You're going to draft a catcher or two this year, it's unavoidable. No one wants a summer littered with passed balls. There are pros and cons to the name-brand catchers, but if you don't mind paying a big ticket for your backstop, Joe Mauer and Carlos Santana are names to strongly consider. Who's the top pick in the American League? Andy Behrens and Scott Pianowski have a difference of opinion; let the sparring begin.
Behrens to Open: The great thing about having the Mauer side in this debate is that I can base my argument on things that have actually happened in the very recent past. I don't need to convince anyone that Joe Mauer is going to make a leap in value, delivering the best stats of his career. That burden is entirely on the Santana side. A typical season from Mauer will beat anything that Santana has ever done in the big leagues.
Here's where Mauer finished among all catchers in year-end fantasy rank in each of the past eight seasons:
2012 - 2
2011 - 24 (injured, limited to 82 games)
2010 - 1
2009 - 1
2008 - 1
2007 - 5
2006 - 1
2005 - 3
Here's where he ranked among all catchers in each of the five standard fantasy categories in 2012:
R - 1st (81)
HR - 24th (10)
RBIs - 3rd (85)
SB - 2nd (8)
AVG - 2nd among batting title qualifiers (.319)
Mauer didn't set a career-high in any standard fantasy stat last year, so it's tough to argue that his season wasn't repeatable. And two of the categories where he did establish personal bests last year were games-played (147) and at-bats (545), which should help put to rest lingering worries about his health.
The man has three batting crowns on his resume, plus Mauer has ranked either first or second among all fantasy catchers in five of the past seven seasons. He's also healthy and having a solid spring (4-for-11, 4 R, 5 BB). After his quietly stellar 2012 campaign, it's tough to argue that Mauer presents significantly greater injury risk than Santana. Sure, Carlos is likely to bang out more homers, but that's the only fantasy category where he gets a clear edge — and, realistically, he's likely to lose batting average by 60-80 points.
I can understand why you might prefer Santana's average draft position to Mauer's (81.3 vs. 60.7), but that's not what we're discussing here. In Spin Doctors, we're simply projecting full-season value. To me, Mauer is the easy choice. Santana doesn't belong in his tier.
Pianow to Close: Obviously Mauer is the runaway winner if previous returns are all that matter. That said, I'm not going to put a lot of stock into his salad days from the Metrodome. Let's not forget Mauer has a paltry five homers in 677 Target Field at-bats since the ballpark switch, and the 2013 Twins lineup looks awful on paper. (Quick, gamers, who's playing second, short, center or right for the Twins this year? Ah, if you're in a mixed league, don't hassle it. You probably don't want these guys.)
The Twins outscored the Indians by 34 runs last year, but I'll bet all of my Daily Pint jukebox money on Cleveland flipping that result in 2013. While the Twins did absolutely nothing to improve their offense (it actually got worse with Denard Span and Ben Revere departing), the Indians added reinforcements all over the place (most notably Nick Swisher and Michael Bourn). We're probably going to stream aggressively against Minnesota this summer; that's not the case in Cleveland.
Generally I don't like to bet on the come with a fantasy player, but I'm willing to make an exception with Santana, who's entering his Age 27 season (that's three years younger than Mauer, not to mention 610 fewer catcher games logged). And it's not like we haven't seen dominance from Santana before: if you grade all the 2012 backstops over the last three months of the year, Cleveland's slugger ranks as the AL's best fantasy catcher (.281-42-13-47-1). Yes, that's an arbitrary endpoint cherry picked to push my argument, but remember Santana had an early-season concussion in 2012, not to mention the added pressure of a jumbo-sized contract extension. He looked like a different player to everyone in the second half, that's the point — an emerging star just hitting his stride.
Mauer is probably a lock to win the batting-average battle, although Santana's BB/K rate suggests he has hidden upside in that column. I'm not going to chase Mauer's surprising eight steals last year; he had zero in 2011 and went 1-for-5 in 2010. Those bags could float away at any time. Power, that's obviously a big edge to Santana (if you don't believe me, check with Bill James). And I'm giving Santana the nod in the run-production categories, given the lineup around him.
If you want to win your retroactive fantasy league, stay sentimental with Mauer. But my 2013 money is on the younger option, and yours should be, too. Cleveland Rocks.