Position Primer: Catcher

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More C analysis: Yahoo! C ranks | High Fives: Catchers | Spin Doctors: Buster Posey v. Matt Wieters

First, the bad news: There's a decent chance that your fantasy catcher, whoever he is, will deal with injuries this season.

Every player we've slotted in the top two tiers at this position — all seven guys — made a visit to the disabled list in either 2010 or 2011, with Carlos Santana (knee), Buster Posey (ankle), Joe Mauer (legs) and Miguel Montero (knee) missing significant time. Catcher is the most physically demanding everyday position in the game, a spot where blind collisions are relatively common. Injuries are the rule. When your catcher is sidelined, you're not allowed to complain about your rotten luck. If you want to limit risk at this spot, then you'll either need to invest modestly, or find a player with catcher-eligibility who doesn't actually play the position.

The scarcity zealots argue that elite backstops are worth their draft day price tags, but they'll rarely mention the increased likelihood that your catcher will break. In fact, even in a perfectly healthy season, an early-round player at this position will typically give you only 130-140 games. The reason most of us rated Santana as the top backstop on the board is that he'll likely see time at DH and first base, which could result in 120-150 more plate appearances than the standard-issue catcher (unless of course he hits the DL).

But even if we set the injury issue aside — which we can't, but let's just say — the potential edge that you'll get from a top-of-draft fantasy backstop is, for me, almost never worth the cost. Here's what you're buying if you target Brian McCann at his current Mock Draft Central ADP (51.8) …

McCann, 2011 – 51 R, 24 HR, 71 RBIs, .270 AVG

Please keep in mind that we're talking about an all-star, a player who had a more or less typical season by his standards. McCann tied his personal high in homers last year, and his slash line wasn't too far off his career rates (.270/.351/.466 vs. .286/.358/.486). He basically did what he was supposed to do. If you pass on him in your draft this year, here's what you can find 50 picks later …

Matt Wieters, 2011 – 72 R, 22 HR, 68 RBIs, .262 AVG
Miguel Montero, 2011 – 65 R, 18 HR, 86 RBIs, .282 AVG

… or 60 picks later …

Alex Avila, 2011 – 63 R, 19 HR, 82 RBIs, .295 AVG

… or 120-plus picks later …

Yadier Molina, 2011 – 55 R, 14 HR, 65 RBIs, .305 AVG
Russell Martin, 2011 – 57 R, 18 HR, 65 RBIs, .237 AVG
J.P. Arencibia, 2011 – 47 R, 23 HR, 78 RBIs, .219 AVG
Wilson Ramos, 2011 – 48 R, 15 HR, 52 RBIs, .267 AVG

The numbers produced by the average top-15 fantasy catcher have looked like this in recent years:

2011 – 59.5 R, 18.9 HR, 70.4 RBIs, 3.1 SB, .267 AVG
2010 – 53.9 R, 14.7 HR, 62.2 RBIs, 2.6 SB, .274 AVG
2009 – 61.3 R, 16.8 HR, 70.1 RBIs, 3.3 SB, .280 AVG

So while it's certainly true that McCann deserves a higher reliability grade than any other individual catcher listed above — he's given us six straight useful seasons — the premium being paid for that dependability is ridiculous.

The bottom line with this position is that it rarely delivers a truly elite fantasy commodity. Over the past ten seasons, just two catchers have finished among the overall top-50 in the year-end fantasy ranks, Javy Lopez in 2003 and Mauer in 2009. Last year, only two backstops ranked among the top-100 players (Mike Napoli and Victor Martinez), and one of them is already out for the season — V-Mart tore his ACL in January. If you select a catcher anywhere near the top of your draft (or if you spend big at the auction table), then you're setting yourself up to take a big loss. Buyer beware.

Five catchers under the microscope …

Hey, there's no mention of Jesus Montero here. What gives? Well, Montero isn't yet eligible at catcher in Yahoo! leagues. Remember, qualifying at a position requires 10 appearances or five starts. At the moment, Montero is only available at "Util." But the good news is that the 22-year-old is off to a terrific start this spring (7-for-18, HR, 8 RBIs), and he figures to emerge as the best sort of fantasy backstop: He'll serve as the Mariners' DH most days, but he'll still get enough appearances behind the plate to eventually earn eligibility. Just be patient with Montero while we wait for him to qualify. This is a kid who's performed very well at high levels in the minors, considering his age. For fantasy purposes, we all would have preferred to see him in New York, hitting in a terrific lineup, in a friendly home park. But he figures to be an everyday player in Seattle, so that's something. At his current ADP (165.9), he could be a filthy steal.

Give us a sleeper at this spot, please. The best answer here isn't simply one player, but several. Just take another look at that group of players who are commonly selected 120 picks or more after McCann — and we should add Jesus Montero, Ramon Hernandez (hello, Coors Field), Geovany Soto and Salvador Perez to the list. This position is loaded with guys who can deliver 15-20 homers with respectable run and RBI production. If a top-tier catcher happens to fall well beyond his ADP, great — grab him and hope for the best. But there's no obvious reason to reach at this spot. You can't really avoid the elevated risk of injury here, plus the middle tiers tend to produce solid assets. Ramos has been one of my regular end-of-draft targets thus far — he gave us 15 homers in just 113 games in his age-23 season — but I'd be just as happy to land Molina, Martin, Arencibia, Hernandez … well, you get the idea.

Um … wait. Back up just a minute. Salvador who? Salvador Perez, the 21-year-old KC backstop who recently signed a relatively long extension, with a wide range of financial outcomes. He was tremendous last September for the Royals, hitting .375/.400/.513 over 21 games, with a pair of homers. In 91 minor league games last year across two levels, Perez hit .290/.331/.437 with 10 homers, plus he gunned down 46 percent of the base-runners who challenged him. This is an intriguing player, particularly in AL-only and two-catcher formats.

What's the update on Mauer's recovery from his various ailments? Mauer was limited to just 82 games and 333 plate appearances last season, as he dealt with a collection of illnesses didn't actually seem age-appropriate (viral infections, pneumonia, "bilateral leg weakness"). The good news is that he managed to put on almost 30 pounds this offseason, and he's getting plenty of at-bats this spring. It's reasonable to expect a bounce-back … but it's also reasonable to anticipate another health issue or two. The biggest challenge facing Mauer could, in fact, be his home park; he's only cleared the fence at Target Field once in two seasons. You shouldn't expect him to ever again deliver in the power categories as he did in 2009, when he hit 28 home runs and drove in 96.

Mauer thus remains a batting average-dependent fantasy commodity. Of course we're discussing a guy who owns three of the six batting crowns that have ever been claimed by catchers — Ernie Lombardi and this dude have the other three — so you probably shouldn't bet against an average of .310 or better.

While we're talking about rehabbing catchers, what's the story with Buster Posey? No setbacks regarding his ankle injury, that's the story. All the news to date has been positive. Posey caught two innings last Friday, then another four on Sunday. He says he's just fine, so it appears he's on track for opening day. Whatever you expected from him last season, expect no less in 2012. He's a terrific talent, entering his age-25 season. Posey suffered a wicked injury last year — so it goes at catcher — but the spring reports have been reassuring.