Catchers have an almost mystical hold over the fantasy community. This is probably related to whatever subliminal nonsense Johnny Bench was transmitting on The Baseball Bunch, but that's difficult to prove.
What's perfectly clear is that we have a fondness for catchers. Five of them are selected within the top 70 picks in a typical Yahoo! league. Russell Martin is the first one off the board (average draft position 39.3), and he's followed by Brian McCann (41.3), Joe Mauer (48.7), Geovany Soto (55.2) and Victor Martinez (63.7). Those guys occupy the top-tier at the position, although Mauer, a two-time batting champ, is the only player among them who's ever put up a truly huge number in any fantasy stat. None of those first tier catchers have hit more than 25 home runs in a single season.
The obvious concern with their ADPs is that there's simply no way five catchers will finish among the top 70 players in the year-end Yahoo! ranks. In 2008, none did. Mauer finished No. 71, thanks to the 98 runs and .328 average, but Brian McCann was the only other backstop to crack the top 100. Martin was No. 118, Pittsburgh's Ryan Doumit was No. 143 and Soto – the National League's Rookie of the Year – finished the season at No. 150. In fact, according to the Yahoo! ranking algorithm, San Francisco outfielder Randy Winn out-produced every catcher in baseball except Mauer in fantasy leagues last year.
There are three possible ways to react to that information. You can either say, "Wow, that's a (profane) algorithm," or "Randy Winn is better than I thought," or "Hmm, maybe I've overstated the impact of the top catchers."
Scarcity enthusiasts will cite the importance of owning elite players at positions that lack depth, and there's undoubtedly an edge to be gained from doing so. But catcher is tricky. It's not like shortstop or third base, where the players in the first tier are also among the most valuable fantasy entities in the game, without regard to position. Hanley Ramirez and David Wright would still be first round picks if they played left field; Martin wouldn't be drafted anywhere near pick No. 39.
Consider his 2008 numbers alongside those of A.J. Pierzynski, a catcher who wasn't universally-owned last season and had a typical year by his standards:
Martin – 87 R, 13 HR, 69 RBI, 18 SB, .280 AVG
Pierzynski – 66 R, 13 HR, 60 RBI, 1 SB, .281 AVG
Martin's advantages in steals and runs were significant, but they certainly weren't overwhelming. Even if he'd repeated his 2007 production – 19 HR, 21 SB, .293 AVG – the numbers wouldn't exactly have been elite. Martin finished No. 80 in the Yahoo! ranks in '07. That's not the ideal way to spend a fourth-round pick in a 12-team mixed league.
Two-catcher formats are different, of course, as are AL- and NL-only setups. In those leagues, there really aren't enough useful catchers to go around. You'll need to avoid the dregs, and that will eventually require an uncomfortable reach.
In those formats there's also more risk associated with Orioles backstop Matt Wieters (ADP 111.4), the top hitting prospect in baseball. You can take him in a public league and feel confident that if he fails – unlikely, considering last year's line and his spring performance to date – you'll find a useful alternative in the free-agent pool. Or if he opens the season at Triple-A – possible, but it would be short-lived – there will be adequate placeholders available to you. But if you invest in the 22-year-old Wieters in an AL-only league, you could find yourself stuck with a month or two of Gregg Zaun, just like the O's.
Still, if you're going to target any prospect this season – at any position, in any format – Wieters is the guy. He hit .355/.454/.600 with 27 home runs across two levels last year, and some of the projections for '09 are just astonishing. In future Catcher Primers, Wieters could have the top tier all to himself.
|Catcher – Tiers|
|Top 5 Catcher – Overall|
|1. Russell Martin – Serviceable in all 5 roto cats, and likely to see more ABs and compile 10+ more SBs than any other C||1. Brian McCann – Close call, but he's a 20-homer threat and a .300 hitter. He's also a year younger than Soto||1. Brian McCann – Trumped Martin in homers, RBIs and BA; eye/hard contact surge points to repeat season||1. Russell Martin – The bags and the insane workload give him the edge|
|2. Brian McCann – 3-year average of .300, 22 HR, 91 RBI, and he's only 25||2. Joe Mauer – One of the game's great hitters, though the power is light||2. Geovany Soto – Nearly identical to McCann in power categories; might exceed 25 homers in second full season||2. Brian McCann – More power against southpaws would be nice, but he's a very safe stud|
|3. Joe Mauer – Career 162-game average: .317, 13 HR, 87 RBI, 94 R, 9 SB||3. Geovany Soto – Entering age-26 season, the ROY is plenty capable of McCann-ian numbers||3. Russell Martin – Stolen bases are position luxury but comparably poor power totals to McCann/Soto says he's No. 3||3. Joe Mauer – Mediocre power and he stopped running last year|
|4. Geovany Soto – He's McCann, but with less of a track record||4. Ryan Doumit – If the switch-hitter stays healthy, he'll hang with these top-tier guys – .318/.357/.501 in '08 was convincing||4. Joe Mauer – If he somehow morphed into RBI Baseball era Kent Hrbek, he would vault to top of list||4. Geovany Soto – Held up his second time around the league; a safe place to park your money|
|5. Victor Martinez – He was an injury mess in '08, but he's looking like his old self in early spring||5. Russell Martin – Modest speed is a plus, as is the fact that he's an everyday player (306 games over two years)||5. Ryan Doumit – Injury concerns has unfairly devalued incredible '08; with 500 at-bats – .310-20-85-80||5. Victor Martinez – They'll move him around and keep the at-bats coming; two early spring homers, good to see|
|Top 5 Catcher – Undervalued|
|Brandon Funston||Andy Behrens||Brad Evans||Scott Pianowski|
|1. Pablo Sandoval – Going a couple rounds later than teammate Molina. Playing every day at 3B, don't be surprised if his numbers are better||1. Ryan Doumit – Top-tier potential at a lower-tier price||1. Pablo Sandoval – Likely lone season with catcher eligibility, .300-plus BA, 10-15 HR, 75 RBI, 70 R on deck for '09||1. Chris Iannetta – A breakthrough year that flew under the radar, and he was actually unlucky at Coors|
|2. Ramon Hernandez – In Cincy, very capable of turning out a .275, 20 HR, 80 RBI line||2. Chris Iannetta – Hit 18 homers in just 333 at-bats in '08, and the home park is friendly||2. Ramon Hernandez – Fresh NL digs and friendly Great American bandbox fences could revive bat to '06 levels||2. Kurt Suzuki – Anyone who posts a .318 average and .821 OPS in Oakland has my attention|
|3. Ryan Doumit – Coming in around pick 100 in Y! ADP, he'll be a steal if he can log 130+ games||3. Matt Wieters – C'mon. He's going at pick No. 111 in Y! leagues, and the vast majority of those are public mixed formats. Check the PECOTA forecast again||3. Mike Napoli – Premiere masher after smacking 20 homers in just 227 at-bats last year; 30-plus homers if he logs 425 at-bats||3. Dionner Navarro – Trimmed down, off a .295 year, young enough to be a post-hype player|
|4. Matt Wieters – Considered overvalued by some, but no reason not to gamble on his potential to impact squads down the stretch like Longoria did last season||4. John Baker – Batting second for Marlins, just ahead of Hanley. Hit .299/.392/.447 in 233 plate appearances in '08||4. Dioner Navarro – Rock solid .295 BA year ago, he's far from a roster headache||4. Yadier Molina – Impressive contact rate means he'll keep most of that pretty average|
|5. Jeff Clement – Falling behind established non-factors despite 25-HR potential and expectations of a steady workload in '09||5. Jeff Clement – Terrific minor league rates and relatively clear path in Seattle||5. Jarrod Saltalamaccia – Sultan of Sodium expected to be primary backstop with Teagarden in minors – .270-12-60-55 upside||5. Gerald Laird – A reasonable second catcher if you need two; he never got much out of Arlington anyway|
|Top 5 Catcher – Overvalued|
|Brandon Funston||Andy Behrens||Brad Evans||Scott Pianowski|
|1. Russell Martin – He's my No. 1 C, but top 40 is too high for any of the current backstops||1. Russell Martin – He's very good, but there's really no need to get him at Pick 39||1. Russell Martin – Additional 15-20 steals simply not worth top-40 investment – Granderson, Victorino and Ortiz boast similar ADPs||1. Matt Wieters – It's not him, it's the crazy expectations that follow him|
|2. Brian McCann – See above||2. Jorge Posada – Could very well be a Hall of Famer, but the shoulder is a worry||2. Matt Wieters – Piazza reincarnated isn't guaranteed a big league ticket out of camp; silly going ahead of proven Napoli, Ianetta and B. Molina||2. Jeff Clement – A lot of people willing to bet on the come; still looks raw to me|
|3. Yadier Molina – Sure, he hit .304 last season, but he's going top 13 at C despite never more than 8 HR, 56 RBI, 39 R or 2 SB||3. Taylor Teagarden – He's fallen behind Saltalamacchia in the position battle in Texas, and should fall behind in ADP||3. Victor Martinez – Severe power downturn due to myriad injuries appalling; people still paying for 20-plus homers which may not reappear||3. Jarrod Saltalamacchia – Seriously, a .364 slugging? I need a show of good faith first|
|4. Dioner Navarro – He's the AL's Yadier Molina||4. Brandon Inge – You like that he won't actually catch, but you can't like the abysmal batting average (.205 in '08)||4. Joe Mauer – Numbers minus homers marvelous but 100-pick difference between him and Sandoval will seem insane come September||4. Ryan Doumit – I love the bat, but it's hard to forget the injury mess that came before 2008|
|5. Jorge Posada – Could be a quick, steep fall – turning 38 this season and coming off shoulder surgery – for current No. 9 C in Y! ADP||5. Jason Varitek – Nice brand-name, but hitting just .238 over the past three years||5. Kurt Suzuki – Doesn't destroy BA, which is laudable, but very mediocre – Salty, Laird, Shoppach, Y. Molina better bargains||5. Jason Varitek – When you bat .201 against right-handers, you shouldn't be on the field|
|Top 5 Catcher – Prospects|
|Brandon Funston||Andy Behrens||Brad Evans||Scott Pianowski|
|1. Matt Wieters – Best catcher prospect since Joe Mauer||1. Matt Wieters – The no-doubt No. 1. It's not easy finding new ways to say that he's a rare talent, worth a reach||1. Matt Wieters – Will be a phenom but with Gregg Zaun on roster, promotion could be delayed until June||1. Matt Wieters – Surprisingly, Baltimore hasn't retired his number yet|
|2. Carlos Santana – Indians top prospect isn't far off, but they'll have to figure out a plan of action for V-Mart and Shoppach||2. Carlos Santana – Tribe prospect could nudge Martinez to first base by 2010||2. Taylor Teagarden – Classic questionable BA, prodigious power backstop; collected 15 homers in just 293 minor/major league at-bats last year||2. Buster Posey – It's a rare athlete that's converted to catcher; 2008 Golden Spikes winner|
|3. Buster Posey – Likely future .300 hitter doesn't have much power upside, but tremendous baseball acumen should have him on fast track to San Francisco||3. Buster Posey – Should eventually deliver solid average with modest power; defense considered MLB-ready||3. Carlos Santana – Supernatural Indians prospect sensational last year at High-A – .329 BA, 20 HR, 115 RBIs||3. Carlos Santana – By early next decade, he'll be everybody's everything|
|4. Max Ramirez – DH or 1B likely in his near future, but plate skills/power are major-league ready||4. Tyler Flowers – Key acquisition in the Javier Vazquez deal posted ridiculous 1.433 OPS in the AFL||4. Buster Posey – Former Seminoles standout slapped NCAA-leading .463 BA in '08; eventual .300-15-75 perennial producer||4. Tyler Flowers – Bat is legit but defense might get him moved around|
|5. Jesus Montero – Advanced hitter, but only 19, so Yanks will have to squeeze as much out of Posada as they can get in the interim||5. Bryan Anderson – At age 21, Cards' prospect put up a .308/.377/.416 line between Double-A and Triple-A||5. J.P. Arencibia – Jays '07 first rounder is Kurt Suzuki with little more pop||5. Taylor Teagarden – Somewhat of an enigma, but he can handle the glove and there's power upside|