Commentary

2012 Position Preview: Catcher

Updated: March 26, 2012, 4:45 PM ET
By Mike Sheets | Special to ESPN.com

The catcher position wasn't particularly deep to begin with, and it got even more shallow this offseason when Victor Martinez, last year's No. 1 fantasy catcher according to the ESPN Player Rater, suffered a torn ACL, an injury that will sideline him for the entire 2012 season. As fantasy owners, we must press on, but getting high-end production from behind the plate, particularly in deep two-catcher leagues, just got that much harder.

As usual, whether you play in two-active-catcher formats or stick to ESPN's standard one-catcher league plays a big part in just how scarce the talent is on draft day. While the two sluggers atop this year's rankings are the "elite," so to speak, they aren't necessarily head and shoulders above the rest. Yes, you'll gain an advantage should you roster a catcher early, but that advantage will be slight, especially in one-catcher formats. Not every catcher in the top 10 is a star by any means, but there's plenty of value (and upside) to be found in the mid-to-late rounds this year.

Depending on how things play out, waiting and grabbing a backstop in rounds four to eight is looking like the sweet spot. Buster Posey and Joe Mauer, for example, are coming off injury-stricken 2011 seasons, and neither crack the top five in this year's rankings. But let's remember that Posey, just 24, was a borderline top-three option entering last season, and Mauer was the first catcher off the board in most drafts, so the potential value there is tremendous. What if injury strikes again, you ask? Well, in one-catcher formats, guys like J.P. Arencibia and Jonathan Lucroy, both of whom finished top 12 among catchers on the Player Rater last year, will be ripe for the picking on the waiver wire. Thus, the reward for picking a Posey or Mauer greatly outweighs the risk.

Two-catcher leagues are a different story. It's still not a necessity to grab a top-five or six guy, but you're better off landing at least one catcher in the top 10 through 12. Waiting until the end of your draft to grab both catchers should be avoided, if possible. Your season isn't sunk if you wind up with two bottom-of-the-barrel types, as players like Carlos Ruiz or Ramon Hernandez won't kill you, but you'll certainly have some ground to make up if you go that route.

Cream of the Crop

Catcher Rankings

1. Mike Napoli, Tex, C, 1B (47)
2. Carlos Santana, Cle, C, 1B (52)
3. Brian McCann, Atl, C (69)
4. Matt Wieters, Bal, C (82)
5. Miguel Montero, Ari, C (112)
6. Alex Avila, Det, C (117)
7. Buster Posey, SF, C (124)
8. Joe Mauer, Min, C (128)
9. Yadier Molina, StL, C (183)
10. Wilson Ramos, Was, C (212)
11. Geovany Soto, ChC, C (227)
12. Kurt Suzuki, Oak, C (246)
13. J.P. Arencibia, Tor, C (272)
14. Russell Martin, NYY, C (281)
15. Jonathan Lucroy, Mil, C (289)
16. Jarrod Saltalamacchia, Bos, C (291)
17. John Buck, Mia, C (297)
18. Chris Iannetta, LAA, C (301)
19. Carlos Ruiz, Phi, C (304)
20. A.J. Pierzynski, CWS, C (306)
21. Ryan Doumit, Min, C (308)
22. Ramon Hernandez, Col, C (312)
23. Devin Mesoraco, Cin, C (318)
24. Miguel Olivo, Sea, C (322)
25. Nick Hundley, SD, C (332)
26. Josh Donaldson, Oak, C (337)
27. Rod Barajas, Pit, C (349)
28. Josh Thole, NYM, C (363)
29. Ryan Lavarnway, Bos, C (373)
30. Wilin Rosario, Col, C (375)
Players listed at positions at which they are eligible in ESPN standard leagues. Rankings based on 2012 projections in mixed 5x5 rotisserie leagues. Overall position ranking is indicated in parentheses.

It's a two-man race at the top, with Mike Napoli and Carlos Santana leading the charge. Napoli is the only catcher ranked in our top 50 (No. 47), and Santana barely misses at No. 52. There's no need to reach to ensure you land one of these two, but if you're sitting pretty at other positions, they are the best this position has to offer.

Napoli claims the top spot thanks to a 2011 campaign that saw him set career bests in virtually every offensive category despite spending time on the disabled list in June and July because of an oblique injury. He hit just .232-12-33 in 52 first-half games but was arguably the best hitter in baseball after the All-Star break, batting .383 with 18 home runs and 42 RBIs in 61 games. On the road, Napoli even hit .332 and 18 of his 30 homers, proving his breakout season wasn't simply the product of the hitter-friendly Rangers Ballpark, the No. 1 venue for home runs in 2011, according to ESPN's Park Factors. A repeat of last year's .320 batting average is unlikely for Napoli, who batted just .238 in 2010 and was a career .251 hitter entering last season. That said, with 20 or more homers each of the past four seasons, his power is certainly legit, and he did show some real growth at the plate last season, posting the lowest strikeout rate (19.7 percent) of his career and his best walk rate (13.4 percent) since his rookie season. Thus, there's little reason to worry that his batting average will plummet back to its 2010 level. Hitting in one of baseball's most hitter-friendly ballparks in one of baseball's best lineups, Napoli is the safest bet at the position, even if his numbers regress from 2011.

Santana was unable to match Napoli's 2011 production, but he was superb nonetheless. His 27 home runs were bested only by Napoli among catchers, his 84 runs scored led the position, and his .808 OPS ranked third. There was a thorn in the side of Santana's impressive campaign, however: He batted just .239. But let's keep that in perspective, shall we? Santana was a career .290 hitter in the minors and hit .316 in a 57-game stint at Triple-A in 2010. He also sported an 82 percent contact rate and walked more than he struck out in nearly 1,800 minor league at-bats. His 14.7 percent walk rate last year was also best in the majors among catchers, so there are plenty of reasons to believe an improved batting average is on the horizon. There may be more power upside here, too. After posting a combined .427 slugging percentage in April through July, Santana produced a combined .507 SLG in August and September, which would lead to a spike in power production if carried over to 2012. And, of course, let's remember that 2011 was the 25-year-old's first full season in the majors; he still has plenty of time to develop and mature. While we've likely already seen the best Napoli has to offer, Santana is still on the rise.

Finally, don't forget that both Napoli and Santana spend a significant amount of time at first base, where both are eligible this season. Most owners won't consider using these guys as first basemen, but Napoli and Santana are ninth and 10th in our first base rankings, respectively, so it can't be ruled out completely. The fact that they see time at first base also means they'll get more at-bats than the average catcher. The value of this can't be overstated. Because of his time at first last year (66 games), Santana registered 552 at-bats, the most among catchers. Only two other catchers, V-Mart and Matt Wieters, registered at least 500 at-bats in 2011.

Next best things

Unless Napoli or Santana slides on draft day, this looks like the group of guys to target. Some of these guys are more stable than others, but none of them are far from the elite level.

[+] EnlargeBrian McCann
Kirby Lee/US PresswireSteady Brian McCann finished seventh among catchers on the Player Rater in 2011.

Brian McCann may not be elite, and his numbers each season tend to fall into the good-but-not-great category. But there's something to be said for his consistency. That he has hit at least 21 homers in each of the past four seasons and five of the past six is solid power production, to be sure. However, when you consider that no other catcher besides Napoli has even topped 20 dingers the past two years, it's even more impressive. In an era in which power numbers are down across the board, consistent power numbers from a shallow position are extremely valuable. McCann might not be the hitter he was from 2006-09, when he batted .300 twice, including .333 in '06, and averaged 92 RBIs per season. And the fact he missed time in the second half last year because of an oblique injury and hit just .180 in 133 at-bats once he returned is a minor concern. However, at age 28, it's too early to worry about him wearing down. If you pass on Napoli and Santana and still want bankable power numbers, McCann is a fine consolation.

There are sure to be differing opinions on Matt Wieters heading into draft day. For those who expected the can't-miss prospect to be a star right away, Wieters' first three seasons have been disappointing. He has been a productive big league player, sure, but what about the "future Hall of Famer" talk we heard when he was the No. 1 prospect in baseball? Wasn't he supposed to be an All-Star caliber slugger from day one, a la Ryan Braun in 2007? Wieters hasn't lived up to those lofty (and unreasonable) expectations, but you don't want to give up your seat on the bandwagon just yet. The 25-year-old hasn't been making huge strides, but he is taking small steps each year. Aside from setting career bests in homers, runs and RBIs last season, his contact rate has improved each year, and he batted .339 against left-handers in 2011 after hitting a combined .230 against them in 2009 and 2010. Both are good signs that his batting average will continue to improve. More intriguing is that Wieters hit 12 of his 22 home runs and drove in 31 of his 68 runs in August and September alone, which could portend a power spike in 2012. Truth be told, if there's one catcher in this group who makes the leap to the cream of the crop this season, chances are he'll come from Baltimore (and no, his name isn't Taylor Teagarden).

Next up are Miguel Montero and Alex Avila, who finished No. 4 and No. 3, respectively, on the ESPN Player Rater last season. There's no need to reach for these guys, but both are safe bets to come close to last year's numbers. Montero rebounded nicely last season after being limited to only 85 games in 2010 because of a knee injury. Hitting left-handed pitching has been a problem (.202 batting average in 193 at-bats against lefties in 2009 and 2010), and his 35.9 percent fly ball rate last year was a career low. Improvement in those two areas, however, would push Montero closer to the elite.

Avila, meanwhile, sported a .366 batting average on balls in play last year, the sixth-highest mark in baseball, so last season's .296 average should regress. That said, he still possesses a solid skill set and is a safe bet to maintain his upper-teens home run power. Plus, he's only 25 and could see more time at DH this year with V-Mart sidelined.

Who knows, had Posey played a full season in 2011, he could very well be atop this year's catcher rankings. Instead, a season-ending injury in May -- a fractured leg and three torn ankle ligaments -- limited him to only 162 at-bats. A serious ankle injury can be tricky business, especially for a catcher, and the Giants have discussed playing him at first base once or twice a week this year to keep his bat in the lineup and lessen the toll on his body. In addition to the obvious health questions, some owners are concerned that he hit just one home run per every 40.5 at-bats last year (compared to one in every 22.5 at-bats in 2010), and that he hit just .205 versus southpaws last season in 44 at-bats. However, not only should we put little to no stock in such a small sample size, but Posey started slowly in 2010 as well, hitting just .259-1-6 in 85 June at-bats. That turned out all right, didn't it? This is a guy fantasy owners were fawning over entering last season after he hit .305-18-67 in 406 at-bats as a rookie, and from a skills standpoint, nothing has changed since then. The risk that his ankle isn't quite 100 percent is present, but he's a gamble that could very well be worth taking.

Mauer's fantasy value is hard to gauge. Unlike Posey, who missed time last year because of one serious injury, Mauer was limited to just 82 games for myriad reasons, including a viral infection, bilateral leg weakness, back stiffness, neck stiffness, general soreness and pneumonia. (Who knows, there might have been a shark-bite wound or something else thrown in there, too.) He's reportedly completely recovered, but how confident can we be after last year's laundry list of issues? Even if we assume he's healthy, we know his 29 homers in 2009 were an aberration. He has, after all, never hit more than 13 home runs in any other season, and his 22 percent fly ball rate last year was a career low. The good news is that Mauer's bread and butter -- his ability to hit for average -- is still intact. His contact and line-drive rates were still elite in 2011, and he batted .327 as recently as 2010. Yes, there's substantial risk here given the uncertainty surrounding his health, but this is an intriguing buying opportunity for the former MVP, a player who was the consensus No. 1 catcher heading into last year.

Where's The Ceiling?

These players find themselves on the upswing of their young careers. They don't necessarily all possess All-Star talent, but, to some degree, there's untapped potential in each of their bats.

[+] EnlargeJ.P. Arencibia
Tom Szczerbowski/US PresswireJ.P. Arencibia quietly finished a respectable 12th among catchers on the Player Rater in 2011.

Maybe J.P. Arencibia is exactly what he showed last season: a hitter in the .220s with 20-homer power. If that's all he is, that's fine, as his power numbers are enough to make him fantasy-relevant. But there's reason for hope that he's more than that. While Arencibia likely will never be a high batting-average guy, he did bat .301/.359/.626 in Triple-A in 2010 after hitting just .236/.284/.444 there in 2009. If he can make similar adjustments in his second big league season, he could settle in as a .250-260 guy. Not great, but that's a lot more respectable. And if all else fails, he still has that power thing to fall back on. His 49.8 fly ball percentage led catchers last year, and his 14.7 HR/FB rate ranked third, behind only Santana and Russell Martin. At 26, he's just now entering his peak years, so it's unlikely we've seen his ceiling.

Tyler Flowers' prospect star has fallen in recent years. Strikeouts have been a major problem as he has progressed into the higher levels of the minors and into the majors, and he'll have to improve his approach if he's going to stick long-term. However, while A.J. Pierzynski is still the White Sox's starting catcher, his career is on the decline, and the team will want to give Flowers a significant look this season to determine whether he's the team's future behind the plate. Flowers doesn't project as a high-upside guy, but there's double-digit homer potential here with enough playing time. He's someone to keep in mind in AL-only leagues.

Don't expect Salvador Perez to replicate the .331 batting average he posted in 39 games with the Royals late last season, but he still deserves to be on your radar. At 21, Perez is pegged to be Kansas City's starting catcher in 2011. He never showed big power in the minors, but at 6 feet, 3 inches and 230 pounds, it's conceivable that he'll develop more as he matures. What he already does well is make contact (86 percent contact rate with the Royals last year). So even though he doesn't draw many walks, he should still be an asset in the batting average department. The Royals are committed to Perez, and he could be a sneaky No. 2 catcher option.

Jesus Montero technically doesn't even belong here: He's eligible only at DH to begin the season. But we'd be remiss to exclude him completely, as he has as much potential as any catcher in the top 10. Acquired from the Yankees in January in the Michael Pineda deal, Montero is a legit middle-of-the-order bat, something Seattle's anemic offense desperately needs. Unfortunately, he's also very weak defensively. Mariners GM Jack Zduriencik has said that Montero will get "every opportunity to catch," and if we take him at his word, the young slugger would get catcher eligibility as early as mid-April. That said, the Mariners could also give up on the idea once they get a good look at Montero behind the plate in spring training. What we're saying is that there's risk in selecting Montero with the sole intent of using him as a catcher. On the other hand, the upside here is substantial, and he'll have value as a DH even if he never gets catcher eligibility. Don't let him slip too far on draft day.

Where's The Basement?

Whether they find themselves in a new situation, or age is simply starting to catch up to them, these guys have seen better days. The potential downside here is significant; is the upside nonexistent?

On the surface, Pierzynski, 35, is still a solid fantasy catcher. But the end could be near. He'll likely have to share playing time with Flowers behind the plate, and the veteran's power production has been slipping for years. His eight home runs and 48 RBIs last season were his lowest totals since 2002. He continues to make contact at an elite clip (93 percent last year), meaning his batting average is safe, but his counting numbers will continue to slide if his playing time dwindles. That leaves an empty batting average without enough at-bats to matter.

While Pierzynski is trending down because of age and playing-time concerns, Chris Iannetta is in this category for another reason. Yep, you guessed it: the Coors Field factor. Dealt to the Angels in the offseason, Iannetta likely will miss Coors greatly. Sure, you can say that about most hitters who leave Colorado, but Iannetta is an extreme case. In 176 at-bats at Coors last year, he hit .301 with 10 home runs. Away from Coors, he hit .172 with four homers in 169 at-bats. That's a 129-point difference. According to ESPN Park Factors, Coors Field ranked third in homers and first in hits last year, compared to 27th in homers and 25th in hits for Angels Stadium. Some food for thought when you're looking at options for that second catcher slot on draft day.

Steady As He Goes

This category is pretty much self-explanatory. We know what these guys are all about; there are no surprises. These aren't players you'll necessarily want to target on draft day, but they'll produce usable numbers and won't kill you.

Carlos Ruiz has never hit double-digit homers in his career, but he has averaged eight dingers over the past three seasons, so he at least gives you something in the power department. More importantly, he has posted a contact rate of 88 percent in three of the past four seasons and actually had a career high 21 percent line-drive rate in 2011. This means he's a good bet to continue being an asset in batting average. It's also worth keeping in mind that he has hit a combined .316 after the All-Star break the past two seasons.

While Ruiz provides a good average and little power, Miguel Olivo gives you just the opposite. Olivo has hit double-digit home runs in each of the past six seasons, including 19 dingers in 2011. Meanwhile, the last time he hit at least .270 was, well, never. On the bright side, Olivo's .270 BABIP was a career low last year (his career mark is .295), so with a little more luck, last year's .224 batting average should rise closer to respectability in 2012.

At 36 years old, Rod Barajas should be slowing down. And in a sense, he is slowing down; the fact that he's striking out more than ever is a sign of that. But he continues to be a consistent source of power, with at least 16 homers each of the past three seasons. You don't want Barajas on your team, but if you're for desperate, cheap power is cheap power.

Assuming they receive enough playing time, Ramon Hernandez and Ryan Doumit belong in this conversation, too. Hernandez has batted at least .282 each of the past two seasons, and his double-digit homer power will translate to Coors Field just fine. Doumit, meanwhile, hit .303 in 2011 and would have reached double-digit homers for the fourth straight year had a broken ankle not sidelined him in June and July.

Talkin' prospects

You won't find any future superstars here, unfortunately, but these names are still worth knowing. Whether it's this year or a few years down the road, these guys could have fantasy relevance.

[+] EnlargeDevin Mesoraco
Norm Hall/Getty ImagesDevin Mesoraco appears to be the Reds' catcher of the future.

Devin Mesoraco is the best bet for positive value in this group. The youngster struggled in his cup of coffee with the Reds late last season, but he showed good power and patience at Triple-A and has a clear path to the starting gig in Cincinnati now that Ramon Hernandez is out of the picture. Mesoraco's value is limited to two-catcher and NL-only leagues for now, but he's worth keeping tabs on.

Wilin Rosario also got a cup of coffee (with the Rockies) in 2011. He likely will start the season at Triple-A, but he should eventually get the call to Colorado, where Ramon Hernandez is serving as a stopgap following the trade of Iannetta to the Angels. The youngster's skill set isn't terrific, as he doesn't have great plate discipline and isn't adept at getting on base (.316 career OBP in the minors). However, he does have 20-homer power, and let's face it, Coors Field can help mask many hitters' deficiencies.

With Jarrod Saltalamacchia and Kelly Shoppach handling the catching duties in Boston, Ryan Lavarnway likely will begin the year back in Triple-A. He could force the issue, though, if he builds off last season's production. Lavarnway's calling card is power, and he has lots of it. He hit 32 homers between Double- and Triple-A in 2011, including a .295/.390/.612 triple-slash line in 61 Triple-A games. Lavarnway's power potential could help him contribute immediately if he does get the call.

Points Versus Roto

A poor batting average doesn't hurt you in points leagues like it does in roto formats. And that's good, because the catcher position is chock-full of decent power bats who are lucky to flirt with a .240 average. Miguel Olivo, Kurt Suzuki, Geovany Soto and John Buck all hit .237 or worse last season. They also all finished in the top 15 in total bases, meaning they have value in points leagues. Not surprisingly, Arencibia gets a boost, too, as his .219 batting average is no longer a hindrance. Santana, our No. 2-ranked catcher despite hitting .237 last year, is also more valuable in a points format, as his .351 OBP ranked third at the position and his 252 total bases ranked second.

On the other hand, players who provide a good batting average but little else lose value in points leagues. To be fair, there are precious few catchers who perform well in roto leagues but not in points leagues, mostly because you won't find many empty-batting-average, Freddy Sanchez types behind the plate. That said, Mauer, while still valuable in both formats, isn't quite as valuable in points leagues. He doesn't have a ton of power, and you don't get additional credit if he goes off and bats .330.

Bottom Line

Getting one of the elite catchers isn't necessary. There's so much potential value available later in the draft, particularly in the group ranked four through eight, that there's little reason to jump into the catcher pool early at the expense of other positions. This is especially true in one-catcher formats, such as ESPN's standard leagues. In two-catcher leagues, however, getting at least one top-10 catcher is advised. There are some interesting and relevant options in the 11 to 20 group, but there isn't much difference-making upside to be found outside the top 10.