Yadier Molina, St. Louis Cardinals
Molina was panned in this space last year, and the market was down on him. We were out to lunch. In 15-team mixed leagues, Molina finished 108th overall per the PFM, beating his NFBC ADP of 258 by a fair amount. But last year isn’t this year, and many of the concerns that dogged Molina in 2016 carry over into this season. Much of Molina’s value is predicated on his batting average. While Molina certainly does have a history of .300+ seasons, 2016 was his first campaign over .300 since 2013. He hasn’t stolen more than three bases since 2012 and more importantly hasn’t had more than eight home runs since 2013. Batting average tends to fluctuate, and betting on another .300+ season from an older, slow-footed catcher is suboptimal.
My greater concern is that Molina turns 35 years old this July. Only 10 catchers have more than the 6,157 plate appearances Molina has amassed through his Age 33 season. The results for those guys look as brutal as you might imagine they would look. The best-case scenario for these 10 catchers was Yogi Berra, who was a freak of nature. A few others hung on for another season or two at the same level before declining, but most of them simply fell off a cliff and saw their careers end abruptly. Perhaps Molina will fit the model of a steady decline. Given that he is coming off if two subpar seasons from 2014-2015 and has battled multiple injuries, I have no interest in rostering an aging hitter with almost nothing but downside at a high skill position. —Mike Gianella
Catcher A hit .260/.280/.426 in 553 plate appearances with 21 homers, 70 RBI, and 52 runs, and earned $10 of mixed-league value. Catcher B hit .247/.288/.438 in 546 plate appearances with 22 homers, 64 RBI, and 57 runs, and earned $6 of mixed-league value.
Catcher B is Salvador Perez last year. Catcher A is Salvador Perez in 2015.
The topline numbers are startlingly consistent, which is good, and we could toss 2014’s line in there to affirm just how startlingly consistent he’s been for a while now. But the value of those produced stats shrank last year on account of power's relative devaluation, and therein lies one of the main rubs.
Perez is currently going off the board as the seventh backstop in early NFBC drafts, and at first hazy glance the 26-year-old catcher who ranked seventh in earnings the previous season getting taken as the seventh catcher seems entirely logical. But then your brain snaps to attention, puts three and three together, and demands a held phone in frazzled intonations: the seventh-best catcher earned six freakin’ dollars last year?!?! Those earnings placed Perez right around 300th overall, amid a cluster of eight catchers who earned between four and six bucks.
So why, then, an outlay to meet his current eighth-round price tag in the 120’s overall? If the bill for catching north of 5,000 big-league innings before his 26th birthday didn’t come due in the second half, when he hit .201/.248/.357, it certainly arrived at the table. He got even more aggressive last season, somehow, and for his troubles he got worse at making contact when he expanded the zone. The swing-and-miss uptick and, perhaps even more alarmingly, a dramatic increase in fly ball rate that accompanied…these things do not suggest imminent improvement ahead.
Realistically, in any best-case reading of the approach and batted-ball data there just isn’t any indication that Perez is on the cusp of evolving into a better hitter than he’s thus far shown himself to be. And while his durability to date has been his greatest asset, it is increasingly the one carrying asset of a catcher who just isn’t that great a fantasy hitter on the merits. I’d really just as soon not look to fill my catcher slot at this stage of the draft, as there’s very little window for surplus value generation and the lost revenue of not spending elsewhere makes the investment sting twice. Perez is this year’s Ground Zero example, and I’ll be avoiding him across the board in re-drafts. – Wilson Karaman
Willson Contreras, Chicago Cubs
There's no denying Contreras' talent — his 2016 Triple-A triple-slash is a thing of beauty. But the soon-to-be 25-year-old catcher's explosive debut has significantly inflated his draft stock, pushing him into the top 100 of National Fantasy Baseball Championship (NFBC) drafts. Despite what appear to be above-average hit and power tools, his peripherals raise red flags. His ground-ball rate ranked third-highest among 28 catchers with at least as many plate appearances, naturally capping his power potential. Perhaps of greater concern, though, is his overall contact quality: his average exit velocity and batted-ball distance ranked in the bottom 35 percent and 28 percent, respectively, of hitters with at least 160 balls in play tracked by Statcast.
Now, let’s be clear about this. On pure offensive talent, Evan Gattis surely makes the cut as a reasonable catcher to target in fantasy drafts. We’re talking about the weakest offensive position on the diamond and a guy who can easily hit 25-35 home runs on a yearly basis with regular playing time. That alone would make him a top-tier catcher, and he mixes that with a decent, if unspectacular, batting average and legitimate run-producing skills.
Unfortunately, I’m not convinced he’s going to get the playing time necessary to justify a top-five catcher position or a top-100 pick overall. The Astros traded for Brian McCann and signed Carlos Beltran over the offseason, filling their catcher and designated-hitter slots. Those were the two positions Gattis played in 2016, and they are filled by players whose cost in money and prospects suggests they’ll get something close to everyday playing time. Gattis will likely get enough time to produce real fantasy value given how much better he is at hitting than the vast majority of backstops around the league. Still, there’s a lot of room between where he’s being drafted and where his playing time will likely leave him at the end of the year. If you’re picking a catcher in Gattis’ range, I’d rather opt for Willson Contreras. —Matt Collins
Yasmani Grandal, Los Angeles Dodgers
After he finally made good on his prospect hype, Yasmani Grandal is going to be the subject of a lot of target and "value" articles. That said, I'll be the low guy on Grandal. Even with how good he was last year, he still didn't hit for average (and never has for a full season at the major-league level) and with power up across the league he was still only worth $6 in mixed leagues (and obviously this changes for OBP leagues). Sure he could go 2016-June-on for an entire season next year, but (i) I think the chances of that are smaller, unfortunately, than him regressing due to injury and (ii) even if he does, he becomes like a $12-$15 player, which is still what would need to happen for him to earn his current draft price. Needing a player to perform better than they ever have to earn their draft price is usually a terrible bet and I am therefore avoiding Grandal at his current price. —Jeff Quinton
Stephen Vogt, Oakland Athletics
I wasn’t thinking clearly when I took Vogt, who, to his credit, has a nice set of skills from which to make a positive case. He gets on base and he has some power, though last year’s .251/.305/.406 was a definitive drop from 2015’s spicy .261/.341/.443 (with 58 R and 75 RBI). Is he worth a value buy if he repeats 2015? Sure! You love that performance, but you don't want to pay for it. If we’re talking late rounds/$1 players, Vogt is a perfectly fine complement to an otherwise strong team.
But, please, don’t stretch for him. (He’s not big on stretching either, having stolen a single base in his big-league career.) He seems like a mortal lock to land within a standard deviation of his career averages of .255/.315/.406 with about 15 home runs—and at the middle and lower ends of those values, he wouldn’t necessarily be a viable contributor for a winning team. If you have this guy, you’re not satisfied with anything less than a 90th-percentile performance. Add in the fact that he plays for a light-hitting team in Yosemite National Park and, while his floor isn’t very low, his ceiling isn’t high enough to pull him out of the considerable muck behind the plate. —Bryan Joiner
Travis D'Arnaud, New York Mets
I felt a lot better about telling you to avoid d’Arnaud before I heard Mike, Bret, and George all talk favorably about his upside on the most recent episode of Flags Fly Forever. It’s possible that d’Arnaud could have a successful fantasy season in 2017. However, there is simply too much risk in drafting him because of his injury history. You can find catchers who will offer comparable production, and who have shown more consistency in their ability to stay on the field.
There is no doubt that d’Arnaud has flashed promise when he’s healthy. He can hit double digit home runs, and that’s valuable given the state of the position. Yet over his past three seasons, he’s only played in more than 80 games once. The time he’s missed due to injuries hasn’t been limited to one issue, and a rundown of those injuries show how varied his struggles have been.
Over the past six seasons d’Arnaud has dealt with: a herniated disc, a torn knee ligament, a fractured foot, a concussion, a fractured hand, a hyperextended elbow, and a shoulder strain. That doesn’t even take into account the normal wear and tear that comes from being a major-league catcher.
Last season, the top 14 catchers by dollar value accumulated at least 280 at-bats. That’s a number d’Arnaud has fallen short of by at least 100 in each of the last two seasons. You’ve heard repeatedly this week that there isn’t much separation between catchers in the one star tier. If you’re faced with drafting a one star catcher, you could almost make that decision based on projected playing time. If that’s the case, d’Arnaud’s injury history plus the potential for increased playing time for Rene Rivera gives me enough reasons to look elsewhere. —Eric Roseberry
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