could count their thefts on more than one hand. This is both quirky and relevant information, as those are stolen bases that other teams are simply not getting and adds quietly to the value of those two going forward. It also helps the case of someone like Derek Norris, who has stolen five bases each of the past two years in limited playing time.
The League Breakout
Surprisingly, the league breakout is not too noticeable as far as the 2014 tiers go, until you get the bottom of the list, where the National League dominates the list. These differences are only further accentuated by the types of players who are available at those later spots. In the National League, you have more unproven players with upside like Travis d’Arnaud, Devin Mesoraco, and Welington Castillo. In the American League, those corresponding spots are fewer and further between, as it’s more consistent players with limited ceilings like Dioner Navarro and John Jaso.
In AL-only leagues, the strong move this year may be to actually pay for one of the top-three catchers available (Mauer, Santana, McCann). There are some mid-level guys with upside like Matt Wieters, Salvador Perez, and Jason Castro, but with a thin bottom tier, that group may end up going for prices closer to the top group than anticipated. In NL-only leagues, unless you’re particularly risk averse, it’s a better strategy to just sit back and see who ends up undervalued. The back-end of tomorrow’s rankings are littered with National League names who have a chance to be top-10 overall catchers, but could also flameout and fail spectacularly. Fortunately, the names at the very top are as safe as you can get at the position, so you have an alternative.
The Strategy in Mixed Leagues
In a shallow mixed format (12 teams or less) where you only start one catcher, I’d be looking for the opportunity to grab either Mauer or Posey at value and if that value doesn’t present itself, I would look to wait a while until the tier is about to run out. In an ideal world, that will present itself with Wilin Rosario or Jonathan Lucroy around the 11th or 12th round—if others are waiting until the later rounds.
The deeper the one-catcher league gets, the more I’d try to avoid that mid-section of catchers. Sure there may be upside in Matt Wieters and Travis d’Arnaud, but similar upside will exist at the end of the draft in guys like Devin Mesoraco and Alex Avila, at a fraction of the cost. And when you start trickling into two-catcher leagues, there is going to be more importance placed on having non-black holes at the position given what the player pool looks like once you get outside of the top-25.
The Long-Term Outlook
Predicting the fantasy future of catchers as a whole is an extremely strange task compared to other positions. Starting at the beginning, the developmental curve can be extremely challenging to predict. For every Buster Posey, who comes up and hits from day one, there are plenty of top catching prospects like Matt Wieters and Devin Mesoraco, who have not yet lived up to anything close to the level of their hype offensively. A large part of this can be due to the demands placed on these players away from the batter’s box.
Outside of Mauer, who will lose his eligibility after 2014, most of the other top names don’t appear to be going anywhere any time soon—which is great for long-term planners. Sure, there’s a very small chance that Carlos Santana could lose his eligibility as well, but it’s more likely that is a 2015 or 2016 development. The only other short-term loss here is Jesus Montero, but this would have been a bigger deal if he hadn’t been terrible, injured and suspended (the trifecta of disappointment!) in 2013. I still believe this will matter again one day, but today is not that day.
On the prospect front, there will be a lot of detailed information on the next wave to potentially hit the majors this Wednesday, but the group as a whole is highly risky. Each of the top names has a major strike against him (and a different one at that). Travis d’Arnaud has had a heck of a time staying healthy and he’ll already be 25 next month. Jorge Alfaro has crazy fantasy potential, but he needs to hit for the raw power or the speed to matter, and that’s not a given. Gary Sanchez may end up having to move off the position, and it’s not like the Yankees have had much luck with any of their “catchers of the future” in recent memory. In other words, if you’re counting on a prospect being your future at the position, I certainly hope you have a strong “now” option to ease some of that risk—even if you’re not currently contending.
A Closing Haiku
Depth maintains stronghold
The middle tier is fool’s gold
First base? Well played, Mauer