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The top end of the NL-only catcher pool wasn’t nearly as thin as the top end of the AL-only catcher pool going into the 2016 season. As my colleague Mike Gianella noted in his AL-Only Landscape for catchers, in the AL, the most expensive catchers heading into Opening Day were Brian McCann and Salvador Perez at $16. In the NL, four catchers went for the same or more: Buster Posey at $29, Kyle Schwarber at $25, Jonathan Lucroy at $19 and Travis d’Arnaud at $16. Unlike the AL, owners concerned about positional scarcity had multiple legitimate options for spending their auction dollars.

Things did not go well for most of the owners choosing to swim in this end of the pool.

Table 1: Ten Most Expensive* NL Catchers, 2016

Rank

Player

$

Price

+/-

1

Buster Posey

$20

$29

-8

2

Kyle Schwarber

$0

$25

-25

3

Jonathan Lucroy

$15

$19

-4

4

Travis d'Arnaud

$3

$16

-13

5

Yasmani Grandal

$12

$14

-2

6

Devin Mesoraco

-$1

$14

-15

7

J.T. Realmuto

$19

$13

6

8

Welington Castillo

$12

$13

-1

9

Wilson Ramos

$20

$12

9

10

Derek Norris

$5

$12

-7

Average

$11

$17

-6

*Position eligibility in Table 1 is determined based on preseason eligibility.

An ROI of 65 cents on the dollar is awful, but it beats the 50 cents on the dollar that AL-only leagues saw from the top 10 backstops in the Junior Circuit. Only two of the ten catchers above earned more than their sticker price, Wilson Ramos (+9) and J.T. Realmuto (+6). While the trend towards emphasizing framing prowess and overall defense over offense behind the plate is a contributing factor to the poor performance of this group, the primary factor was attrition. Two of the top four (Schwarber, d’Arnaud) and three of the top six (Schwarber, d’Arnaud and Mesoraco) catchers in this table played 75 games or less due to injury, and another (Lucroy) was traded to the AL at the deadline. Looking ahead, Lucroy and Ramos will no longer be in the NL and Schwarber will no longer be catcher-eligible in most leagues after playing all two of his games in 2016 in left field, weakening a position that wasn’t exactly bursting with production to begin with.

Realmuto and Ramos were nice surprises for their owners, translating playing time and .300+ batting averages into profit for their owners. Ramos hit twice as many homers as Realmuto to go along with that shiny batting average, giving him the edge in total earnings. Buster Posey didn’t earn as much as his owners paid for him, but at least he provided $20 in stats, tied for the lead at the position in NL-Only leagues with Ramos. For a more in-depth look at Posey, check out my Player Profile on him.

Let’s take a look at the rest of the top 10 earners from 2016:

Table 2: Top 10 NL Catchers, 2016

Rank

Player

$

Price

+/-

1

Buster Posey

$20

$29

-8

2

Wilson Ramos

$20

$12

9

3

J.T. Realmuto

$19

$13

6

4

Yadier Molina

$17

$9

8

5

Jonathan Lucroy

$15

$19

-4

6

Yasmani Grandal

$12

$14

-2

7

Welington Castillo

$12

$13

-1

8

Cameron Rupp

$10

$5

5

9

Willson Contreras

$10

10

Nick Hundley

$8

$11

-3

Average

$14

14

1

The performances from Posey and Lucroy were predictably solid. Check out my Fantasy Player Profile of Posey from earlier this week for a more detailed take on him. Lucroy was well on his way to earning every bit of his auction price and then some when he was traded to the Rangers, freezing his NL stats at the end of July. Realmuto made it onto this list via his .300+ average and his 12 stolen bases – no other NL-only catcher reached double digits in steals. The speed seems like something that the Miami backstop could sustain going forward given his minor league SB totals, but he’d have to get on base enough to give himself sufficient opportunities to steal bases and his minor league numbers and the variability of batting average do not suggest that another .300 AVG season is likely.

Willson Contreras is the only undrafted player on this list. He earned his way into the majors and the lineup of the World Series champion Cubs (that really happened, right?) after raking in Double-A in 2015 and in Triple-A in the first half of 2016. He looks ready for his first full season in the majors this coming year, and he could get some extra plate appearances due to his ability to play the outfield and his manager’s willingness to move his players around the diamond. Cameron Rupp had a nice season for the Phillies, hitting 16 home runs in only 419 plate appearances and giving the organization the freedom to bring catching prospect Jorge Alfaro along slowly.

Yadier Molina had a decent comeback season for the Cardinals, hitting .307 over 147 games, albeit with only eight home runs. The most important thing for him is the fact that he was able to be a productive member of the lineup all year after struggling with injuries over the last couple of seasons. Yasmani Grandal’s production had a much different shape, pairing a shabby .228 average with 27 home runs. The Dodgers love his elite pitch-framing ability, so he’ll get plenty of playing time as long as he stays healthy, which has been a problem for him in the past.

Here are a few options at catcher in NL-only leagues that

Tyler Flowers – Braves (2016 NL-only earnings: $7)
At age 30, Tyler Flowers had the best offensive season of his career in Atlanta, hitting .270/.357/.420 in 83 games with eight home runs, 41 RBI and 27 runs. He won’t have much competition for playing time with career backup Anthony Recker behind him on the depth chart, although Recker has a clear edge when it comes to handsomeness. Bow out if the bidding gets too heavy, but the playing time is worth paying a $4-5 bid even if he reverts to his .240-hitting ways.

Austin Barnes – Dodgers ($-1)
Expected to be the backup behind Yasmani Grandal in 2017, Austin Barnes might not get a ton of playing time barring injury. He didn’t do much in 37 plate appearances in the majors last season, but in 385 plate appearances in Triple-A, he hit .295/.380/.443. Granted, the Pacific Coast League is a hitter’s paradise, but Barnes has legitimate plate discipline and doubles power that should play at any level. Grandal’s injury history suggests that there’s a decent chance the 27-year-old will fall into a little more playing time than it might appear at first glance.

Andrew Susac – Brewers ($0)
Andrew Susac hasn’t been a regular in the majors yet, mostly due to the fact that the guy who was ahead of him on the depth chart in San Francisco is pretty good. That won’t be a problem in Milwaukee, where the soon-to-be 27-year-old will be competing with Jett Bandy, who is as impressively named as Anthony Recker is beautiful. Entering his physical prime and doing so while calling hitter-friendly Miller Park home, Susac is worth a few bucks in NL-Only auctions, especially if the spring training tea leaves tell you that he’ll be the starter on Opening Day. Don’t chase, though. If someone else in your league pushes him past a few bucks, let him go and spend your bucks elsewhere, whether it’s on a different catcher or another pitcher entirely. Susac doesn’t have the ceiling to deliver earn a price any higher than that.

Devin Mesoraco – Reds ($-1)
I wrote about Devin Mesoraco as a fantasy player to target at catcher at BP earlier this week. Check it out for a longer writeup. The abridged version: he used to be really good before he got hurt, he’s still young, he seems to be healthy, his competition for playing time isn’t very stiff, and his minimal production over the last two seasons will probably keep his price low.

Tom Murphy – Rockies ($3)
Getting hitters who play half their games in Colorado is never a bad idea. Tom Murphy is expected to get first crack at the starting job behind the plate for the Rockies after a big season with the bat in Triple-A Albuquerque in 2016 followed by a strong performance in the majors as a September callup. His Triple-A numbers could be a PCL mirage and he has a lot of swing and miss in his game, but if he can make enough contact, he should provide good power. The issue in auctions might be that he seems to be fairly popular with roto experts and owners at this point in the offseason. If he ends up being everyone’s darling and commanding a few more bucks than his risk profile suggests he should, steer clear and put your dollars somewhere else.

Tony Wolters – Rockies ($6)
Right now, it looks like Tony Wolters will be the backup in Colorado behind Tom Murphy. He hit fairly well last year in the majors, putting up triple-slash stats that were better than anything he posted in the minors since an 80-game stint in High-A in 2013. His defensive reputation is top notch, so if Murphy struggles defensively or doesn’t make enough contact at the plate, Wolters could end up getting more playing time than expected.

For NL-Only catchers, when it comes to the shallow end of the pool, be stingy. There are a few guys who are worth an extra dollar or two at auction than others, but there’s so much variability with these players from season to season, trying to figure out which of these players will be the ones who break out is a fool’s errand. Some of these guys will sustain their unexpectedly good performances from last year and some won’t. Some of these guys will bounce back from down seasons and some won’t. Some guys who can’t stay healthy will be healthy and some guys who never get hurt will get hurt. While those statements are true at every position, the narrower range of performances and the lower number of games played at catcher make the differences from player to player smaller than other positions. Unless you’re getting a bargain, save your offensive dollars for other positions.

Thank you for reading

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batts40
1/13
Great stuff, Scooter. This has become a go-to resource for me for my NL only prep. Thanks.
somerford
1/13
Who edits the math?
bugthecat
1/13
Care to be more specific?
rwmiller98
1/14
My guess is that he is referring to the chart calculation of +/- for Posey and Ramos. Posey's +/- should be 9 and Ramos 8. They are reversed.
jfranco77
1/13
Ramos, Lucroy and Beef are all in the AL now, and Schwarber lost his eligibility. Man the NL is bleak. Maybe Matt Wieters will sign with an NL team and save us from the darkness.
bugthecat
1/13
Funny, I had that same thought about Wieters while I was writing this piece.
boatman44
1/14
I think you are both glass half empty types, Susac will save you from the darkness :)
davinhbrown
1/15
I think that Cervelli can bounce back a bit. He battled injuries all year and was never healthy, including a wrist that sapped his power. With his backup Stewart out, it forced the Bucs to play Cervelli more than they wanted given that he, too, was hurt.

Expecting a return to 2015 #s is very possible.