The 2014 season proved to be a mixed bag at the catcher position. A few players emerged as legitimate top-10 talents, such as Devin Mesoraco and Yan Gomes, while some of the preseason darlings, such as Yasmani Grandal and Wilson Ramos, failed to produce due to injury. Those circumstances, though, seem to add up to an extremely deep position in 2015: If the breakouts carry over and the injured players return to everyday roles, the top 10 could be relatively stacked.
An underappreciated advantage at the catcher position has always been plate appearances. Position players around the diamond amass 600-plus PA with regularity, but in 2014, only three players eclipsed that mark. However, only one catcher (Carlos Santana) did so in 2013. The biggest reason for the increase? Catchers are beginning to play multiple positions. Buster Posey, Jonathan Lucroy, Joe Mauer, Yasmani Grandal, Carlos Santana, Brian McCann, Stephen Vogt, and Evan Gattis all qualified at more than one spot. The added roster versatility is always nice for fantasy owners, but more importantly, the benefit can be found in the PA category. That means more opportunities for counting statistics—a category in which catchers have traditionally struggled. Teams are searching for ways to get quality catchers more plate appearances, which is a boon for fantasy owners wise enough to capitalize on such trends.
THE LEAGUE BREAKOUT
The strength of the catching position remains in the National League. Buster Posey, Jonathan Lucroy, Yadier Molina, and Devin Mesoraco lead the charge—as arguably the top four catchers available in any league—but the NL has a pair of breakout candidates who may convince some fantasy owners to forgo paying for top-tier talent and take their chances in later rounds. I’m specifically looking at Wilson Ramos and Travis d’Arnaud.
Wilson Ramos has struggled to stay off the disabled list. If he can amass 500-plus PA in 2015, fantasy owners could be looking at a 20-homer catcher with a .275 batting average. Too many people have focused on his .132 ISO from last year. He ranked 12th in all of baseball in average fly-ball distance last year and launched 16 long balls in only 303 PA in 2013. Ramos possesses legitimate power. He’ll also benefit from a quality lineup in Washington, which could help him accumulate solid run totals. Those who play in OBP leagues will have to adjust his value downward, but looking outside the top-10 catchers, Ramos could be a breakout in 2015.
Furthermore, not many people know that d’Arnaud hit .265/.313/.474 with a .209 ISO in the second half last year. He’ll only be 26 years old, and it should be noted that catchers often take longer to develop at the big-league level due to a necessary focus on defensive skills and simply learning how to manage the game. The young catcher could be following a similar developmental path to that of Jonathan Lucroy, who broke out in his third season. d’Arnaud flashed top-10 potential in the second half. He could be the player to target for those fantasy owners who are willing to look down the list in the 15-to-20 range.
The American League has a paucity of catching talent. Yan Gomes received the lion’s share of attention last year—and rightfully so—while Russell Martin could be a popular target, now that he’s in Toronto. Owners shouldn’t forget about Matt Wieters, either. But few breakout candidates seem to exist on the surface. If it weren’t for the presence of Kurt Suzuki, the obvious choice would be Josmil Pinto of the Minnesota Twins, especially in OBP leagues. He offers 15-plus-homer potential with a middling batting average and a gaudy walk rate. At 25, fantasy owners will be watching him closely in spring training. With Suzuki in the driver’s seat, though, it seems his upside is rather limited.
THE STRATEGY IN MIXED LEAGUES
Buster Posey and Jonathan Lucroy are the cream of the crop. They’re the best all-around hitters at the catcher position, and they also have the playing time advantage of playing first base on occasion. I won’t fault anyone for grabbing Posey or Lucroy on draft day, as they appear to be safe bets and should be top-five producers.
In 10-team leagues that only utilize one catcher, it seems obvious to wait and see who falls through the cracks. Guys like Wilson Ramos, Wilin Rosario, Salvador Perez, Matt Wieters, and Derek Norris will be available in the later rounds in such leagues, and all will provide value. That doesn’t even mention guys like McCann, Gattis, d’Arnaud, and Grandal. It’s a deep position after the top two, and I don’t see the point in reaching for Salvador Perez six or seven rounds before someone else drafts Wilson Ramos. They could finish the season with similar numbers.
In NL-only leagues, the case remains the same. It’s crazy deep. Someone like Wilin Rosario is in the fifth-to-eighth range in the NL, depending on how much you like him, but that’s illustrative of the overall depth. Again, I’m not opposed to dropping money on Posey or Lucroy. If that’s not your cup of tea, though, wait: You’ll find something and save money in the process.
In AL-onlies, though, I’m apt to spend a bit more money to grab Yan Gomes or Russell Martin. Things get a bit gross after that, as you’re looking at Brian McCann, Kurt Suzuki, or Tyler Flowers as the next tier. That’s a pretty big drop. Even Wieters is scary due to his TJ surgery. Adjust your expectations and valuations accordingly—especially if you think Sal Perez has been overused and isn’t guaranteed to be a top-five AL catcher.
THE LONG-TERM OUTLOOK
The top-end of the catching position appears secure. Posey and Lucroy are 27 and 28, respectively, and should have a good half-decade of production before significantly slowing down. The traditional powers at catcher, though, will continue to fade. Russell Martin is now on the wrong side of 30—while McCann, Molina, and Montero (all M’s, what’s with that?) all continue to age.
The next tier for dynasty leagues appears to be Mesoraco, Perez, Ramos, Grandal, Norris, Rosario, etc. Numerous mid-20s catchers exist, who should be fantasy mainstays for the next half decade. As mentioned earlier, Travis d’Arnaud also could deserve mention in that same breath. I’m not certain any of those catchers are going to threaten to be top-tier guys in the next five years, though. Maybe someone will have a big year, but in terms of consistency, none of those catchers are on the Posey/Lucroy level.
Down on the farm, fantasy owners should be targeting Jorge Alfaro, Blake Swihart, and Gary Sanchez. If I had any faith that Peter O’Brien could stick behind the plate, he’d perhaps be in the discussion because the Diamondbacks don’t have a long-term option at catcher. Traditionally, it’s thought to not be wise to hold onto minor-league catchers in dynasty leagues; however, I do believe that Alfaro, Swihart, and Sanchez are exceptions to that rule. They’re all top-500 overall dynasty players.
A CLOSING HAIKU
Posey and Lucroy reign.
Depth abounds without impact.
Oh, hey there, Wilson.