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Spring training: Reviewing the top catchers

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In past columns, both Matt Romig and I have addressed draft strategies at the managerial level. We've looked into the importance of research, timing and trends in creating draft charts and best preparing yourself for the draft marathon.

There's one lesson that we neglected to address. Don't draft before the middle of March. I know, the release of the Fantasy Baseball game each February gets my blood flowing, and the draft is a big part of the pageantry of the event. But, you've got to hold off. Trust me. Your heart will thank you for it during the season.

Why's that? Generally speaking, the big stories out of spring training are the injuries. So, when the anchorperson fires out a mention of a team, there's a lump in the throat. Through the first week of spring training, several big names have had to hit the pine. Gary Sheffield, on average the seventh selection in Yahoo! Sports Fantasy Baseball leagues to date, has a torn ligament in his thumb. Jim Thome will miss essentially the rest of spring training, and Barry Bonds now has a back issue. Phil Nevin is being programmed while on the shelf never to dive again. Shock therapy enters Major League Baseball.

OK, not really. But you get the point. Another scare occurred with the Achilles issue of Mark Prior that just gets you thinking. I don't need my team sabotaged before the games count.

Today I'm starting my tour of the positions. Given its relative weakness and the reward for pulling the trigger early, the catcher position stands alone. After the first handful, the quality and contribution dips tremendously.

We'll get the bonus guy out of the way up front. He's not a true signal-caller in the pure sense of the word, but so long as the position drop-down in Fantasy Baseball allows you to select "C" for the position, he makes the list. It's go time.

Craig Wilson, Pittsburgh Pirates

I start with a player who retains catcher eligibility through his 21 appearances at the position in 2003. How huge is that? Now, he holds little value in the world of the outfield and first base where he also holds eligibility. His totals are well, pathetic at those positions. But, at catcher that's another matter.

Wilson's numbers for the second half of 2003 are very intriguing. His batting average was 40 points higher, he hit 10 more home runs and doubled his RBI output from the first half.

Projection for 2004: Wilson has yet to log 400 at bats in a season, so he's still somewhat of a question mark. He's a great value in the 16th round where he's currently being drafted. Wilson hits for a career-high 25 HRs and 70 RBIs this year, hitting a respectable .270.

Now let's get to the guys behind the masks

Mike Piazza, New York Mets

Early draft results demonstrate the power of a loyal fan base. More accurately, managers are gambling that a Piazza resurgence will occur in 2004. He's being drafted 32nd overall on average, ahead of such luminaries as John Smoltz and Jason Giambi. He appeared in only 68 games in 2003 and struck a blow to the hearts of many fantasy owners and Mets faithful.

Projection for 2004: Enjoy it while it lasts. Piazza's move to 1B will potentially end his value-add at the catcher position. Just getting out of the crouch has got to be good for another 25 games. Look for a return to 35 HRs and 110 RBIs. Hitting .300 is a huge benefit out of this position.

Ivan Rodriguez, Detroit Tigers

Pudge parlayed his triumphant playoff performance by going to Detroit. Sure, they're not the Tigers of Johnny Wockenfuss and Champ Summers, but they're also not the 119-game losers of 2003. Fernando Vina, Rondell White and I-Rod join the fray, adding to strong cast members Alex Sanchez, Dmitri Young and budding powerhouse Carlos Pena.

Projection for 2004: Pudge's power numbers plummeted in the second half. In 62 games after the break, Rodriguez hit only three home runs and drove in only 26. Given his injury history, those numbers leave me wary about placing too big a bet on him. But, given the dearth of catchers, the potential of a 30-HR, 80-RBI campaign can only be bested by the big three of Piazza, Lopez and Posada. He's going in the sixth round on average.

Javy Lopez, Baltimore Orioles

Lopez flew under the radar coming into the 2003 campaign. He parlayed his career year into a big fat free-agent signing in Baltimore. Sorry, Geronimo Gil fans. The O's called in the cavalry, bringing in Miguel Tejada and Rafael Palmeiro to team up with Lopez to battle in the big bad AL East.

Projection for 2004: Even in the smaller Camden Yards, there's no possible way for him to match his frightening totals of 2003. He'll dip some but will still produce 30 HRs and 90 RBIs.

Jorge Posada, New York Yankees

What's there to say? He's wearing pinstripes as part of the Bronx Bombers Redux and will be one of many to roll up 100 RBIs this season. Posada's second half was outstanding in 2003. He hit a robust .320 and drove in 49 runs.

Projection for 2004: Forget about the quick catcher decline on this guy. No risk here; another 30-HR, 100-RBI season is in the offing and he'll hit a respectable .280.

Jason Varitek, Boston Red Sox

Varitek put up tremendous numbers in 2003 as part of a potent Boston offense. The Red Sox have only gotten better this offseason and are targeting the AL East crown. His 25 HRs and 85 RBIs in 2003 established career highs, but go inside the numbers. Varitek hit 76 points lower in the second half and his power totals declined.

Projection for 2004: If healthy, he'll drive in 80 runs again given the potency of the Red Sox lineup. His .270 average neither helps nor hurts that category, but after this guy, there's a huge drop-off in quality at the position.

Jason Kendall, Pittsburgh Pirates

Kendall's main assets that put him at the top of the second tier are his career .300 batting average and his speed. Fantasy owners were stung in 2003, when Kendall's stolen base total hit its lowest since 1996.

Projection for 2004: The days of stealing 20 bags are gone for Kendall, and he is reduced to contributing little more than batting average to your fantasy team's success. Power and RBI production never have been a strong suit, except for the 1998 season when the stars aligned. Look for a five-HR, 50-RBI season.

Mike Lieberthal, Philadelphia Phillies

The Phillies are still banking that Lieberthal has another season in him like the magic of 1999. His 31 HRs and 96 RBIs raised eyebrows and made fantasy owners reach early in 2000. He proceeded to play only 108 games in 2000, and still piled on 71 RBIs. Consistency speaks volumes. Don't forget about this guy.

Projection for 2004: A healthy Lieberthal brings 15-20 HRs and 70 RBIs to your squad. He's the seventh catcher off the board on average, selected in the 13th round. That's tremendous value at that point of the draft.

Paul Lo Duca, Los Angeles Dodgers

So, the guy you saw in 2001 probably isn't the real LoDuca. The 25-HR, 90-RBI barrage is leaps and bounds ahead of his performance the last two years. You can pretty much write off the production of all Dodgers players in 2003 – nobody got the job done. OK, Dave Roberts' 40 steals worked magic for some fantasy owners.

Projection for 2004: I've got to think that the Dodgers generate more runs this year by default. You'll be able to find him in the 17th round, where his 10-HR, 60-RBI production doesn't pop off the page. He's a nice safe pick.

A.J. Pierzynski, San Francisco Giants

Pierzynski leaves Minnesota for the Bay Area where he replaces Benito Santiago. He never has been a big power guy, but perhaps he'll find the stroke heading west. There is something in the water, right? Pierzynski brings a career .301 average to the table and established career highs in average and the power numbers in 2003.

Projection for 2004: Pierzynski appears to have figured out major league pitching and will look to pad his power and run generation totals in 2004. The right-field fence at Pac Bell is inviting, and the power alleys are inviting to a guy who averaged 33 doubles per year over the past three seasons. He's a good value pick in the 16th round.

Ramon Hernandez, San Diego Padres

I close out the top ten list with the former Oakland Athletics catcher. He has moved on to San Diego to help rejuvenate the lineup alongside Brian Giles after busting out with a 21-HR, 78-RBI outburst in 2003. It'll be interesting to see what type of production they can get out of battle-worn soldiers Phil Nevin and Ryan Klesko. If they can get 130 games out of Nevin, Hernandez's value rises.

Projection for 2004: Hernandez isn't going to pad the average by legging out any hits. But that's OK. You're looking at 18-20 HR and 60 RBI as a base with a .265 average. The health of his cohorts creates the ceiling for his performance.

Here's a quick look around the majors at some others.

Victor Martinez, Cleveland Indians: Might hit for decent average. Power is a ways off.

Miguel Olivo, Chicago White Sox Still catching up to MLB pitching; has 15-SB potential.

Bengie Molina, Anaheim Angels: Injury prone, but has a shot at 20 HRs, 75 RBIs.

Matthew LeCroy, Minnesota Twins: Good power and average. Might see limited PT.

Toby Hall, Tampa Bay Devil Rays: Improving Rays offense makes him a sleeper pick.

Robby Hammock, Arizona Diamondbacks: Battling injuries, may be a year away.

Ramon Castro, Florida Marlins: Off to a nice spring start. Do the 27 bombs at AAA in 2001 predict his future?

Charles Johnson, Colorado Rockies: Even the great Colorado air can't save his average.

Joe Mauer, Minnesota Twins: The kid gets his shot. He'll hit for average, pop is still a ways off.

The catcher either plays into your strategy early or gets left behind. If you don't pull one of the big five off the board early, you can just as easily wait. The variance isn't enough to take you off of your game plan.

All right, I'm back to scouring the box scores. Next time, we'll review another position and check out the spring action to date.

Less than three weeks until show time!

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