2010 Position Preview: Catcher
Mauer leads the way, but very few backstops are worth drafting in the early rounds
Because of the inevitable shifting skyscape of baseball stars that takes place each year, a few positions in your 2010 fantasy league will require some adjustment from the "typical" draft strategy. Catcher isn't one of them. As has been the case seemingly since the dawn of time, this is a ridiculously thin position. Assembling a list of 10 catchers we're sure will be positive fantasy contributors in '10 is something akin to listing the 10 greatest Whitesnake albums ever: impossible, depressing and really kind of sleazy.
The truth is that, as we seemingly tell you every season, you should draft your starting catcher either early or ridiculously late. There are only a few guys worth taking in, say, the first 10 rounds. If you don't wind up with one of them, shelve the notion of taking a catcher. Just shelve it. Go out and grab an extra starting pitcher, another bopping outfielder, an all-speed bench guy, and then fill in your catcher from the dregs -- frankly, it's nearly all dregs. And since one catcher is all you need on your roster in ESPN.com standard leagues, there'll always be plenty of choices if you need to replace the guy you wind up taking in, say, the third-to-last round.
So does the extreme positional scarcity mean that it makes sense for the savvy fantasy player to reach for one of the studs come hell or high water? Or is such scarcity likely to make the price too steep, so that you should avoid the early (and brief) feeding frenzy, take great players at other positions, and grin and bear catcher mediocrity like most of your leaguemates? Experienced players know there's no definitive answer to this question, but let's take a stab anyway.
1.Joe Mauer, MIN, C, $25
2.Brian McCann, ATL, C, $17
3.Victor Martinez, BOS, C, 1B, $17
4.Matt Wieters, BAL, C, $12
5.Miguel Montero, ARI, C, $8
6.Jorge Posada, NYY, C, $5
7.Ryan Doumit, PIT, C, $5
8.Yadier Molina, STL, C, $3
9.Geovany Soto, CHC, C, $3
10.Russell Martin, LAD, C, $2
11.Mike Napoli, LAA, C, $2
12.Bengie Molina, SF, C, $1
13.Kurt Suzuki, OAK, C, $1
14.A.J. Pierzynski, CHW, C, $-
15.Chris Iannetta, COL, C, $-
16.Ramon Hernandez, CIN, C, 1B, $-
17.Buster Posey, SF, C, $-
18.Carlos Santana, CLE, C, $-
19.Jeff Clement, PIT, C, $-
20.Kelly Shoppach, TB, C, $-
21.Miguel Olivo, COL, C, $-
22.John Baker, FLA, C, $-
23.Carlos Ruiz, PHI, C, $-
24.Ivan Rodriguez, WAS, C, $-
25.J.R. Towles, HOU, C, $-
26.Dioner Navarro, TB, C, $-
27.Ronny Paulino, FLA, C, $-
28.Brayan Pena, KC, C, $-
29.Alex Avila, DET, C, $-
30.Rod Barajas, NYM, C, $-
Players listed at positions at which they are eligible in ESPN standard leagues. Rankings based on 2010 projections in mixed 5x5 rotisserie leagues. Dollar values based on 10-team mixed league with $260 budget.
Joe Mauer began the 2009 season as a huge question mark; he missed all of April because of a back injury and, as a result, was drafted on the cheap in most leagues. Let's just say that won't be the case this year. The defending AL MVP batted .365 last season and will rightly be the first catcher selected in all leagues. How early should that be? We rank him 16th among players at all positions, which puts him in the middle of the second round in standard ESPN leagues, but I have to be honest: I'm skeptical that he can produce that kind of value again. He'll be good. He'll bat higher than .300. But realize that Mauer hit a homer on 20 percent of his fly balls last season, a rate that's totally out of whack with his prior seasons, and his batting average on balls in play (BABIP) was a whopping .377, compared to his career BABIP of .349. Just know that if you're taking Mauer in the second round, you're essentially expecting a repeat of one of the greatest statistical seasons in the history of catchers. Plus, we really don't know how the Minnesota Twins' new outdoor stadium will play.
The next two guys off the board, in some order, should be Brian McCann and Victor Martinez. They, too, are reliable studs who should go in the fifth or sixth round to those owners who can't stomach the notion of playing musical catchers with lesser lights. Each guy is about as pure a lock as there is for 20-plus homers from the catcher position, with McCann offering perhaps slightly more pure power and V-Mart giving a slightly better contact rate, which usually leads to a slightly better batting average. Also, McCann is usually good for around five steals per year; Martinez is not.
The Next Level
Matt Wieters wasn't worth the hype last season. The Baltimore Orioles brought him to the bigs in the final few days of May, and fantasy nation rushed to activate him, but he posted only a .316 on-base percentage before the All-Star break. Things got better for him as his pitch selection improved, but he was still essentially a ground-ball hitter. (Nearly 42 percent of his contact swings resulted in grounders.) But the former No. 5 overall pick was a bopper in the minors, and things should get better for him in '10.
Meanwhile, Miguel Montero came out of nowhere in Arizona, zipping past Chris Snyder on the D-backs' depth chart and posting an impressive .830 OPS in his first full big-league season as a starter. He's probably closer to a .270 hitter than last year's .294, but the 20-homer power is legit. It'll be a bit scary to reach for either the 23-year-old Wieters or the 26-year-old Montero in your draft, and my instinct tells me that you're better off letting someone else take the fourth and fifth catchers. But heck, if you get to the 13th or 14th round and your league has still been ultra-patient on backstops, go ahead.
Where's The Ceiling?
Certainly, Wieters has the most upside of any young catcher in the game. After him, you probably have to look at a guy like Buster Posey of the San Francisco Giants. Posey, another former No. 5 overall draft pick, leapt from Class A to Triple-A in a single year last season and wound up with an impressive .321 average at the minors' highest stop. But he'll be only 23 on Opening Day, and the Giants re-signed Bengie Molina to begin the year as their starter. Posey might be worth stashing as a final-round pick because his career prospects as a hitter are really good. But you can't go into the season with him as your starter.
Instead, you can take a look at Kurt Suzuki, who could be a very solid guy you can get in the 20th round. His sudden display of power in '09 (15 homers and 88 RBI) didn't come at the expense of his batting average; he's likely to stay in that .270 range. Considering that those numbers aren't a significant downgrade from what guys like Wieters or Montero might give you, Suzuki has great draft-day value. And Geovany Soto struggled mightily in his second big league season, following up his 23-homer, 86-RBI, .285 rookie campaign with 11 homers, 47 RBIs and an unbelievably poor .218 average. But Soto was injured just about the entire season, and with some decent health, the 27-year-old has major bounce-back potential.
You may also hear the name Alex Avila bandied about. The Detroit Tigers' 2008 fifth-rounder was a solid power hitter with Double-A Erie and earned a promotion to the Tigers' backup spot in August. He fanned 18 times in 61 at-bats, though, so while that short-term OPS of .965 looks enticing, you can understand why the Motor City Kitties plan on keeping the unexciting Gerald Laird as their starter for the moment. We've been hearing about the Indians' Carlos Santana for a while, but he's still never caught a game above Double-A, so he's almost certainly going to begin the year in the minors while Lou Marson squats behind the plate for the big club for most of the season. And Adam Moore may have a legit shot to make the Mariners with no more Kenji Johjima to kick around, but it seems likelier that the defensive-minded Rob Johnson will win the starting job. Moore can hit a little bit (.775 OPS at Triple-A Tacoma last year), but his defense would likely be a severe liability for a club that has designs on winning the AL West. Except in deep or redraft leagues, there's really no reason to consider Avila, Santana or Moore this year.
Where's The Basement?
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Jorge Posada could be good for another year. We've got him rated sixth among big league catchers. But he'll be 39 in August, and he hasn't managed 500 plate appearances in back-to-back seasons now. Certainly, Georgie still has power when he makes contact, but he whiffed 101 times in just 383 at-bats last year, another indicator that his days as an elite batting-average guy are behind him. He's also gradually becoming more of a defensive liability. Posada could very well hit 20-plus homers in his bandbox home park, but he could also get hurt and play 50 games. He typifies the type of mid-draft guy I wouldn't take: too much risk for not enough reward.
Russell Martin will be only 27 on Opening Day; he only seems way older. The guy who blasted 19 homers in 2007 has been nowhere to be found the past couple of seasons, and it's hard to declare without equivocation that he'll always get you double-digit steals, because we all know a catcher's legs are first to go. There's no question the trends don't favor Martin, but again, he's not that old. If you can get him on the cheap, there's upside as well as downside.
Bengie Molina has Posey breathing down his neck and will be 36 in July, but he still can hit. He's fit in that solid 15-to-20-homer category for five consecutive seasons, though his downturn in batting average in '09 (.265, his lowest since 2002) illustrates that his contact rate is down, his strikeout rate is up, and the end is probably near. That said, if you can pair him with Posey and not invest very much in him, Molina is still underrated and ownable in mixed leagues.
Steady As She Goes
Mid-round sleeper: None. Don't take a catcher in the middle rounds.
Late-round sleeper: Kurt Suzuki
Prospect: Buster Posey
Top-10 player I wouldn't draft: Jorge Posada
Player to trade at the All-Star break: A.J. Pierzynski
Player to trade for at the ASB: Victor Martinez
Home hero: Carlos Ruiz
Road warrior: Mike Napoli
Player I like but can't explain why: Yadier Molina
Player I don't like but can't explain why: Geovany Soto
Yadier Molina is still a defensive whiz, but now his offense is more than respectable (at least for a catcher). He's spent three seasons in the .275 to .300 range; he'll hit you high-single-digit homers; he'll drive in between 50 and 60 runs; and heck, he even stole a career-high nine bases last year. I can't suddenly call him a speed freak, but if you miss on the elite guys and Yadier is the Molina who falls, there's no shame in using him as your fantasy starter.
Mike Napoli pretty much fits into the "steady" category; he's had two straight seasons in the .270s, and hit 20 dingers in each campaign. However, you might want to tread just a bit lighter with Napoli; he has extreme splits (1.023 OPS against lefties last year, .782 against righties) and still has never gotten more then 382 at-bats in a single season. The fact that Jeff Mathis plays so much against righties does limit Napoli's upside.
And finally, Ryan Doumit probably isn't a great example of a "Steady As She Goes" kind of player, because he broke his wrist last April and was a shell of himself after he returned. But this is still a guy who hit .318 with 15 homers a couple of years back, and his bat is legit. The Pirates may eventually seek to move him because they're sitting on a great catching prospect in Tony Sanchez, but Doumit does seem likely to bounce back to his steadier levels.
The Do-Not-Draft List
I know I've endorsed the notion of waiting to grab a catcher in ESPN standard leagues, but please don't do something crazy like draft John Buck, OK? The list of catchers who can severely hurt your bottom line is long, but its primary inhabitants are guys like Jason Kendall, Gerald Laird and Gregg Zaun. While these veterans are likely to rack up a lot of playing time, I hesitate to imagine a league deep enough that their contributions will count as positive.
So, should you do everything you can to grab one of the three top catchers? Or should you wait and wait and wait some more, and grab whatever decent second-tier guy falls to the 20th round or later? That comes down to personal preference. If you can't abide the notion of having to massage your catcher position in an ESPN standard league, feel free to take Mauer, McCann or Martinez. But if you can stomach the wait, make sure you really, really wait. Don't bother with the middle-tier guys. They carry significant risk of awful seasons, and they aren't that much better than their lower-regarded brethren.
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