Draft-Day Dilemma: Top backstop

Draft-Day Dilemma: Top backstop
By Mike Harmon
February 17, 2005

Mike Harmon
Yahoo Sports
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Fantasy managers are champing at the bit to get drafting and see their players hit the field. In my series of Draft-Day Dilemmas, I'm focusing on a trio of players in each piece that force managers to pull at their hair and grind their teeth with indecision. This time around, I'm targeting the elite catchers: Victor Martinez, Javy Lopez and Ivan Rodriguez.

These are the three top players behind the plate, flying off of the draft board in rapid succession, just like Carlos Delgado, Jim Thome and David Ortiz in my prior debate. However, unlike the first base position, the difference between these top catchers and the rest of the pack is dramatic.

Many leagues require managers to start two catchers, placing an even great premium on these top performers. To show the value of a top catcher, only 11 catchers reached the minimum number of plate appearances required to qualify for the batting title (3.1 appearances per game). In 2003, only nine reached the mark and only seven in 2002. So, you're looking for production and durability.

Four-year averages

  • Rodriguez: .310 average, 53 extra-base hits, 75 runs, 20 HR, 74 RBIs, 8 SB
  • Lopez: .290 average, 49 extra-base hits, 62 runs, 23 HR, 78 RBIs, .25 SB
  • Martinez (one-year): .283 average, 62 extra-base hits, 77 runs, 23 HR, 108 RBIs, 0 SB

The addition of Magglio Ordonez shores up the middle of the Tigers lineup, giving Rodriguez protection akin to his years in Texas with Rafael Palmeiro and Juan Gonzalez. Lopez will hit sixth behind the newly acquired Sammy Sosa and the aforementioned Palmeiro. Martinez will bat fourth in an up and coming Indians lineup.

Durability remains a concern among this trio, but the availability of the DH role to keep their potent bats in the lineup mitigates that fear somewhat. With that said, I'm starting the catcher run with my selection of Victor Martinez to end the third or start the fourth round. Let me explain:

At 34, Lopez is the most aged veteran of this trio. For years, his seemingly unlimited potential was stifled. He posted huge totals in 1998 (.284, 34 HR, 106 RBIs) and did not revisit those numbers until his monstrous 2003 campaign. From 1999 to 2002, he missed an average of 53 games per season and still managed to post respectable marks of 16 home runs and 63 RBIs per season. Those numbers would have been good for ninth and 11th place among catchers in 2004, respectively. Last season, he appeared in a career-high 150 games in his first season with the Orioles, but saw his HR production fall by 53 percent from his 2003 total. He tied Victor Martinez for the most HR (23) among catchers and Rodriguez for second in RBIs (86).

As previously stated, Lopez will follow Sammy Sosa and Rafael Palmeiro in the batting order. Sosa slammed 35 homers in 2004. It was the 11th time in 12 seasons that he produced at least 35 home runs. He achieved that number in 126 games, but got tossed under the bus after leaving the clubhouse early on the final day of the season. Sosa hit 19 home runs after All-Star festivities in July, but hit just .233 in his final 70 games after hitting a solid .279 in the first half. It marked the third straight year that Sosa's batting eye wandered down the stretch (67 and 43 points lower in '02 and '01, respectively).

Palmeiro's power numbers trailed off in his return to Camden Yards. His HR total was down 40 percent from 2003 with a 22 percent reduction in RBIs. It ended a nine-year run with 30 or more home runs and 100 RBIs.

Lopez still stands above the next tier of catchers, led by Jorge Posada and Jason Varitek, but he's third on this list because of the uncertainty of the hitters directly in front of him.

Like Lopez, the Tigers enter 2005 with questions in their lineup surrounding Ivan Rodriguez. Magglio Ordonez's knee is one of the biggest mysteries of the offseason. Is he ready to go or isn't he? The Tigers clearly thought so, ponying up mega-bucks to bring him in to complement Rodriguez.

If Ordonez is sound, then Rodriguez will get the protection he needs to hit away and should be able to approach the totals he's posted in the past two seasons. If he's lost for any stretch of time, the injury-prone Dmitri Young would slide back into the four-hole. Young missed 166 games over the 2002 and 2004 seasons. Carlos Pena could also fill the clean-up spot, but his large strikeout totals (141 in 2004) would allow opposing hurlers to pitch around Rodriguez.

I also have reservations about Pudge's health. Again, with the DH position available to him, Rodriguez can nurse minor ills with some days off behind the plate and still be of help to fantasy lineups. However, he did miss a total of 176 games from 2000-02.

Those lineup questions, injury concerns and the seemingly limitless potential of Victor Martinez nudge him to the head of this trio.

The young Indians catcher developed into a bona fide Major League power hitter in 2004, perhaps one to two years ahead of schedule. Most prognosticators expected Martinez to be a solid hitter, posting a solid average with a good number of doubles. And he did, hitting at a .283 clip with 38 doubles. However, his 23 home runs and 108 RBIs far exceeded projections. The consensus opinion was that 2005 would be his year.

His progression through the minor leagues suggests that Martinez is just getting started. He posted ridiculous power numbers at Akron back in 2002, when he hit 22 homers with 40 doubles and 85 RBIs alongside his league-leading .336 batting average. His 49-game introduction to the Major Leagues in 2003 demonstrated that he would be able to handle big league pitching (.289 in 159 at-bats), but last year he stepped forward in all aspects of his game.

Martinez led all catchers with 108 RBIs in his first Major League season, finishing the year with 22 more RBIs than both Rodriguez and Lopez. Taken further, Rodriguez and Lopez combined have achieved just three 100-RBI seasons in 23 seasons of work.

Martinez will be sandwiched in the lineup by budding stars Travis Hafner (.311, 28 HR, 109 RBIs) and Ben Broussard (.275, 17 HR, 82 RBIs). Hafner ranked third in the American League (10th overall) with an OBP of .410 in 2004. Broussard racked up strong numbers across the board in the second half (.300, 13 HR, 43 RBI in 68 games). Without a disastrous setback to either player, Martinez will receive ample opportunities to drive in runs and swing away. And if Juan Gonzalez can recapture even some of his past brilliance, then Cleveland will again rank in the top five in terms of run production.

Martinez is my guy.

Let's take a peek inside the mailbag:

In your discussion of first basemen, you did not mention Todd Helton. Where would you draft him, and where does he rank among fantasy first basemen in the game? – Reuben in Aspen

Reuben –
Helton's omission from the first base debate was the subject of many emails I received in response to the piece. The fact of the matter is that Helton stands far ahead of the pack (save Albert Pujols, who vies for the No. 1 spot overall). In the past six seasons, Helton's averaged 37 home runs, 121 RBIs and .344 average. Helton should fly off the board at the end of the first round.

I like the order in which you placed your first basemen, however I am puzzled as to where Paul Konerko disappeared? He gets to work this season with an actual lead-off hitter (Scott Podsednik), a full season with Frank Thomas and the added experience that Aaron Rowand gained last season. Not to mention what Jermaine Dye will do for 40 games. – Brandon from Niagara Falls

Brandon –
It remains to be seen how the "little ball" strategy will play in Chicago this season. After all, Comiskey Park (also known to a few as U.S. Cellular Field) ranked first for home run production in the past three years. Podsednik will certainly add a speed element that Sox fans haven't seen since the days of Rudy Law, but his .313 OBP in 2004 is somewhat disconcerting. Aaron Rowand had a breakout season and gave GM Kenny Williams the peace of mind in letting Ordonez go. Will he follow that up with another big year? And, of course, the injury histories of Dye and Thomas are well-documented.

As for Konerko himself, he did get to play a full season hitting behind Ordonez and Thomas in 2003, and struggled mightily in doing so. His .197 average in the first half of that season and final totals (.234, 18 HR, 65 RBIs) are enough keep him out of the discussion of the elite 1B. "Once bitten, twice shy" in the immortal words of Mott the Hoople's Ian Hunter. In six full seasons in Chicago, he has reached 30 home runs just twice. That's just not worthy of a second-round pick. However, if he's still sitting on your draft board in the ninth round, as he did in the recent experts draft, he's a bargain.

Game on!

Updated on Thursday, Feb 17, 2005 12:14 pm, EST

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