Commentary

2011 Position Preview: Catcher

Joe Mauer leads the way, but plenty of young talent ready to move up

Updated: March 23, 2011, 9:25 PM ET
By Brendan Roberts | ESPN.com

This season features a handful of young, talented, offensive-minded catchers who blend in nicely with another handful of productive veterans.

Fantasy Baseball Draft  Kit

Just think about that statement for a moment. When's the last time we could say that? Other than a brief heyday when Mike Piazza, Javy Lopez, Ivan Rodriguez, Todd Hundley, Jorge Posada and Jason Kendall (yes, that Jason Kendall) were tearing it up about a decade ago, the position has been loaded with a few perennial All-Stars, followed by inconsistent sluggers, injury risks, disappointing youngsters and boring veterans. This year, at least there's a little excitement at the position, if nothing else, with high-upside youngsters named Posey and Wieters and Arencibia and Santana, and yet we still have the perennial All-Stars named McCann and Mauer.

Don't get us wrong; once you get past the top 10-12 guys, the talent level falls like the thermometer during winter. But the point is, whereas catchers used to have 5-6 guys you could count on, followed by 5-6 you could live with, now it goes five you can count on, then 6-7 more with top-5 upside, players you can at least be excited to own.

This changes the game immensely. Whereas in past years you had to grab -- dare we say reach? -- for the top guys to make sure you had one you could count on, now that's not necessarily so. In one-catcher leagues (such as ESPN standard leagues), the top guys still will (and should) be taken fairly early, but the mid-range guys are all fairly interchangeable, meaning there are six similarly valued options. So if you miss out on those first five, you can wait till the cows come home, er, fourth and fifth outfielders are being selected, before you take one. In two-catcher leagues, the top-5 guys are slightly more valuable, and you'll need to be sure you get a top-12 guy because the talent level falls off pretty quickly after that. And if you can swing two top-12 catchers without crippling your other positions, you might be grateful when you see Nick Hundley go hitless for a week in April ... for someone else's team.

Cream of the crop

Catcher Rankings

1.Joe Mauer, Min, C, $21
2.Victor Martinez, Det, C, $17
3.Brian McCann, Atl, C, $16
4.Buster Posey, SF, C/1B, $16
5.Carlos Santana, Cle, C, $12
6.Geovany Soto, ChC, C, $9
7.Miguel Montero, Ari, C, $8
8.Mike Napoli, Tex, 1B/C, $6
9.Matt Wieters, Bal, C, $3
10.Kurt Suzuki, Oak, C, $1
11.Jorge Posada, NYY, C, $0
12.Chris Iannetta, Col, C, $0
13.Carlos Ruiz, Phi, C, $0
14.J.P. Arencibia, Tor, C, $0
15.Yadier Molina, StL, C, $0
16.John Buck, Fla, C, $0
17.Nick Hundley, SD, C, $0
18.Miguel Olivo, Sea, C, $0
19.Russell Martin, NYY, C, $0
20.John Jaso, TB, C, $0
21.Rod Barajas, LAD, C, $0
22.Alex Avila, Det, C, $0
23.A.J. Pierzynski, CWS, C, $0
24.Yorvit Torrealba, Tex, C, $0
25.Ryan Doumit, Pit, C, $0
26.Ramon Hernandez, Cin, C, $0
27.Jesus Montero, NYY, C, $0
28.Brayan Pena, KC, C, $0
29.Chris Snyder, Pit, C, $0
30.Jonathan Lucroy, Mil, C, $0
Players listed at positions at which they are eligible in ESPN standard leagues. Rankings based on 2011 projections in mixed 5x5 rotisserie leagues. Dollar values based on 10-team (one-catcher) mixed league with $260 budget.

There is just one name here: Mr. Joe Mauer.

Mauer's average dropped 38 points in 2010 from a year earlier, he played in just 137 games, and his homers dropped from 28 to nine ... and still he was a top-100 player, finishing higher on the Player Rater than such "studs" as Prince Fielder, Tommy Hanson and Jason Heyward. Clearly, Target Field played a role in his power decline -- he's 27, hardly a decline age -- as he hit just one homer in his home ballpark in 239 at-bats. Consider that in his amazing 2009, Mauer had 59 extra-base hits; last year he still had 53. It's just that 43 of 'em were doubles.

Mauer is not a 28-homer guy, but he's not a nine-homer hitter either. You'd have to figure he'll make adjustments to knock out at least a few more longballs at his unfavorable home park, a la David Wright in 2010. And there's no reason he can't hit .327 again; after all, that's his career average. Mauer is healthy (despite minor offseason knee surgery), in the prime of his career and about as steady and consistent as they come. Just because there's a little depth here now doesn't mean he doesn't blow the average at the position out of the water. He'll likely be taken in the top 30 overall, most likely, but I wouldn't let him get past the first 20 picks. He's never led us astray, and at age 27 (28 in April) and in the middle of a pretty decent lineup, I doubt he will this year.

Next best things

Sometimes the drop from the top tier to the second tier makes these guys feel more like consolation prizes. That's not the case here. These guys are close enough to the early rounds -- all three likely will be ranked in the top 60 -- that they at least get to stand near the podium.

In 2010, Victor Martinez did two things: posted another V-Mart-like .300-20-80 season, and put that awful 2008 a little further into the rearview mirror. Clearly, that season was an anomaly; it's the only season in his last six that he didn't hit .300, and he hit 15-plus homers in all but that one too. So strike that season from your memory banks. But that doesn't mean a 2010 repeat is automatic. As Martinez moves from Boston to Detroit, it's a bit disconcerting to know that he posted .335/.389/.562 rates at Fenway last year and just .271/.315/.426 on the road. Also worth noting: He's just a .225/.321/.349 hitter at Comerica Park in 169 career at-bats. I'm not about to say V-Mart is going to tank there, just that his 2010 performance seems to be a bit "Fenway-aided," and 2011 expectations should be tempered somewhat. But he'll still hit in the middle of a darned good lineup, and also get a lot of time at DH, which will help keep him healthy.

Whereas V-Mart's numbers have been pretty consistent (except for in '08), Brian McCann's have not. In fact, he's a tough guy to read. In 2010, he posted his lowest batting average in his five full seasons and yet he had his second-highest OBP by adding 24 walks from 2009 to 2010. His doubles have fallen two straight seasons but his homers have remained pretty consistent in his career (18 to 24). And his batting average fell 12 points, yet his BABIP was identical to his 2009 BABIP. He's 26, far from a wear-down age, even with the workload he has taken on, so you'd have to figure last year is repeatable. And because there's some reliability in that, given his five years of solid production, he deserves this high ranking.

During our fantasy baseball summit in January, I made the case for Buster Posey at No. 2 (among catchers). I begrudgingly backed that down to No. 3, but as I said in the meeting and will say again now, "Posey is headed to Joe Mauer territory; it's just a matter of how soon he'll get there." I believe that to be true. While Posey might not quite have Mauer's .330-average upside, he has legit 20-homer upside, and given everything I've seen from the kid (which was plenty in 2010), I think we'll see it sooner than later. He should be ranked in the 45-60 range (overall), but there's going to be somebody in every draft who will take him much closer to 45 if not much sooner. Be aware of that as you go in; if you want him, you won't have the luxury of waiting for him.

Where's the ceiling?

Here we have several players -- three in the top 10, many more in the "filler tier" of the draft -- who have respectable upsides, but what can we expect from them this season?

Carlos Santana
Brace Hemmelgarn/US PresswireCarlos Santana was putting up big numbers before a home-plate collision ended his 2010 campaign early. Can he bounce back right away in 2011?

Aug. 2 was a pleasant day in New England, by all accounts, but one that changed the course of the season for many fantasy owners. That's when the Boston Red Sox's Ryan Kalish barreled into Carlos Santana at the plate at Fenway Park. The rookie catcher suffered a torn LCL in his left knee -- it could have been much worse -- and his season was over. But forgotten in the aftermath is that the rookie slugger hadn't exactly been tearing the cover off the ball prior to the injury. After posting .345/.458/.707 rates in June, he hit just .209 with a .326 slugging percentage in July. In other words, the book was out on him, and the league was making adjustments. That said, it was inevitable that Santana would have made the necessary counter-adjustments; he has an impeccable minor league resume and was a top prospect for a good reason. Now he'll just make those adjustments in 2011, and his mediocre 2010 numbers, not to mention the knee injury -- he's doing quite well following knee surgery, thank you very much -- allow you to get him a round or two later (or for a dollar or two less) than his upside is worth.

Mike Napoli is more of a known commodity at age 29, but there's still some mystery here because we don't really know what that power swing could do at a hitters' park or what he would do with 500-plus at-bats. Now in Texas, Napoli likely will get the chance to do both. In fact, he might even get starts at first base or DH when he's not catching to ensure the at-bats. We're talking a guy who has averaged a homer every 16 at-bats over the past three seasons, with roughly half of those at-bats at a neutral, if not slightly unfavorable, home ballpark. Give him 500-plus ABs primarily at a hitters' park, and 30 homers seems almost a given. He strikes out too much to hit anything better than .275, but 30-homer catchers are few and far between.

Miguel Montero doesn't have the same power, but he does have the hitters' park and path to 500-plus at-bats. By all accounts, the knee surgery that cost him two months of the 2010 season is behind him, and at 27, he's at a prime age to reel off at least 2-3 good seasons. His .294, 16-homer, 59-RBI season in 2009 showed us what he's capable of, and he should be able to handle the rigors of being the No. 1 catcher.

After that, you have five young (or "youngish") catchers who will get opportunities in 2011 but have yet to prove they have top-10 upside. Nick Hundley will start for the San Diego Padres, but he's a career .242 hitter (after hitting just .253 in the minors). So why is he here? Because he does have more homer upside than what he has shown. There are 15-plus homers in that bat, and it's encouraging that seven of his eight homers in 2010 were hit at Petco Park. ... John Jaso burst onto the scene in 2010, showing decent wheels for a catcher, good plate discipline and even the ability to bat leadoff, which is rare for a catcher. It's disconcerting that he hit just .197 in September, leading to questions about whether he can remain productive despite the everyday rigors of catching and all those trips around the bases, but there's double-digit homer and steal potential here. ... Alex Avila will start at catcher for the Detroit Tigers on most days. The 24-year-old hasn't shown us much so far, but he hasn't really been given an opportunity to do so as the No. 1 guy. Avila won't help in batting average or steals, but he does have the type of swing to help in homers and possibly RBIs. Track his progress this spring. ... And finally we have a pair of 24-year-olds, Jonathan Lucroy and Josh Thole, who will get regular at-bats for the Milwaukee Brewers and New York Mets, respectively. Both youngsters had at least some level of success in the minors; Thole has hit .306 there since 2008, and Lucroy is a career .298 minor league hitter with respectable power. The question is whether they can hit for "won't-hurt-you" averages in the majors and add the necessary pop to actually give them a little value.

Steady as he goes

There's really not much to say about this next group. They're the take-it-or-leave-it guys; you know what to expect from them. In essence, they're the "guys you could live with" that I referred to above.

Geovany Soto bounced back nicely from a miserable 2009 campaign and even showed a little more plate discipline than in past seasons (an improved walk rate led to a .393 OBP). Because he has lost his "safety factor," and because he's likely stuck in the No. 7 or 8 hole in the lineup, Soto is not among the top two tiers in the position, but he's tops here because he's likely to finish above fantasy league average in at least homers and RBIs.

Kurt Suzuki swings at a few too many pitches outside the strike zone to hit for Soto's .280 average, but he'll provide similar home run and RBI totals and might even steal 5-10 bases. ... There was some debate at the summit about whether Posada could remain healthy/get more at-bats even in the DH role, but a majority of the room had serious doubts about that. One thing you know: You'll get decent power production when he plays. ... Another thing you know: Carlos Ruiz will hit for you -- in the second half of the season. Over the past three seasons, he has hit .237 with a .338 slugging before the All-Star break and .285/.453 after it.

Then we have the filler types, those guys who provide at least one respectable category (or two) and likely won't hurt you in the others. This group includes Yadier Molina (respectable RBIs), A.J. Pierzynski (batting average, RBIs), Rod Barajas (homers), Ramon Hernandez (batting average) and Chris Snyder (homers).

And finally, the guys who could fit into this group if they somehow got regular at-bats (i.e. they're worth a look in two-catcher leagues if starting regularly): Francisco Cervelli, Ronny Paulino, Ramon Castro, Yorvit Torrealba, Jesus Flores, John Baker, Gregg Zaun and David Ross.

The wild cards

Feel like rollin' the dice? These guys could provide upper-tier production -- or none at all.

[+] EnlargeMatt Wieters
Jeff Griffith/US PresswireIs Matt Wieters now a sleeper after two mildly disappointing seasons in the majors?

No catcher is a bigger wild card than Matt Wieters, who has been a little more Mike Lieberthal (in his typical years, not his outliers) than Mike Piazza. Not that that is a bad thing, but we expected Piazza-like numbers by now, and Wieters actually seemed to regress in many areas in 2010, providing a Player Rater value barely in the black. But that talent is still there. Probably better to count on nothing more than a slight uptick from 2010, just to be safe, though there's also that chance he jumps to stud status if everything goes right.

There are a lot of parallels between John Buck and Miguel Olivo. Both emerged from relative obscurity with the Kansas City Royals to post breakout numbers in 2010, but both guys also changed teams (and leagues) this offseason, and both head to much less favorable ballparks (for hitters). We have to project more "obscurity" than "breakout" in 2010 until they prove otherwise.

After that, you have four guys with proven upside but suspect recent histories, including Chris Iannetta, who hit all of .197 last season despite calling Coors Field home. Iannetta is simply a better hitter than that, but he's also not a .260 hitter, either. If you take him late, you have to hope for .250 with 15-20 homers. ... Russell Martin suffered a major hip injury in 2010, ending a miserable season by his standards. Years of overuse finally caught up to him, as he looked sapped both at the plate and on the basepaths. But he still has decent plate discipline and is reportedly recovering nicely, and now with the New York Yankees, he'll hit in a deeper lineup and better hitter's park. There's upside here yet. ... Ryan Doumit has proven double-digit-homer upside, but will he get enough at-bats this season to hit that many? Most likely not. ... Ryan Hanigan hit a nifty .300 last season and has a good batting eye. But can he add a little pop to make it more than an empty batting average? Again, most likely not.

And finally, Jarrod Saltalamacchia will have plenty of opportunities to shine in Boston, even though he didn't show much in Texas. If he hits the way his scouting profile suggests, we have a No. 1 mixed-league catcher here; if he hits the way he has thus far, we barely have a No. 2.

Thanks but no thanks

When it comes to the second catcher position, you want to be sure to get players that won't hurt you, especially in mixed leagues. They can toss many at-bats and few hits into your team's aggregate pool, and not add enough in the "counting categories" to make up for it. I include the Royals' Jason Kendall and Brayan Pena in this group, along with Ivan Rodriguez, Jeff Mathis, Jason Castro (until the youngster proves otherwise), Humberto Quintero, Jason Varitek, Kelly Shoppach, Adam Moore, Jose Molina, Dioner Navarro, Lou Marson, Wil Nieves, Koyie Hill, Brian Schneider, Rob Johnson, Matt Treanor, Gerald Laird and George Kottaras.

Top prospects

Though his name is familiar, J.P. Arencibia is technically still a prospect, with just 35 big league at-bats under his belt. The Blue Jays' starting catcher gig is his lose, and Arencibia definitely fits in the "offensive-minded" class, having hit 80 homers in the minors over the past three seasons. He even hit .301 in Triple-A in 2010. The only problem: He strikes out a lot (300 times in 1,388 at-bats over those three seasons) and walks little (82 walks). So you shouldn't expect a high average -- even .250 seems generous -- but if he can keep that Jays starting job and stay healthy, 20 homers is quite possible, to go with respectable RBI totals. He makes for a fine sleeper pick in the second half of the draft, especially if you've covered yourself some in the batting-average category.

The longer it takes for Jesus Montero to get to the big leagues, the more we seem to doubt him. Not that we doubt his ability, but rather when (and where) he'll be able to show it. The verdict is still out as to whether he can cut it as a big league catcher, and he might have to show his wares with spot at-bats there and at DH. If we were guaranteed 400 at-bats from him, he could go as high as 10th or 11th at the position, but we can't even guarantee 200 at-bats, making him little more than a late-round option in two-catcher leagues.

Hank Conger is fairly developed for a catcher prospect, but being a catcher for manager Mike Scioscia, a fine defensive catcher in his day, is a little different than being a catcher for most teams. The 2011 season likely will be a learning campaign for Conger, who does have .290-10-70 upside. Draft accordingly.

Two prospects I have my eye on are Devin Mesoraco (Cincinnati) and Robinson Chirinos (Tampa Bay). They're unlikely to get chances in 2011, but if that changes, and they're in line for regular at-bats, they could be helpful in two-catcher leagues.

And then you have Wilson Ramos, still considered a prospect even though we saw him play a bit in 2010 (for the Minnesota Twins and Washington Nationals). He's not in line for regular at-bats for the Nats, but he does have batting-average potential (albeit an empty batting average) if he earns them.

Bottom line

Catcher isn't the dearth this year that it usually is, but it's hardly a deep fantasy position. The only difference is the top 10 has more upside than in years past. But that doesn't mean you should avoid the top four or five guys and wait for one of the others. Mauer, V-Mart and Co. are still every bit as valuable as they were in years past, especially in two-catcher leagues. So if it has been your strategy to lock down a top catcher in the first 5-6 rounds, feel free to continue that. But if you don't (grab a top guy), you can wait till that next tier dwindles a bit.

Brendan Roberts has written about fantasy baseball and football for ESPN Fantasy.

Brendan Roberts is a contributing writer/editor for ESPN Fantasy. He has been covering fantasy sports as an editor and writer for more than eight years and was awarded the Fantasy Baseball Writer of the Year award in 2006 from the Fantasy Sports Writers Association. Roberts can be read in both the fantasy baseball and football areas at ESPN.com.