In our circles, position scarcity is a dreaded term and can give even the most seasoned fantasy owner agita on draft day. From an auction/draft preparation perspective, when preparing your player valuations and raw bids, a position that is void of depth presents the dilemma of how to price that particular position. How much do you bump up the value of a mid-level player at a weak position? What auction price/draft round do you set as your ceiling for the select few elite players at that same position? These are tough decisions that require much thought when trying to assemble a balanced fantasy roster.
Most years, we have a seen the catcher position fall under this category: top heavy with a select few fantasy stars rounded out with average backstops and part-time $1 end-game plays. For example, NL-only leagues in the late 2000s had Brian McCann, Bengie Molina, and Russell Martin for a 3-4 year stretch as the steady top-tier catchers. After those three were just a couple of reliable second-tier options, followed by a bunch of lesser players who either had little power, had pop but were AVG drains, or did not garner enough at-bats to have any fantasy relevance. As such, in my NL-only auction home leagues, I would watch McCann, Molina, and Martin all go for a premium, then look on as owners scrambled, subsequently overpaying for marginal catchers to ensure they would get a least some fantasy production from their no. 1 backstop. I on the other hand chose not to get involved in that mess, and would often dollar out my catchers, allowing me to spend my money elsewhere for better buys. It’s a strategy that has worked for me in the past when position scarcity has reared its ugly head, and I have been able to celebrate a couple of titles using that philosophy. Taking that money and allocating it in other places rather than overspending for catcher stats had been my fantasy M.O. for years, and I was comfortable with that approach.
With all that said, position scarcity should not be a factor when ranking your NL catchers’ draft positions/prices heading into the 2015 fantasy season. The NL catching landscape has now changed, as the relative drop-off in value between the elite catchers to the next 5-10 NL options is not as large as it has been in recent seasons. In just the past three years, we have witnessed a crop of talented young NL catchers’ development into productive hitters, providing fantasy depth at the position we have not seen in quite a while. The proof is in the numbers: During these years, there have been 12 $20 fantasy-earning seasons posted by catchers in NL-only leagues, and six more $15 seasons. Last year alone, 2 of the 15 regular NL catchers cracked double digits in home runs, and 10 surpassed $10 in total fantasy earnings. This surge in productivity has caused me to reevaluate my $1 catching strategy, and forced my hand in drafting at least one regular NL catcher when constructing my rosters the past couple of years.
With the plentiful catching options now available in the NL, we are beginning to see the top-tier catchers go for something closer to market-rate prices. Last year, the top four catchers in terms of average salary—Buster Posey, Yadier Molina, Jonathan Lucroy, and Wilin Rosario (derived from the prices in CBS, LABR, and Tout Wars, as prepared by Mike Gianella)—cost $23, $20, $20, and $20, respectively. The previous two years prior to those three 2014 auctions, Posey and Molina both averaged $25 a season, and Lucroy and Rosario $20 a season. This again illustrates the notion that there is no reason for you to chase those top-tier catchers past their value. Stick to your sheet values, as there are plenty of quality backstops who will still provide positive earnings for a more modest price. Players like Devin Mesoraco, Evan Gattis, Wilson Ramos, Yasmani Grandal, Travis d’Arnaud, and Derek Norris are all quality alternatives as your no. 1 catcher if you miss out on the aforementioned top catchers from last year’s auctions.
With this newfound abundance of quality fantasy backstops, let’s examine some deeper NL catching plays that could make for interesting targets from a value perspective. “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.
Christian Bethancourt – Braves
4×4 earnings: $1 / 5×5 earnings: $1
Heralded for his defense behind the plate in the minors, Bethancourt became the everyday catcher for the Braves last September and projects as the Braves starting catcher to open the season with Gattis moving to the outfield. Bethancourt did not show much offensively in his 31 games for Atlanta, and his offensive upside this season is limited, but that does not mean he cannot be a cheap and productive component as a no. 2 catcher. While you would like to see more patience at the plate from the young catcher, we must remember he is just 23 years old. He has shown some pop in the minors, hitting 12 home runs in Double-A in 2013 and eight in Triple-A last year with respectable averages of .277 and .283, respectively. The additional element that Bethancourt can bring is speed, as he stole 55 bases in his minor-league career, including 18 steals the last two years. His defense will keep him in the lineup, and he will get occasional breathers, mostly against RHP, from the newly acquired A.J. Pierzynski. His fantasy numbers will not wow you, but should play enough to get you valuable counting stats without killing your average. The SB potential is what makes him intriguing, as 10 steals is not out of the question. His reputation as a defensive first catcher could limit his appeal to your fellow owners, so if you can grab him for around $5 or less or in the late rounds to fill up your second catcher spot, you could be pleasantly surprised. His value should be similar in both standard 4×4 and 5×5 formats.
Francisco Cervelli – Pirates
4×4 earnings: $5 / 5×5 earnings: $5
No longer in the shadows of Jorge Posada, Russell Martin, and Brian McCann, Cervelli was dealt to the Pirates in November to replace his former teammate Martin to be the Pirates starting catcher. A backup for most of his seven-year career with the Yankees, entering his age-29 season he now has the opportunity to start and show what he can do with regular playing time. He does not possess much power (10 career HR over 688 career AB) and moving to PNC Park will not help in that category. However, he has a good batting eye, and his career slash line of .278/.348/.381 is certainly worth noting from a catcher perspective. His ability to get on base will create run opportunities, and he will be solid batting-average play. If he is able to stay healthy and put up 350-400 AB with his career slash line, he will be another decent second-catcher option. Like Bethancourt, his draft value will be similar and based on his OBP and runs potential will be about the same in both standard 4×4 and 5×5 formats. In OBP leagues, he might be slightly more valuable.
Nick Hundley/Michael McKenry – Rockies
Hundley: 4×4 earnings: $5 / 5×5 earnings: $4
McKenry: 4×4 earnings: $9 / 5×5 earnings: $8
The Rockies’ signing of Hundley to a two-year contract last week adds to the speculation they will move Rosario at some point this year. Even if the Rockies go with three catchers, expect Hundley to see his fair share of time behind the dish. The Rockies have grown tired of Rosario’s defensive inefficiencies (three consecutive seasons leading the league in passed balls and a disappointing 16 percent caught-stealing rate last year, well below the league average of 28 percent) and Hundley is an upgrade in that area. If not traded, the Rockies will still be able to keep Rosario’s bat in the lineup by getting him an occasional day at 1B or a corner OF spot, as well as DH duties in AL parks, giving Hundley the opportunity to bat in hitter-friendly yards. Hundley’s offensive upside is limited, but he did hit 13 HR in 2013 for the Padres in 373 AB and has posted solid line-drive rates. He could be a sneaky play to grab later in drafts, and hold a little more value in 4×4 leagues than 5×5 leagues.
Meanwhile, in just 168 AB last year, McKenry quietly provided cheap production for his NL owners by smacking eight homers with a sparkling .315 average. McKenry is strictly a backup, but when you get this type of production from a catcher whose average salary was $1, even in less than 200 AB, you’ll sign up for that every time. To put into perspective, his $9 earned in NL 4×4 leagues was as much or more than d’Arnaud, Carlos Ruiz, Jarrod Saltalamacchia, and Welington Castillo, all of whom amassed 370 AB or more and whose average salaries were 10 times that of McKenry. McKenry’s bat will present him opportunities to get the occasional start and be called upon in high leverage PH situations to produce runs. His 35 percent liner rate and 12.1 percent HR:FB ratio last year were legit, and not just a product of Coors Field, as his home/road splits are very similar—.333/.438./.529 line with 4 HR and 11 RBI at Coors vs. .299/.358/.506, 4 HR and 11 RBI on the road. He’s a solid, cheaper option in the endgame to fill up your second catcher slot.
Here are five additional deeper catching plays to target very late if you are nearing the end of your drafts and still need a second catcher to fill out your roster, or your league allows for reserves:
Welington Castillo – Cubs
The Cubs acquisitions of Miguel Montero and David Ross this off seasons leaves Castillo as the odd man out in Chicago, and he most likely will be dealt. He does have some pop, evidenced by his 21 HR the past two seasons over 223 games, and his career .256/.324/.400 slash line is not terrible for catcher. This situation will need to be monitored this spring, but if he is dealt to another NL team, he could bring a little value.
Jordan Pacheco – Diamondbacks
The Diamondbacks re-signed Pacheco to a minor-league deal this off season with an invite to spring training. Arizona’s catching situation is wide open right now, so if they do not acquire a catcher before the season, Pacheco could see significant time behind the dish. He does not possess much power but has solid contact rates and a career line-drive rate of 27 percent. He also could see some time at 3B and 1B, so 300 AB with a decent average is a possibility.
Brayan Peña – Reds
Injuries to Joey Votto and Mesoraco led to Peña posting career highs in games played (115) and PA’s (372) last season for the Reds. Not exciting, but he has earned $6 and $5, respectively, in NL-only 5×5 leagues the past two years, and you could do worse if desperate to plug someone into the second-catcher hole.
A.J. Pierzynski – Braves
Coming off seasons of 27 and 17 HR, Pierzynski’s offensive production was non-existent in 2014; he put up a .251/.288/.337 slash line with only five long balls—all career lows. While he disappointed his fantasy owners, who paid for the production of the previous two years, the drop-off was not shocking for a 37-year-old catcher. Signed by the Braves to a one-year contract to back up Bethancourt, if Pierzynski can recapture some of that pop, he would be worth a reserve pick.
Cameron Rupp — Phillies
The Phillies are actively shopping Carlos Ruiz, and if they are able to move him, Rupp would slide in as their regular catcher. Rupp was absolutely awful last year, but the former third-round pick has shown some promise, and hit 14 HR in 2013 between Double-A and Triple-A. He could very well be a batting-average killer, so he is better acquired as a reserve pick and worth that spot based on the potential pop and current state of the Phillies catching situation.
Kevin Plawecki – Mets
Ranked as our no. 5 prospect in the Mets organization, the only thing holding Plawecki back from making the club’s Opening Day roster is d’Arnaud. Since being drafted in the first round in 2012, the talented catching prospect has done nothing but impress, hitting at every level the past three seasons. His .295/.372/.439 slash line over 287 minor-league games is impressive enough, but his plate discipline for a young hitter is eye-opening: He owns a 125-to-97 K:BB ratio covering 1,192 PA’s. If d’Arnaud suffers an injury (which has happened in four of the last five seasons), expect the Mets to call up Plawecki to take his place on the roster. He has also played some 1B in the minors, so he could possibly see time there if an injury arises. If Plawecki continues to hit at Triple-A this year, the Mets will be hard pressed to keep him in Las Vegas. Plawecki is definitely a player you will want to keep your eye on in 2015.
Thank you for reading
This is a free article. If you enjoyed it, consider subscribing to Baseball Prospectus. Subscriptions support ongoing public baseball research and analysis in an increasingly proprietary environment.Subscribe now