While the depth at each position varies from year to year, the American League catcher landscape has been a fairly shallow position in recent years. Despite the lack of depth, punting isn’t an option (especially in two-catcher formats). When preparing for your draft, be sure to make adjustments accounting for the depth or lack thereof at every position. How much more do you value getting a decent player at a shallow spot? Are the elite players at the position worth the risk? How these questions are handled will go a long way in determining the makeup of your roster.
As an avid AL-only fantasy player, I’ve dealt with a shallow pool of catchers before. When perusing my previous AL-only teams for this article, I noticed that the last catcher I paid a substantial amount for was Jorge Posada in 2009. In one league, my last four catchers were Dioner Navarro, Jarrod Saltalamacchia (twice), and Jesus Montero. Without many obvious catcher targets over the years—the position currently bemoans the loss of Joe Mauer and his four home runs—I’ve learned to win without a good catcher. If you’re going to choose this route, it’s obviously important to curb spending on the position. If you plan to go after Yan Gomes or Russell Martin, go ahead and do so, but don’t get caught paying only a few bucks less for Matt Wieters when he’s the last decent catcher available. The idea is to get some value at the position, of course, but it’s also important to save money at the position with an eye towards applying it elsewhere. This strategy isn’t just winning without a good catcher; it’s winning without paying for one.
With most of the elite fantasy catchers currently residing in the National League, playing the middle and lower tiers will be common in AL-only leagues because owners hardly have a choice. I mentioned that Mauer lost his catcher eligibility this year already, but, more notably, so too did Carlos Santana. This leaves Brian McCann as the only eligible catcher in the AL whose average price in expert leagues CBS, LABR, and Tout Wars (as prepared by Mike Gianella) topped $20 last year. While we should see an increase in draft day price for Gomes and Martin, no catcher earned more than Gomes’ $19 in AL-only last year. It’s also damning when losing Derek Norris to the NL hurts the position’s depth. AL catcher is really weak this year and my recommendation in most cases will be to fade the position.
While I endorse not paying for a catcher, the lack of depth could be a major benefit to owners who choose to be aggressive on Gomes and Martin because all of the other top catching options have warts. McCann showed early signs of decline last season. Wieters missed most of last season. Salvador Perez caught roughly 1,000 games last season. Despite his power bat, Zunino has no approach at the plate. Even Dioner Navarro, who as of now will see the majority of his at-bats come from the designated hitter position, will need to put together his third good season in a row to be worth paying for a catcher. The best catching related news AL-only owners received all winter besides Martin signing was on John Jaso and Stephen Vogt’s health, respectively. While there may be a bevy of top catcher options in the NL, the AL catcher pool has a Baby Ruth floating in it.
For those owners looking to fade the position, I’ll examine some interesting AL-only catcher targets for deep formats. “Earnings” are based on Mike Gianella’s Rotisserie-style, 4×4 and 5×5 formulas he provided in his Retrospective Player Valuation article from November 20th.
Josh Phegley – Athletics
4×4 earnings: $2 5×5 earnings: $1
Phegley had a minimal impact last year at the major-league level as he made it into just 11 games for the White Sox. He was included as part of the package that brought Jeff Samardjiza to Chicago and figures to be John Jaso’s backup and platoon partner in Oakland. The pairing with Jaso is beneficial for Phegley because he’s guaranteed to get at-bats against left-handed pitching at the outset of the season and potentially would see regular at-bats if Jaso misses time. Jaso, who has never started more than 80 games at catcher in a season, is essentially a lock to cede playing time behind the plate at some point this year, and when he does, I suspect it’ll be Phegley who capitalizes. The Athletics have another catching option in Stephen Vogt, but they might prefer to use him elsewhere exclusively just as they did in the second half of last season. In 107 games with Triple-A last year, Phegley, who’ll turn 27 before the season, hit .273 with 23 home runs and 75 RBI. The White Sox hardly even gave Phegley a chance at the major league level (251 plate appearances over the last two seasons), but he should get the chance in Oakland, and if he can tap into the power he’s shown in the minors, he won’t disappoint.
Josmil Pinto – Twins
4×4 earnings: $3 5×5 earnings: $4
Why not? Pinto’s case is similar to Phegley’s in that both have a reasonable chance at becoming starting catchers at some point this season. His case is unique in that Pinto showed more last April, when he hit five home runs with a BB:K ratio of 17-to-17 in 20 games, than Phegley has in his short time in the majors. There’s also the curious case of Kurt Suzuki, who had his best offensive season out of nowhere at the age of 31 last season, to deal with. Despite four consecutive campaigns with at least 90 losses, the Twins just inked Torii Hunter this offseason and there’s no telling how long they might stick with an aging and inferior player. If Suzuki flops as the starter early in the season, Pinto, who’ll turn 26 prior to the season, will be the main beneficiary. Suzuki, I’ve given this a lot of thought, and from now on, your name is Flounder.
Christian Vazquez – Red Sox
4×4 earnings: $2 5×5 earnings: $2
Vazquez has hit for average in the minors (.279 with Triple-A last year and .289 with Double-A in 2013), but he lacks power. He hit .240 in 201 plate appearances in the majors last year and also has a patient approach which led to a nine percent walk rate. Vazquez is a middling offensive player even for a catcher, but it’s hard not to like any starting catcher in the Red Sox lineup when the position is this shallow.
These next three are still interesting deep targets, but this group is better suited for second catcher duty or as part of a dirt cheap approach to the position.
Tomas Telis – Rangers
The backup or $1 catcher strategy can work even if your backup doesn’t fall into a starter role. I expect Telis, who hit .318/.352/.431 in 106 games between Double-A and Triple-A last season, to do enough to be worth a $1 bid even if he remains the backup all season and it wouldn’t be the end of the world. A catcher who only plays a few times a week is acceptable because it minimizes the impact said catcher has on your overall team batting average. This can be a big advantage, especially when your opponents allow a catcher with a poor average to rack up plate appearances and ruin their team’s average.
Carlos Corporan – Astros
4×4 earnings: $4 5×5 earnings: $4
Another backup with power, Corporan fits the profile of the cheap catchers I like to target. He’ll provide some home runs when he plays, but he won’t play enough as a backup to drag down your batting average very much. Corporan made more contact last year than in 2013 as he cut his strikeout rate from 28 percent to 19 percent. If he can hold those gains and recover from a bruised thumb injury which hampered him over the final two months last season, Corporan should remain a decent source of backstop power.
Hank Conger – Astros
4×4 earnings: $2 5×5 earnings: $3
Conger is another backup I like on the cheap because he provides power when he’s hitting. Unfortunately, he only hit for the first two months of the season last year. Conger still hit seven home runs in 2013 and would make a good second catcher or dirt cheap AL-only starter if he’s able to replicate that production this year. There’s a chance he could see regular playing time if Jason Castro is traded.
Here are two additional catcher options to target very late in leagues that require two catchers or have deep reserves:
James McCann – Tigers
McCann will serve as Alex Avila’s backup and platoon partner in Detroit after auditioning for the role down the stretch last season. McCann hit .336/.396/.469 in 144 plate appearances against left-handed pitchers in Triple-A last season, making him an ideal platoon partner with Avila. While Avila is entrenched as the starter against right-handed pitching, he’s dealt with a litany of concussion issues in the past and his lack of durability makes McCann a little more interesting as a deep target. In dynasty and keeper formats, it’s important to note that Avila is also a free agent after the 2015 season.
Caleb Joseph – Orioles
You may remember Joseph from that insane stretch in August when he hit a home run in five consecutive games. A career minor leaguer until last year, Joseph started 77 games after Matt Wieters suffered an elbow strain that required Tommy John surgery. He’s nothing special, but Joseph has some power and the Orioles’ starting catcher is coming off a mostly lost season. You could do worse as your second catcher in a deep league.