Although three-year rankings are perhaps most useful for keeper league owners, they can serve a number of purposes for dynasty league owners as well, particularly those who are in (or approaching) contention and not knee-deep in the perpetual rebuild that many owners seem to enjoy. If your contention cycle is now and you’re wondering who to keep and who to deal, the three-year rankings are for you—as they won’t feature any prospects who were just legally able to buy their first Powerball ticket.
It’s especially important to note that these rankings are decidedly not the consensus rankings of the BP Fantasy Staff; they are the rankings of the selected author.
“The formula is simple: most of the weight is placed upon projected 2016 performance, with a substantial drop in weighting potential 2017 performance and then another drop in how 2018 output is valued. Finally, remember these are themed around positions, so losing eligibility is a big deal within the confines of this particular exercise.”
As we continue to revel in #Catchella, let’s kick off our Three-Year Projection series by taking a deeper look at the most volatile fantasy position for hitters:
To illustrate the dropoff in the catching ranks once you get past the top option, here is 2015’s unofficial standard mixed-league leaderboard:
As longtime Dave Nilsson proponent J.P. Breen touched on in Monday’s “State of the Position” piece, Posey’s 2015 value doubled that of Evan Gattis, the actual second-place finisher in standard ESPN leagues. Posey’s production over the last three years has dwarfed that of any other catcher by a wide margin, and while there will assuredly be new challengers to his throne over the next three, none offers the overall package that Posey does. Let’s not overthink this.
I looked for reasons to not rank Posey no. 1, I really did, but there are just too many concerns surrounding Schwarber for me to overlook as of right now—and not all of them involve where he ends up on the defensive spectrum.
Concern No. 1) Can Schwarber hit lefties with enough proficiency to avoid being platooned, as he was much of the last two months of his rookie season?
He mashed his way through the minors at such a prolific pace that significant sample sizes aren’t in abundance, but he did hit 82 points less against lefties in Double-A and 135 points less against southpaws in the majors in 2015, where he compiled a .143/.213/.268 line in 61 plate appearances.
It could be viewed as preposterous (and I’m sure it will be by #CubsTwitter) to suggest that Schwarber could be platooned, especially after watching his moonshot off of Kevin Siegrist in Game Four of the NLDS, but Joe Maddon could be unable to resist the temptation to maximize the abundance of depth on the Cubs roster and implement a right-handed hitter to spot Schwarber against lefties over the next few seasons. It might not happen as soon as 2016, but if it does, it will certainly cost Schwarber some (if not all) of the additional value that he would likely accrue by playing in the field when he’s not catching.
Concern No. 2) What type of batting average will Schwarber hit for in a full slate of at-bats?
Schwarber memorably brought his red-hot bat from the minors and hit for a .323 AVG in his first 65 at-bats through the end of July. His last 167 at-bats over the rest of the season weren’t nearly as rosy, as he hit for a .216 AVG and finished at .246. He could very well have simply been fatigued in his first full season as a professional, but combined with the potential for struggles against lefties, there is some doubt as to where Schwarber’s batting average ultimately ends up. If his strikeout rate moves too much further north from where it was in 2015 (28.2 percent), he could struggle to provide surplus value in the category. With the average catcher hitting for a .238 AVG in 2015, it’s an admittedly low bar to clear.
Concern No. 3) How much longer will Schwarber have catcher eligibility?
With the combination of Miguel Montero and David Ross being under contract for 2016 and Chicago’s designs on World Series contention, it’s hard to see Schwarber becoming the everyday catcher (barring injury) in the upcoming season. It’s possible that he could sneak in enough appearances to retain eligibility simply by becoming a personal catcher for one of the team’s back-end rotation options. Looking into 2017, Miguel Montero will still be under contract for $14MM, and it’s very possible that the reigning Cubs Minor League Player of the Year, Willson Contreras, who is 10 months older than Schwarber (and a better defender), could be ready to step in and take over the bulk of the catching duties, leaving plenty of legitimate questions about just how long of a leash the Cubs will give Schwarber if he struggles with his defense at the major-league level over the next few seasons.
Make no mistake, Schwarber is much, much closer to no. 1 on this list than he is to no. 3, but the unanswered questions leave Posey ahead at the moment. There’s little question that Schwarber represents the best chance to dethrone the king over the next three seasons, and he may end up doing it in 2016 if he makes the necessary adjustments with the bat in his first full big-league season.
As these three move toward their mid-30s, they each bring enough to the table to not only help keep them mixed-league relevant, but to keep them near the top of this list. Martin has been the second-best catcher by wRC+ over the last three years and has stolen more bases than any other catcher since 2010. Both Martin (23) and McCann (26) established new career-high home run totals in 2015, and their ability to play other positions in the field, along with the presence of the designated hitter, gives both the opportunity to stay in the lineup as their bodies begin to show the effects of catching regularly for over a decade. A toe injury hobbled Lucroy for much of the season’s first-half and then a concussion put a damper on the end of it, but the Brewers backstop hit .289 with five home runs in his last 54 games—pretty close to the numbers he posted in the four seasons prior, including 2014 when he was the second-best fantasy catcher overall.
Grandal may not be quite as good as the .927 OPS (with 14 home runs) that he posted over the season’s first half, but he’s also not nearly as bad as the .498 OPS (with only two home runs) that he compiled over an injury-riddled final 46 games of the year, either. Even with his horrific second half, Grandal still finished fifth among catchers (min. 200 PA) in OBP, which tells you all you need to know about the inability of catchers to get on base. His injury was to his non-throwing shoulder, so there shouldn’t be any lingering effects heading into 2016.
This pairing gives us one catcher who plays too much and one that doesn’t play nearly enough. While Perez’s wRC+ has tumbled in each of the last three years, he’s balanced out the loss of overall production with an increase in power—moving from 11 home runs in 2012 to 21 in 2015—making him a top-10 performer in each of the last two years. d’Arnaud just can’t stay on the field, succumbing to an array of injuries over the last three seasons that have limited him to 206 games in total. His .825 OPS in 2015 ranked third behind Posey and Schwarber, but only playing 100 or more games once in every three years as a professional keeps him toward the back end of the top 10 instead of toward the front.
Mesoraco and Gomes were each top-five catchers in 2014, but injuries killed both of them in 2015, limiting Gomes to 95 games and Mesoraco to only 51 plate appearances for the season due to a hip injury. Mesoraco is reportedly now able to squat without pain (which I would imagine is very helpful for a catcher), and his power potential (he is one of eight catchers to surpass the 25 home run mark since 2010) could make him a more enticing option that anybody below him on this list, but obviously if he can’t squat, he’ll have to be moved somewhere—likely to left field, which has been discussed in the past. Gomes’ knee injury hobbled him for much of the first-half, but he rebounded to hit .241 with nine home runs over the second-half and that type of production over a full season would move him back closer to where he finished 2014.
Finally, some youth and athleticism! Entering his age-24 season, Swihart is the sexiest non-Schwarber target in long-term leagues, as he offers the potential for 20 or more home runs with a batting average near .300 as he enters his prime. I have doubts that he’ll approach either next season and the possibility exists that Christian Vazquez and Ryan Hanigan could eat into his playing time, making the former Rio Rancho Ram great a less attractive option for next season than the others ahead of him. Both Swihart and Realmuto have the wheels to offer real value in the stolen-base category, as the former stole four bases in 2015 and the latter led all catchers with eight. Realmuto’s .259/.290/.406 line doesn’t immediately jump off the page, but he led all (non-Gattis) catchers in triples with seven and finished tied for eighth in doubles with 21, to go with his 10 home runs. His ability to not be a drain on the AVG category combined with his ability to reach double-digits in both home runs and steals makes him a solid option with a bit of upside, as he enters his age-25 season.
A new league and a clearer path to playing time made Norris a popular breakout pick this time last year. Norris increased his isolated power output from .132 in 2014 to .153 in 2015, and despite his plate discipline disappearing, the increase in playing time led to Norris finishing 11th among catchers with 14 home runs and fourth in runs scored, placing him eighth overall at the position in 2015. Vogt was a beneficiary of Norris leaving town and the 31-year-old faded down the stretch with the increased playing time, hitting for a .287 AVG and 14 home runs before the All-Star break, compared to .217 and four homers afterwards. His inability to hit lefties (.632 lifetime OPS) will almost assuredly doom him to a (strong-side) platoon role, but he mashes righties well enough to stay fantasy relevant, hitting for an .832 OPS with 17 of his 18 home runs against them in 2015. Wieters came back in June from Tommy John and hit better overall than his last full-season in 2013, albeit with less power. He looks like a league-average bat at this point without the 20+ home-run power that he showed from 2011-2013, so adjust your ‘Matt Wieters Facts’ accordingly. Castillo’s journey to fantasy prominence in 2015 was a circuitous one, as he played for three teams, ate Beef Wellington for the first time, and ended up in the desert clubbing 17 home runs in 80 games with the Diamondbacks. While Castillo’s career-high 18.8 H:/FB rate in 2015 will likely tick down a bit in 2016, he did also post the highest full-season hard-contact percentage of his career (37.6 percent), and the power is real; his 40 home runs put him 10th among catchers over the last three seasons.
Molina’s thumb injury has sapped him of his power in recent times, as he has exactly two more home runs than Madison Bumgarner does since 2014. His production has fallen in virtually every offensive category in each of the last three years since his .315/.373/.501 line with 22 home runs and 12 steals in 2012, cratering all the way down to .270/.310/.350 in 2015 with a meager four home runs. Molina underwent a second thumb surgery in December and I’m going to need to see a full, healthy season before I’m buying again. I think his days of standard mixed-league relevance are over.
Cervelli isn’t anybody’s idea of an elite fantasy option, but he should be a plus in batting average and receive regular plate appearances over the next few seasons. Only Buster Posey has a higher on-base percentage than Cervelli over the last two seasons, making him a solid fallback option in OBP leagues.
Hundley moved to Coors Field and his productivity jumped up 28 percent by wRC+. At age 31. Amazing how that works out. Can he do it again? I don’t think so. There are far too many red flags for me; the .356 BABIP, receiving just 389 plate appearances with only Michael McKenry behind him on the depth chart, hitting for .157, .233, and .243 averages in the three previous years, and a four point drop in hard-contact percentage from 2014. The 10 home runs and five steals in 2015 were nice, no doubt, but Hundley could be in line to see his plate appearances drop in 2016 with the emergence of prospect Tom Murphy, who looks ready for a big-league trial, and when the Rockies fall out of contention (which should be by late May-early June), they could look to see what they have in Murphy and move Hundley to the bench—or out of town, as he’s under contract until the end of the 2016 season. Hopefully for Rockies fans, the front office remembers how to make trades by that time as well.
Ramos finally stayed healthy enough to eclipse the 500 plate appearance plateau for the first time in his career, hit 15 home runs, and didn’t provide much else. If the career .258 hitter can inch his average back up from the .229 AVG that he posted in 2015, he should once again find himself as a top-20 catcher, as he was in 2015, despite a lackluster .616 OPS.
21. Miguel Montero, Chicago Cubs
22. James McCann, Detroit Tigers
23. Gary Sanchez, New York Yankees
24. Tom Murphy, Colorado Rockies
25. Josh Phegley, Oakland Athletics
26. Caleb Joseph, Baltimore Orioles
As we move to the second half of the list, we find some intriguing part-time options that should provide value over the next few seasons, even though they will likely be in timeshare situations for at least 2016.
The Cubs have Montero under contract through 2017, but he figures to once again lose time in 2016 to the right-handed-hitting David Ross, who’s slated to catch Jon Lester (and potentially John Lackey), and that’s before accounting for Kyle Schwarber or Willson Contreras, who both figure to factor prominently into the Cubs catching plans over the next couple of campaigns as well. The Tigers imported Jarrod Saltalamacchia this winter to pair with James McCann, but McCann should be line to get the bulk of the playing time. His .264 AVG as a rookie in 2015 qualifies as a nice debut campaign, but there just isn’t a ton of upside, as he’s likely to struggle to reach double-digit home run totals as he enters his peak.
Sanchez and Murphy are both likely to be much more productive in 2017 and 2018 than in 2016—which bumps them up a few tiers in dynasty leagues, but sees them relegated behind options of lesser upside here. Sanchez, who’s been the Yankees no. 3 prospect seemingly forever, has plus power potential and is slated to be Brian McCann’s backup in the Bronx to start the year. His plate appearances in 2016 will almost assuredly be tied to the availability of the first base/designated hitter spots for McCann to rest his legs. Murphy hit 20 home runs between Double-A and Triple-A, plus three more in the majors in 2015, but also logged a .256 AVG, so even at Coors you may have to sacrifice a bit of batting average for the power. With no other catching prospects on the horizon in the upper minors for the Rockies, Murphy should get a legitimate shot at the full-time job over the next couple of seasons.
Phegley figures to be the other half of the Oakland catching platoon in 2016 and the former first-round pick in 2009 could emerge as more than just a lefty-crusher if he receives an extended opportunity. Phegley clubbed nine home runs in 243 plate appearances in 2015 and flashed above average power potential while he was buried in Triple-A with the White Sox organization. Joseph acquitted himself nicely (22nd ranked catcher in 2015 in 355 PA) while Matt Wieters was recovering from Tommy John and has put himself in position to take over when/if Wieters leaves at the end of the year via free agency.
Castro and Chrinos should receive the bulk of the playing time in 2016, but will leave owners constantly looking for upgrades. In a two-catcher league where oftentimes the production from simply being in the lineup is good enough, these two could work. Castro hit 18 home runs in 2013, but hasn’t done anything since and could lose the job to Max Stassi if his offensive output continues its rapid descent. Murphy, who came from the Yankees in exchange for Aaron Hicks, hit .277 in 172 plate appearances in 2015 as Brian McCann’s backup, and could offer close to a league average bat as he matures. He has to contend with Kurt Suzuki for playing time in 2016, but the full-time job could be his after the year, as the Twins almost certainly won’t trigger Suzuki’s $6 million option for 2017 by letting him receive the necessary 485 plate appearances for it to do so.
By all accounts, Zunino will open the year in Triple-A as the Mariners attempt to put back together the jigsaw puzzle that their former number three overall pick has turned into at this point. He’ll be entering his age-25 season in 2016, and as much as Jerry Dipoto loves Chris Iannetta, one would think that Zunino will get another chance at some point, but I have no idea when the opportunity will come and if he’ll make the adjustments necessary. Either way, we’ll always be able to cherish the memories of his sub-.200 AVG/22-home-run output of 2014. Navarro is always seemingly a deep-league option and while he takes his act to a great offensive environment, he will have to contend with Alex Avila for playing time.
If Susac and Plawecki were guaranteed to receive meaningful playing time in 2016, they both would likely be top-20 options, but Susac’s stuck behind a legend and although Plawecki’s main path to significant time behind the plate is simply waiting for when Travis d’Arnaud gets hurt, he’ll have to drastically improve the wRC+ 60 mark that he posted in 258 plate appearances in 2015 to work his way into mixed-league relevance. If the Giants or Mets choose to deal either to fill a hole elsewhere on the big-league roster, act accordingly.
34. Chris Iannetta, Seattle Mariners
35. Cameron Rupp, Philadelphia Phillies
36. Hank Conger, Tampa Bay Rays
37. Tyler Flowers, Atlanta Braves
38. Jorge Alfaro, Philadelphia Phillies
39. Carlos Perez, Los Angeles Angels
40. Alex Avila, Chicago White Sox
Iannetta was above average with the bat every year from 2011-2014, but hit .188 in 2015, falling victim to a vicious .225 BABIP. Steve Clevenger and Zunino, eventually, figure to factor into the 2016 picture as well.
Rupp showed pop (nine home runs in 299 plate appearances) in 2015, but not much else, and Carlos Ruiz is still around to counsel the young Phillies rotation in 2016. Rupp will then look to fend off some combination of Andrew Knapp and Jorge Alfaro for the majority of the playing time in 2017 or 2018.
Notable Omissions: The Austin Hedges Experience, but I wouldn’t really say I’m missing it, Bob.