Without realizing it, Tigers GM Dave Dombrowski summed up the fantasy catcher position in a comment he made to the Detroit Free Press on Jan. 13.
Dombrowski told the Free Press that Brandon Inge, who has been supplanted as the starting third baseman by one Miguel Cabrera (you might have heard of 'm), ought to consider moving back to his former position, catcher.
"If I were Brandon Inge's best friend, I'd tell him, 'You should catch,' " Dombrowski said. "This guy could be an All-Star catcher. He's not only good defensively, but his offense takes on a different meaning. ... If he puts [last year's] numbers up catching, he might be an All-Star."
Bingo. By fantasy accounts, Inge is an average producer, at best, in an increasingly strong third-base pool. As a catcher, however, his 20-homer, 75-RBI potential ...
Inge won't be a fantasy-usable catcher because los Tigres have a guy named Ivan Rodriguez playing there, but this serves as example No. 427 why catchers just can't be treated like the other positions. Even with "youngsters" such as Joe Mauer, Brian McCann and Russell Martin emerging, it's still the most barren position in the fantasy baseball cupboard. So much so that, after much discussion as to what our standard league offering would be, we at ESPN Fantasy have decided to stray from the traditional two-catcher active roster to having just one catcher. (And I couldn't agree more with that decision.)
Years ago, I read an AP report in which former All-Star catcher Charles Johnson detailed what he was forced to go through each season. Foul tips, overheating, major fluids loss, a bruised thumb from catching fireballers, extra-inning games ... and I came to two conclusions: (1.) To twist a Willie Nelson line, "Mama, don't let your babies grow up to be catchers." (2.) There is absolutely no way I will trust a catcher with an early-round draft pick (or high-dollar buy).
You don't just expect stud numbers from your top three picks, you darned near have to have 'em. And there's no way a catcher can be counted on to remain healthy and/or productive for a full season.
Take Mauer, a young uber-stud. A few years ago, right around the time Mauer was having knee surgery at age 20, I asked former catcher Craig Biggio about the stress of playing the position. His answer, without hesitation: "If I had stayed at catcher, I wouldn't [still] be in the league right now."
Now that we've established that no catcher should be elite in terms of the overall player pool, there are two that at least stand out at the position itself.
At age 29, Victor Martinez is in the prime of his career, and he has the numbers to show for it. He reversed a two-year homer slide by hitting a career-high 25 long balls last season, and he also set a career mark with 114 RBIs. He also has hit .300-plus in each of the past three seasons. Not bad for a catcher, eh? Well, Martinez is undoubtedly a catcher, but, by big league standards, not a very good one. He struggles to throw out runners, and the Tribe seem to like starting him at first base or DH every chance they get. That's not very often right now, given the multitude of corner infielder/DH types they possess, but keeper leaguers ought to at least consider the possibility that he could move away from catcher in the next 2-3 years if his defense doesn't improve.
In our rankings summit, held in early January, our own Matthew Berry made a case for Russell Martin being the top-ranked catcher. At first, I (and many others) scoffed. But once I looked at his steals (21), the 19 homers, the 87 RBIs ... I admit I hedged myself. But here's my sticking point: Will Martin continue to steal 20-plus bases, or play 151 games, for that matter? He was trying to make a good first impression in his first year with the team by being aggressive on the basepaths and playing through typical aches and pains. The .293 average and power numbers? Sure, but I'm thinking more like 15 steals and 140-145 games. Good numbers, but not V-Mart good.
Brian McCann and Joe Mauer have tremendous upside; in fact, many folks had them as the top two catchers heading into last year's drafts. So what happened?
Well, for McCann, it was a precipitous drop in his batting average (.333 to .270) from the previous season, perhaps a result of a few nagging injuries (see: Johnson, Charles, above), including a bum ankle that bothered him much of the last two months. But he still managed to clout 18 homers and drive in 92 runs (with the help of a .536 slugging percentage with runners in scoring position). And he'll be only 24 to start this season. A bounce-back performance sounds reasonable.
For Mauer, it was a nagging quad strain, which not only sidelined him for a month, but also might have contributed to ankle and hamstring injuries and maybe even a hernia problem later in the season. No surgery was necessary, but it's scary to see an injury-plagued year like that -- and what it did to his on-field performance -- from a 24-year-old kid. (It's 'cause he's a 6-5 catcher, but that's another story for another day.) He has already-proven upside, but he's what we call the ultimate risk/reward pick.
It should mean something that seven (!) of our top 12 catchers will be 31 or older on Opening Day. First of all, it shows that this millennium's crop of catcher prospects, uh, haven't been all that. But it also says something about owning a player you at least know will not hurt you at a weak position. I mean, we have A.J. Pierzynski ranked within starter level in a one-catcher, 12-team league (he's ranked 12th), and he hit .263-14-50 in 2007. But hey, at least he didn't pull a Miguel Montero, Chris Iannetta or Navarro and fall off the face of the fantasy planet. Compared to those guys, upside or not, smack-talkin' A.J. looks pretty good.
So what makes a "Steady Eddie?" Well, the first and most important trait is sustained health. Other than the occasional injury-plagued season, such as Jason Varitek's 2006 and Ramon Hernandez's 2007, a Steady Eddie has proven he can do what it takes to stay on the field. The other trait is either the ability to hit for average or have power. (If they can do both, they're either an elite catcher such as Mike Piazza in his heyday ... or they play another position.) You take enough risks at the other positions, so playing it safe here makes plenty of sense. Wait till the middle rounds, then grab from this group of capable options:
Steady Eddies (in this order): Jorge Posada, Kenji Johjima, Bengie Molina, Ivan Rodriguez, Hernandez, Varitek, Pierzynski.
"Poor man's" Steady Eddies: Gregg Zaun, Miguel Olivo.
Young Steady Eddies (you're seeing about what you're going to get): Mike Napoli, Carlos Ruiz, Chris Snyder, John Buck, Yadier Molina, Gerald Laird, Kelly Shoppach.
If the past six or seven years have taught us anything, it's (a.) Bill Belichick is a pretty good football coach; and (b.) that we can't trust the term "catcher prospect." After busts like Toby Hall, Ben Petrick and Danny Ardoin, we know better than to count on immediate fantasy success from a backstop. But this year does have at least a few intriguing possibilities:
Geovany Soto hit .353-26-109, with a .424 OBP, in just 110 Triple-A games in 2007 and then hit .389-3-8 in 18 games after the Cubbies called him up. Reason for big expectations from the 25-year-old? Yes, but not too big; he hadn't hit better than .272 or nine homers in a minor league season prior to that. ... Hard to consider a player who performed like a top-15 catcher by the end of last season a sleeper, but that's exactly what Ronny Paulino is. He's a top-15 player with top-10 upside. Reports from Pittsburgh indicate that he's in great shape and rarin' to wipe away a "down" 2007 season. Considering he was hitting .218 heading into June, his .263-11-55 season wasn't so bad. I say he builds on that second half and has a top-10 fantasy season.
Jarrod Saltalamacchia has a big swing and a good ballpark to swing in ... but where will he play? A little at catcher? DH? First base? Um, Triple-A? Salty has nice upside, but he also has significant downside -- like "goose egg" downside.
Kurt Suzuki has a job to himself in Oakland, but that doesn't mean he's ready to shine offensively. He has decent plate discipline for a young swinger, but the power hasn't arrived yet. Not even gap power (despite seven homers in 213 at-bats last year). His upside is limited this season.
J.R. Towles is an offensive-minded catcher with nice power, a prototype catcher's body, a good home ballpark in Houston and ... aw, who we kidding? As long as Brad Ausmus, who has been given all but a key to the city by now (or has he?), is at least one step from retirement, Towles won't have the job to himself.
Deeper sleepers: Montero, Iannetta, Michael Barrett (yes, that Barrett), Jeff Mathis.
We got next
There are a few young catchers to keep an eye on, you deep leaguers:
Jeff Clement has a power bat, which should have just raised your eyebrows. But he also has Kenji Johjima in front of him. But Clement's about big league ready, so if something happened to Johjima ... The Blue Jays themselves have said Zaun is simply keeping the catcher spot warm for Curtis Thigpen. But Thigpen didn't show us much in either Triple-A or the majors last season (three homers combined). The kid needs another year of seasoning in the minors. More specifically, he needs to put a little meat on his bones. ... Matt Wieters; how 'bout these qualifications: Fifth overall pick by the Orioles, massive bulk, went to Georgia Tech (where he had a 1.062 OPS in '07), switch hitter. Yes, Matt Wieters has upside. He signed too late in 2007 and is still too raw at age 21 to count on for this season, but keep an eye on him come August or so.
The horse is beaten, the nail is head-deep in the wood ... don't overpay for a top catcher, unless you hear crickets and the price is right. So here's what you do. In one-catcher leagues, you circle about 8-10 guys, probably Steady Eddies, who you could handle catching for your squad. Simple mathematics suggest you'll get at least one of those guys at a reasonable rate. In two-catcher leagues, keep those 8-10 guys and add another 8-10 sleeper No. 2 options. These will be cheap guys with more-than-cheap upside. And hey, if they don't pan out, you haven't lost much versus the league average. Just pick another cheapie (and then another?) until you find one that's feasible.
Brendan Roberts is a contributing writer/editor for ESPN.com Fantasy.