Catchers to target for stretch run
Catcher has never been a deep position in fantasy baseball, but this season, the dearth of talent behind the plate has reached new lows.
The facts speak volumes:
• Only one other catcher -- Brian McCann -- ranks among the top 100 hitters. Among the top 130 hitters -- that number selected specifically because it represents the number of active hitters at any given time in a standard ESPN.com league -- only five are catchers. (McCann is 97th, Posey 103rd, Miguel Olivo 114th and Mike Napoli 127th.)
• Mauer is the current RBI leader among catchers, and he's on pace for a mere 88. To put that into perspective, 2005 is the only other season in the past two decades when a catcher didn't manage at least that many, and 38 catchers have exceeded that number since 1991.
• Turning to batting average, Mauer is the only catcher likely to bat .300-plus, and the No. 2 hitter in the category is Victor Martinez, all the way down at .281. Again for some perspective, with the exception of 2005, when Martinez was the only .300-hitting catcher (400 or more plate appearances), at least two catchers have batted .300-plus in every season since 1993.
It's not the first time Hit Parade has chosen to focus its microscope on backstops; we discussed the topic on June 1, when Olivo was tops at the position on the Player Rater, while Rod Barajas was second and John Buck fifth. It seems that, outside of being the fortunate owner of Mauer, or Posey more recently, mixing and matching has been the way to go behind the dish.
For a little more factual fun, consider this: Since that column was published, catchers as a whole have .244/.309/.369 (AVG/OBP/SLG) rates, significantly beneath the .259/.327/.405 major league averages in those categories. Olivo has batted .256 with five homers in 47 games. Barajas has batted .163 in 33 contests.
How are fantasy owners to cope?
Let's take a look at a few under-the-radar options for the stretch run:
Ramon Hernandez, Cincinnati Reds (available in 91.7 percent): Injuries have wreaked havoc upon his time with the Reds, but what's positive about the remainder of his 2010 is that his team remains a contender and he has the most pop of any of the team's backstops. Hernandez won't play every day, but that seems to be helping him; he's a .361 hitter (22-for-61) with three homers and 17 RBIs in 16 games since the All-Star break. Remember, it's often smarter to go with a good-hitting part-timer over a light-hitting everyday player behind the plate.
Ryan Doumit, Pittsburgh Pirates (available in 56.0 percent): This one's a hunch, but Doumit's move from behind the plate has to be considered a positive because it diminishes the wear and tear on his body while potentially opening him up to at-bats at three different positions (catcher, first base and right field). He's hitting only .171 (7-for-41) in 13 games since returning from the DL, but he's a more talented batsman than that. Keep tabs on him, because he might yet have a September hot streak.
Adam Moore, Seattle Mariners (available in 99.7 percent): The Mariners have nothing to play for this season, so why not get a look at their future behind the plate? Moore has started 15 of the team's past 19 games behind the dish, and although his .214 batting average (12-for-56) and two home runs during that time aren't anything special, he was an offensive monster in the minors, with .303/.368/.482 career rates and an average of one home run per 28.6 at-bats.
J.P. Arencibia, Toronto Blue Jays (available in 98.0 percent): He's not up with the Jays right now, but once rosters expand next week, Arencibia might see a significant number of at-bats, particularly once the Blue Jays are mathematically eliminated from postseason contention. He's the future for this team at catcher and a massive power source so far as a professional, with 31 homers in 98 games in Triple-A ball this year alone. Remember when Arencibia homered in his first big league at-bat? More of that power might come in the season's waning weeks, and if you have the bench room in a deep league, he's worth stashing in advance of his call-up.
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.
Jose Bautista, 3B/OF, Toronto Blue Jays: With his two home runs Monday night, Bautista reached 40 for the season, nine more than anyone else in the American League and seven more than anyone else in the majors. When will fantasy owners consider this guy legit, not only for the remainder of this season but also 2011? Yes, his 20.8 home run/fly-ball percentage is unrealistically high and suggests that his homer total should be closer to that of the rest of the pack, but at the same time, all his other indicators hint he absolutely should be a 40-homer-for-the-season slugger. His walk rate is up (a career-best 14.1 percent of his plate appearances) and his strikeout rate is down (21.8 percent, beneath his 24.2 career number), and he's embracing the idea of pulling fly ball after fly ball to left field. If he can stay healthy, there's no reason he can't have a few more 30-homer years.
Coco Crisp, OF, Oakland Athletics: See, players on Billy Beane teams can steal bases! (Then again, if you hadn't learned that with Rajai Davis between this and last season, you probably never will.) Crisp is the Athletics speedster we're focusing on today because in 33 games since the All-Star break, he has swiped 16 bases on 17 tries, second-most in baseball during that span. Crisp is also on a tear in the batting average category in August; he's a .333 hitter (25-for-75) with eight multihit efforts. It's not outrageous to think Crisp can stick close to this level of performance, either, as his career batting average is .277, and he has averaged 29 steals per 162 games.
Omar Infante, 2B/3B/SS/OF, Atlanta Braves: Don't think for a second that the healthy return of Martin Prado cuts deeply into Infante's fantasy value; Prado has merely shifted to third base to spell the injured Chipper Jones, keeping second base comfortably in Infante's hands. It makes sense, because why would the Braves want to mess with a good thing? Since July 30 -- the day Prado hurt his finger, requiring a disabled-list stint -- Infante is a .390 hitter (41-for-105) with four home runs, three stolen bases and 18 runs scored in 24 games. Batting average is his specialty, as he's a .318 hitter during his Braves career, but as the team's new leadoff hitter, that's going to mean piles of runs scored. He's also eligible all over the diamond, a definite plus for fantasy owners who recently scooped him up. Incidentally, even though he has changed positions, Prado's owners have nothing to fear. He's a .393 hitter (11-for-28) with four walks and nine runs scored in seven games since being activated from the DL.
Juan Pierre, OF, Chicago White Sox: He's another speedster in the midst of a hot streak on the base paths, swiping 10 bases in 21 games in August and 17 in 37 games since the All-Star break. In the process he has boosted his full-season pace to 64, only one off his career high (2003). What's more, he's a .368 hitter (43-for-117) with nine walks in his past 28 contests, guaranteeing himself enough times on base to make things happen with his legs. This isn't a pushover of a White Sox team; it's going to continue to score runs, and that means plenty of them for leadoff man Pierre.
Adam Dunn, 1B/OF, Washington Nationals: Ah, the life of the free-swinging slugger. To be fair, Dunn, a "three true outcomes" player (walks, K's, homers), tends to be a tad less susceptible to painful slumps thanks to his ability to work the count. Still, he's in a 7-for-52 (.135 average), one-homer funk in his past 15 games, having struck out 24 times compared to just six walks. My advice always remains the same with these types: You must be patient through the bad spells, mainly because another hot streak is usually around the corner.
Brad Hawpe, OF, free agent: He must have built up a lot of stock with his fantasy owners through the years, because the rationale behind his still being owned in 37.4 percent of ESPN.com leagues following his release by the Colorado Rockies is inexplicable. Sure, the Boston Red Sox and Texas Rangers have been rumored to be interested in his services, and either of those destinations looks like a fabulous landing spot for Hawpe on paper. Chances are, however, that neither team would promise him regular at-bats, plus there is the matter of his extreme home/road splits thus far this season. In 48 games at Coors Field he's a .290/.373/.559 hitter, but in 40 road games he has only .211/.305/.272 rates.
Kurt Suzuki, C, Oakland Athletics: People talk often about innings caps for pitchers, but what about a workload cap for catchers? Suzuki has been mired in a dreadful funk, batting .148/.221/.197 in 18 games in August, and one can't help but wonder whether it might have anything to do with his hefty usage in 2008-09. Consider that since Opening Day 2008, Suzuki has appeared in the fifth-most games behind the plate (367), a heck of a lot for a player who also had a three-plus-week DL stint earlier this year. We've seen the adverse impact of a hefty catching workload on players like Jason Kendall and Russell Martin in seasons past; Suzuki's owners must be hoping the same fate doesn't befall him.
Brett Wallace, 1B/3B, Houston Astros: Maybe the true reason he has been bounced from franchise to franchise is that he's not quite as good a prospect as advertised; a .190 batting average (12-for-63), two extra-base hits, both doubles, and 23 strikeouts in his first 21 big league games hint at such. Still, in his defense, Wallace has had to adapt to several new surroundings the past 13 months, and that he's struggling during his first taste of big league action shouldn't condemn his chances at a promising career. He has power potential, as evidenced by his average of one homer per 23.9 at-bats at the Triple-A level (2009-10), but there's also the risk that he'll never patch the holes in his swing, as evidenced by his striking out in 20.9 percent of his Triple-A at-bats (again 2009-10). If you play in a keeper league, have patience, but only with him firmly planted on your bench. If you play in a redraft league, you probably should seek a more polished hitter.
Upgrade your roster
It's a play for stolen bases and little more, but when a second-base-eligible player with 50-plus steal potential (over a full, injury-free season, that is) is available on the waiver wire, why fret that he's mostly a one-category helper? Since his recall on Aug. 14, Young has four steals in nine games, but only a .243 batting average (9-for-37), four runs scored and zero RBIs.
The Rockies' schedule suits Young well, as they'll play 22 of their final 38 games at hitter-friendly Coors Field, where he's a .309/.367/.400 career hitter, compared to .197/.269/.239 on the road. (Granted, those sample sizes are small, neither more than 78 plate appearances.) The other factor in his favor: Young's Rockies are 10½ games out in the National League West, six in the wild-card race and, barring an absurd, 14-wins-in-their-final-15-games hot streak like the one with which they concluded the 2007 regular season, might be out of the playoff running and looking toward 2011 by mid-September. In that event, it makes every bit of sense for them to get a regular look at Young.
Barmes is the player who would most suffer in that arrangement, although the truth is that he's suffering in terms of playing time already. He has missed three of the Rockies' past nine games and didn't start three others, primarily because he's only a .191/.260/.245 hitter in 30 games since the All-Star break. Barmes did a decent job filling in at shortstop while Troy Tulowitzki was sidelined, but since Tulowitzki's return, Barmes' performance has severely declined.
Also consider adding
Wilson Betemit, 1B/3B, Kansas City Royals: He continues to capitalize upon regular playing time, batting .304 (21-for-69) with four home runs and 10 RBIs in 20 games in the month of August.
Ryan Raburn, OF/2B, Detroit Tigers: Long-term injuries to both Carlos Guillen and Magglio Ordonez have opened up at-bats at both second base and the corner-outfield spots for Raburn, and he's sure taking advantage of the opportunity. He's a .311/.363/.595 hitter in 21 games in August.
New position qualifiers
One game: Allen Craig (2B), Jay Gibbons (1B), Brent Lillibridge (3B), Felipe Lopez (1B), Julio Lugo (OF), Yamaico Navarro (2B), Eduardo Nunez (3B), Juan Rivera (1B), Angel Sanchez (2B), Steve Tolleson (3B), Luis Valbuena (OF) and Brandon Wood (1B).
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.