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Barajas, Olivo among catcher surprises

7/6/2010

Trivia time: Who is the only player to currently top his position on our Player Rater, despite not being owned in every ESPN league?

The answer: Miguel Olivo.

Take a second to digest that information. Then pardon me for a moment while I aim to shock you a few times more: The No. 2 catcher on our Player Rater, Rod Barajas, is also not owned in every ESPN league. Nor is the No. 4 catcher, Mike Napoli, nor is No. 5, John Buck.

What in the name of Matt Walbeck is going on here?

It has been a topsy-turvy season for the game's backstops, certainly more so than at any other position. I'm not the first to have noticed; Eric Karabell discussed the topic of unexpected catchers back on April 13. At the time, guess who ranked 1-2 at the position on the Player Rater? That's right, Olivo and Barajas then, too. Seven weeks later, amazingly, it turns out Eric was wrong in saying, "that will change." In his defense, anyone who had been asked that question would have been wrong.

I know I certainly would have. To toss in an example, in one of my most competitive leagues, a 14-team point-based mixed format, I actually regarded Barajas as a short-term fill-in for Kurt Suzuki, who had been drafted to start after finishing fourth in the league in scoring among catchers in 2009, when I added him as a free agent a few weeks back. Four weeks later, Barajas tops all catchers in points. Olivo, who had been picked up three days earlier, is tied for second. Guess which one now occupies my everyday catcher spot? (I'll tell you: It's Barajas.)

Another example: Through the first seven weeks of "Hit Parade," not once did Barajas crack the top-100 rankings. Sure, your first instinct might be a reaction to the effect of, "Boy, your rankings are terrible." It's understandable, especially because most people quickly glance at rankings, look for a specific name with which to disagree, and formulate a reaction without taking the time to consider the perspective, or the methods with which those rankings were made. With "Hit Parade" rankings, we state upfront that they are based upon "expected performance from this point forward, not for statistics that have already been accrued," a method that is all-too-frequently misinterpreted.

But isn't performance looking forward what fantasy baseball is all about?

I'll pay the piper in one respect: In terms of ranking expected value for the first two months of 2010, I was absolutely incorrect in my evaluations of both Olivo and Barajas. As our Player Rater reveals, they were the 69th- and 92nd-best hitters overall through the first two months of the season. However, at the same time, those numbers, especially Barajas', demonstrate how close each one was to finishing outside the top 100. And if you're talking about track records, you can't help but be concerned neither will still be in there on Oct. 3.

To the point about track records, those four surprising catchers in the Player Rater top five batted a combined .248 in 2009. That's very much the rationale behind none of them being in this week's top 100, either.

Another thing about rankings: If our "Hit Parade" rankings were all about only, say, Week 9 of the fantasy season, or even just the month of June, surely they'd look a lot different. Nelson Cruz, back on the disabled list, wouldn't be in them. In no way should missing the top 100 condemn a player in the short term; as much as anyone, I support the idea of riding hot streaks and short-term trends.

Judging by the returns by the catcher pool as a whole so far, it seems that streak hunting might very well be the name of the game. If you've done it so far -- which means you probably were one of the unfortunate folks who landed Miguel Montero, Jorge Posada or the aforementioned Suzuki -- you might have done it successfully. But I'll be as quick today as Eric was in April to say, "that will change."

By just how much? Let's examine closer.

TOP 100 HITTERS

Note: Tristan H. Cockcroft's top 100 hitters are ranked for their expected performance from this point forward, not for statistics that have already been accrued.

The hot starters

Olivo, Colorado Rockies (tops among catchers on the Player Rater): If you're going to hitch your wagon to either him or Barajas maintaining his current top-10 catcher pace, you want the one on the Colorado Rockies. That might seem crazy considering Olivo is a lifetime .246 hitter, a number that threatens to drag down your team's mark in the category, but one thing to keep in mind is that BABIPs tend to be higher in Coors Field thanks to its spacious outfield confines, which makes his .356 BABIP a little less absurd than it might seem. Olivo is probably not going to bat .300, let's face it. Still, he has grabbed the starting role from the ever-streaky Chris Iannetta, who now has to earn his at-bats in limited spurts, and he has the power to exploit Coors' thin air. If Olivo approaches 30 homers and bats .270, don't be shocked.

Barajas, New York Mets (2nd): It's his backup, actually, that makes him a less attractive pick than Olivo to keep things up, because Henry Blanco has done enough defensively through the years to ensure he cuts noticeably into Barajas' playing time. Besides, if you're picking ballparks, which do you want to hang your hat on, Coors or Citi Field? Barajas' .269 batting average seems a reasonable expectation but his 12.8 percent home run/fly ball rate represents a career high, an unsustainable one at that. He has 11 homers to date; he might not hit 11 the rest of the year.

Napoli, Los Angeles Angels (4th): He has always had the power, but at the onset of the season what he lacked was the playing time to display it. Since Jeff Mathis got hurt, however, Napoli has started 32 of 39 games behind the plate for the Los Angeles Angels, and batted .289 with eight home runs. Fantasy owners clearly preferred Napoli of these four hot starters, having selected him 12th on average at the position in the preseason, and there's every reason to believe he'll finish at least in the top 10. A compelling reason: With Kendry Morales out for several months, the Angels can use every bit of offense they can get, meaning continued at-bats for Napoli.,/p>

Buck, Toronto Blue Jays (5th): If you look at his full-season paces -- .259-28-92 -- you might recognize that his high ranking has more to do with the issues of the top drafted catchers than it does with his own "hot start." Buck has performed well, but that 17.8 percent home run/fly ball rate is a tad high, and his .318 BABIP is, too. Like with Barajas/Blanco, Jose Molina presents a threat to Buck's at-bats, and Buck's batting average is a fantasy-team killer besides. We hope you've enjoyed the ride, because there will be a stretch soon where he's unbearable to own.

Those struggling draftees

Brian McCann, Atlanta Braves (2nd-highest ADP among catchers, but 10th on the Player Rater): Remember when he was on a monstrous spring training tear, batting .500 with four home runs in 42 at-bats, and looking like offseason LASIK surgery -- his second such procedure -- had turned him into a borderline challenger to Joe Mauer's status as the No. 1 fantasy catcher? So much for that, as McCann has complained once more about vision problems in his right eye, especially during night games, which might help explain his .229 batting average and two homers through his first 27 contests. A shift back to glasses a couple weeks back, however, might have rejuvenated him, as he's batting .308 with three homers and nine RBIs in his past 14 games. McCann has always had top-five fantasy potential at the position, and while his eye issues are frustrating, at least they're fixable.

Matt Wieters, Baltimore Orioles (4th ADP, 26th PR): Is it that he's working on developing a trend as a second-half hitter, or is it merely the lengthy adjustment period that many young catchers face? Whichever it is, Wieters hasn't offered any reason to doubt his long-term potential, even when his numbers to date have fallen short of expectations, and a young slugger with his talent is the kind you definitely want to have on your team when he finally puts it together.

Montero, Arizona Diamondbacks (6th ADP, 45th PR): Injuries obviously explain his low ranking, but fret not, as he appeared in his first extended spring training game on Monday, going 2-for-4 with a pair of walks and scoring twice from first base on hits while serving as the designated hitter. Montero has yet to resume catching, which should happen in the next several days, but he's not as far off being activated as you might think. Two weeks from now, he might be back, and a top-five contender from then on.

Geovany Soto, Chicago Cubs (9th ADP, 19th PR): It'd be easier to dismiss his sluggish start if not for the fact that his peripherals all point to a player who might have been more lucky than unlucky to date. For instance, his BABIP is .303, his home run/fly ball number is 15.2 percent and his line-drive rate 25.5 percent, numbers he might yet sustain but upon which he's unlikely to improve. All they've bought Soto is a pace for 18 homers and 42 RBIs, plus a .260 batting average. Those are OK statistics for a No. 2 mixed-league catcher, but a top-10 candidate? Don't count on it.

What about Buster Posey?

It's only fitting that in the week the "Hit Parade" focuses upon catchers, one of the top prospects at the position made his 2010 debut. Interestingly enough, however, when Buster Posey was promoted by the San Francisco Giants this past Saturday, it was to take over as the starting first baseman, not the starting catcher.

Just to demonstrate how fantasy owners either have a strong sense of the importance of today-forward value, or simply prefer to chase hotshot rookies, Posey is already owned in more ESPN leagues than the aforementioned John Buck. Posey is the hottest pickup of the week and it's understandable; he's a No. 5 pick overall (2008), a .330 career hitter as a professional and has been widely regarded as one of the top prospects in all of baseball for three years running.

Does that mean Posey is every bit as attractive a fantasy catcher as, say, Olivo, Barajas, Napoli or Buck? Perhaps Olivo and Napoli will outperform him on the Player Rater from today forward, but Posey's talent should make him a viable contender for tops among those five, as he has shredded every professional level in which he has been tested, and is already 6-for-12 with two doubles in his first three games with the Giants this year. Posey is already owned in 49.2 percent of ESPN leagues; that number should creep closer to 100 in the coming days. Get him now.

Bengie Molina's owners surprisingly have nothing to fear in the short term, despite the veteran's lackluster numbers. Sure, Molina's job security might soon be threatened if Posey keeps up this pace and Molina fails to improve, but for now, it's outfielders John Bowker and Nate Schierholtz who suffer in terms of playing time. Opening-day first baseman Aubrey Huff shifted to the outfield following Posey's promotion; Huff has stolen at-bats from those two.

Four up

Miguel Cabrera, 1B, Detroit Tigers: Not that you need us to remind you that Cabrera is really, really good, but in the four games since he was away from the team for its two-game series in Seattle, he was 8-for-17 (.471 AVG) with four home runs and eight RBIs. Coincidence? Perhaps, but no matter how you regard Cabrera's hot start, it's clear he's playing with focus and determination, things his critics questioned late last season. He's tops in the majors in RBIs (48), second in home runs (14) and third in batting average (.344).

Jason Kubel, OF, Minnesota Twins: After a sluggish start to his season, Kubel is batting .290 (9-for-31) with three home runs and 14 RBIs in his past nine games, numbers much closer to his expected norms. Not that it should've been entirely unexpected considering where we are on the calendar; he's a .255/.318/.405 (AVG/OBP/SLG) career hitter before June 1, .285/.353/.504 after.

Jose Reyes, SS, Mets: Another player for whom we need not remind you his excellence, but entering the season there was some debate as to his levels of said excellence. Reyes was picked 70th on average in the preseason (74.4 ADP in ESPN leagues), he's currently ranked 138th on our Player Rater, but he has been a first-round talent in previous seasons. So which is the right one? Judging by his performance during his current nine-game hitting streak, the latter would be closest, as he's a .462 hitter (18-for-39) with nine RBIs, nine runs scored and three stolen bases, which put him on pace for numbers much more like his fantasy-stud 2006-08 campaigns than his injury-marred 2009. It's a small sample size, yes, but it should also be considered a positive that he has played all but four innings of the Mets' past 39 games, with respectable numbers to boot.

Nick Swisher, OF/1B, New York Yankees: With opening-day No. 2 hitter Nick Johnson shelved deep into the summer, the Yankees have had to mix and match in the spot, and it's curious that Swisher hasn't earned that role on a more regular basis due to his hot hitting. Perhaps biceps and shoulder issues that have been dogging him of late might be responsible, but they haven't been showing up in his hitting, as he's batting .417 (15-for-36) with two home runs and 11 runs scored in his past nine contests. Swisher is on pace for 31 homers, a realistic number, and if he could only score that everyday No. 2 gig, he'd be a lock for 100-plus runs.

Four down

Ike Davis, 1B, Mets: Credit the Mets for being bold. In light of their lack of production from their incumbent first basemen, they promoted Davis in mid-April, ignoring the seemingly annual tradition of teams keeping their top prospects in the minors deep into June to avoid future arbitration implications. Then, after Davis' hot start, the Mets moved him into the cleanup spot on May 19 in an attempt to ignite their struggling offense. Ignited their offense has been since that date -- they've averaged 5.25 runs per game since -- but Davis himself hasn't adapted well to the move, batting .227 (10-for-44) with one home run and 13 strikeouts in 12 games. Whatever your opinion on lineup implications, might it be possible Davis himself is putting undue pressure on himself to succeed in his new role? Maybe, but for now, fantasy owners can't help but be concerned.

Torii Hunter, OF, Angels: Losing Kendry Morales for an extended period was rough enough on the Angels' offense, but had Hunter's hand injury, suffered in the same game as Morales' injury when the star center fielder was hit by a pitch by Seattle's Felix Hernandez, been more serious, this team might have been devastated. Still, it was an unwelcome setback for Hunter, who was already in a mini-funk, going 2-for-17 (.118 AVG) with six strikeouts in his past five games. It's possible he's still suffering the effects of being hit, so temper your expectations in the short term and hope he can pick up the pace in a week or two.

Carlos Pena, 1B, Tampa Bay Rays: These whiff kings can be so frustrating, can't they? A week ago it was Rickie Weeks in this section, then he heated up, and now it's Pena who has been mired in a funk, batting .105 (4-for-38) with one home run and 17 strikeouts in his past 11 contests. Players like this, who frequently run hot and cold, can be almost as irritating as the Katy Perry song by the same name. But while Weeks is again hot, Pena's batting average issues are most disconcerting; Pena's has been consistently under .200 since May 7.

Jayson Werth, OF, Philadelphia Phillies: At some point in their careers, all hitters slump. That's our best explanation for Werth's past-week funk, which includes a string of 19 consecutive hitless at-bats including 11 strikeouts. It earned him two days' rest during Memorial Day weekend, during which time, as the Philadelphia Daily News reports, he attempted to make some mechanical adjustments to his swing. Perhaps that's all that's needed to turn things around; last season he snapped an 0-for-21 slump in September by hitting nine homers in his next 80 at-bats.

Pickups of the week

Mixed: Seth Smith, OF, Rockies. Dexter Fowler's demotion assures Smith one thing, that being regular starts versus right-handers at the very least. It's a deserving role for the 27-year-old; in 525 plate appearances between this and last season, he's a .286/.366/.521 hitter with 23 homers, 77 RBIs and 85 runs scored. Don't those numbers sound mixed-league worthy? Argue all you want that a platoon role keeps Smith beneath the cutoff, because the truth is it probably enhances his value. After all, he's a .299/.377/.530 career hitter versus righties, .216/.310/.398 against lefties. Granting Ryan Spilborghs those at-bats against lefties to minimize Smith's batting-average risk is doing Smith's owners a favor.

AL-only: Mitch Maier, OF, Kansas City Royals. In a weak week for AL-only pickups, why not speculate on Maier, a decent enough batting-average performer who appears to have secured regular at-bats in the Royals' lineup? A 2003 first-rounder who batted .298 during his minor league career, albeit with an average of only nine home runs per year, Maier has started 23 of the Royals' past 24 games in center field, batting .277 with 15 RBIs and 13 runs scored during that span. Rick Ankiel's return might put Maier's status in some doubt in a few weeks, but for now, enjoy the ride, especially since Ankiel is the kind of player who, even when healthy, might be streaky enough the Royals would sit him from time to time.

NL-only: Neil Walker, 3B, Pittsburgh Pirates. He currently qualifies at only third base in ESPN leagues, and he was originally drafted as a catcher, but what makes Walker an intriguing pickup in deeper formats is his soon-to-be-acquired second-base status. According to manager John Russell, Walker is the Pirates' new starting second baseman, supplanting the struggling Akinori Iwamura, reports the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Walker earned the gig after batting .321 with six homers and 26 RBIs in 43 games for Triple-A Indianapolis, then going 9-for-28 (.321 AVG) in his first seven games with the Pirates. It might seem a curious move, but remember that this was one of the team's better offensive prospects, and with Pedro Alvarez the stronger third-base prospect, the team needs to find a long-term spot for Walker. Might he settle in at second? It's worth a roll of the dice.

New position qualifiers

Twenty games: Alex Cora (2B), Matt LaPorta (1B) and Ryan Theriot (2B).

Ten games: Eric Hinske (1B).

Five games: Miguel Cairo (1B, 3B), Cristian Guzman (OF), Felipe Lopez (3B) and Kevin Russo (OF).

One game: Michael Cuddyer (2B), Carlos Guillen (2B), Scott Moore (1B), Mike Napoli (1B), Robb Quinlan (1B), Buster Posey (1B), Sean Rodriguez (SS) and Neil Walker (2B).

Tristan H. Cockcroft is a fantasy baseball analyst for ESPN.com and a two-time champion of the League of Alternative Baseball Reality (LABR) experts league. You can e-mail him here, or follow him on Twitter @SultanofStat.