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Tuesday, February 11, 2014
Updated: February 20, 4:14 PM ET
2014 Position Preview: Catcher

By AJ Mass
ESPN.com

In terms of overall value, the catcher position is probably the least important in the big picture. Using last season as an example, you had to go all the way to No. 55 among hitters on the ESPN Player Rater before you got to your first man in a mask, Yadier Molina. In a 10-team league, that's worthy of a sixth-round pick, and probably later than that once you add pitchers to the conversation.

Part of the problem with selecting a catcher early in fantasy drafts is the risk involved. You can't ignore how many of them end up getting hurt over the course of a 162-game season. Even with new rules potentially going into effect this season that would help protect against injuries from home plate collisions, the very nature of the normal, everyday physical demands of this position scream for fantasy owners to treat it with extreme caution.

There's a growing trend for teams to start giving the better catchers extra days off by moving them to other, less strenuous positions, especially in the American League where the designated hitter spot can be used to keep their bats in the lineup. It's why players such as Joe Mauer and Carlos Santana, who still qualify as catchers today, may not still be able to say so one year from now, much like Mike Napoli has "moved on" from being included in the list of available backstops after a year spent almost exclusively at first base.

Given all that, after the elite names such as Buster Posey and Yadier Molina end up going off the board, the most important stat you may want to look at for those players who still are expected to be spending most of their time in full shin guards is probably the number of birthday candles they're putting on their cakes this year. Experience can't trump age when those sore knees and bad backs begin to eat into the at-bat totals for those veterans who simply can't stay in the lineup like they used to.

Cream of the Crop

Buster Posey and Tim Flannery
Buster Posey saw his numbers drop significantly from his 2012 MVP campaign, but he's still an elite option at catcher.

Buster Posey's 2013 was a tale of two halves, with the first half closely resembling his 2012 MVP season and the latter few months seeing a complete loss of power and a 60-point drop in batting average. If there was no reason for the sudden plunge off the cliff, there might be a reason for concern here, but Posey himself will admit that injuries and the physical demands of the catcher position had far more to do with his slump than any decay in raw skills. He's only 27 years old, for goodness' sakes.

To make sure there's no repeat of a post-All-Star Game swoon, Posey has added 10 pounds more bulk during his offseason training and could very well use that, along with well-timed days off or DH outings during road trips to American League venues, to make sure he's still hitting as many home runs in August and September as he is in April and May.

If fantasy baseball factored in defense, few would argue against Molina being at the top of the list. But even given the fact his handling of a pitching staff means nothing to his owners, he still deserves consideration before practically anybody else at his position.

A fourth consecutive season of a better than .300 batting average is pretty much a given, and there's no reason to expect he won't continue to swing at those first pitches, where he's excelled to the tune of a .361 batting average since 2011. A return to the top of the ESPN Player Rater at catcher would shock nobody, and he should be ranked on your draft lists accordingly.

Change of Scenery

Joe Mauer's 2013 season came to a premature end because of a concussion suffered after taking a foul tip off his mask. The need to keep him healthy for the entirety of the 2014 season was the impetus for moving the veteran from behind the plate to first base in the Minnesota Twins' infield. Mauer had already surpassed his 2012 home run output in 100 fewer at-bats at the time of his injury last season, so with a full season away from the grind of catching, there's cause for optimism that he'll be able to put up power numbers in the 15-20 homer range.

The good news for fantasy owners is that Mauer will still qualify at catcher this coming season, so there's no reason not to take advantage of that fact. Josmil Pinto, who hit .342 in what can only be called a very small sample size of late-season at-bats, will compete with veteran Kurt Suzuki to take over behind the plate for the Twins.

In his three-plus seasons with the Cleveland Indians, Carlos Santana has played 314 games at catcher, but that's only 63 percent of his career playing time thus far. Simply put, the team does not want to risk Santana's health by keeping him behind the plate and will not only use him at first base and designated hitter whenever possible, but may even end up starting him at third base this season, a position he's been adding to his repertoire while playing in the Dominican Winter League.

Whether or not that part of the experiment continues into the 2014 regular season remains to be seen, but regardless, a slugging percentage of around .450 and 20-homer potential will find its way into the lineup one way or another. Yan Gomes, who started 39 games over the latter two months of the 2013 season with a .297 batting average, should do well enough as the starter so that Santana will not have to return to full-time catching duties.

Following six consecutive seasons of at least 20 home runs, Brian McCann now takes his tools of ignorance to Yankee Stadium, where his left-handed pull-hitting pop is sure to, at the very least, maintain that streak if not surge past it by midseason. That said, he's hit only .234 against left-handed pitching over the past two seasons, so while McCann is sure to help you in terms of run production, your batting average is likely to suffer a bit from having his bat in your lineup.

Leaving the American League for Miami is not going to do much for Jarrod Saltalamacchia's numbers, as he leaves a lineup with bats such as Dustin Pedroia, David Ortiz and Mike Napoli behind for one that finished last in the National League in scoring last season. Even if his teammates do get on base in front of him, it's hard to drive in a ton of runs when you're striking out close to 30 percent of the time.

Where's The Ceiling?

Jonathan Lucroy
Jonathan Lucroy set career highs in most categories in 2013, which helped him rank third on the Player Rater at the position.

Jonathan Lucroy finished third on the ESPN Player Rater last season, no doubt helped in a big way by his nine stolen bases, a very high total for a backstop. Even without the speed boosting his overall value, a season of 20 homers, 80 RBIs and a .280 batting average would not be unexpected, especially after watching him post better second-half numbers across the board in 2013 than he did in the first half of the season.

Wilin Rosario is not a Coors Field creation by any means, as he actually hit more homers on the road last season than he did in the rarefied air of Denver, and if he continues to put up strong power numbers while hitting in the neighborhood of .290, he could well end up as the No. 1 player at his position. However, he did end up missing the final two weeks of last season with a right calf injury, and in order to prevent further wear and tear, Rosario may end up getting playing time at first base and in the outfield this season. In other words, while he may be a solid catching option in 2014, the writing is already on the wall for a potential positional change sooner rather than later.

You're probably going to continue to get your 20 home runs from Matt Wieters again in 2014, but the batting average hit might be too much to take. One has to wonder why he continues to switch-hit, as for his career, he's lost 37 points on his batting average as a left-handed hitter, including a painfully low .214 last season, and has a far better HR/AB rate from the right side of the plate.

Streaky may be the best word to describe Salvador Perez. He hit just .208 in July, but closed out the season with a .352 batting average in September. Given that his team finished last in the American League in home runs last season, his 13 round-trippers can certainly be seen in a more positive light than the lofty expectations with which he entered last season, but at the end of the day, Perez might be one of those players you ride when hot and sit the rest of the time.

Where's The Basement?

Are you someone who looks at the glass half full? If so, then allow us to tell you that Miguel Montero hit .300 for the first 10 days of the 2013 season. Of course, he then hit just .180 over his next 44 games en route to a .230 overall batting average, his worst season since he was a rookie. A little bit of bounce back is likely, but the signs of age are starting to emerge, as evidenced by his missing a month of last season due to back sprain.

Time may be about to catch up with A.J. Pierzynski, who walked just 11 times in 529 plate appearances last season. The lack of patience at the plate is nothing new, but if his bat speed shows any signs of slipping, his batting average, which has remained fairly consistent throughout his career, may be about to plunge off the cliff. Additionally, in Boston, there's really no other spot in the lineup to stash him when he needs an extra day off.

Carlos Ruiz has given the Phillies more than 400 at-bats only once in his career, so we're not exactly talking about an iron man behind the plate to begin with here. When you factor in foot problems, hamstring issues and the fact he's hit more than 10 home runs only once in eight seasons while playing in a pretty good ballpark for power numbers, you have to wonder why on earth Philadelphia signed him to a new three-year deal. He might not make it.

A quick look at Russell Martin's profile at the plate and you'll see that he's hitting more ground balls and fewer line drives. Given that fact, his on-base percentage has actually remained fairly consistent, no doubt due to Martin's unusual speed at this position. He's not going to be swiping 20 bases in a season again, but if he can avoid a string of 6-3 groundouts driving his batting average down, he could be a late-round sleeper.

Ready to Emerge?

Washington's Wilson Ramos is still developing as a hitter, and if he can avoid reinjuring his knee, he could well be ready for a breakout campaign. He doesn't hit a lot of fly balls, but last season more than 27 percent of them flew over the wall for a home run, including six in a 12-game stretch last September. Of course, he followed that run with a .158 batting average to close out the season, so one has to hope he's able to give you power without changing his swing in a failed quest to keep it going.

Jason Castro saw his home run total jump from six in 2012 to 18 last season, partially due to more playing time, but more likely a result of a more powerful stroke at the plate. Of course, an increase in strikeouts also accompanied the improved home run/fly ball rate, so it's hard to expect him to be able to sustain both his higher slugging percentage and a batting average around .270. One of the two is going to have to give.

At the end of the day, 21 home runs are 21 home runs. Evan Gattis hit them and they all count. However, he touched them all a dozen times by the end of May and then hit just three over the next three months before rediscovering a little pop in September. The .236 batting average against right-handed pitching certainly points toward Gattis being an "all or nothing" kind of hitter. That's someone you draft only if you end up short on pop in your lineup late in drafts, rather than someone you actively seek out to provide it in the first place.

Young Guns

If you're in a dynasty league, it may already be too late to grab the likes of Mike Zunino or Travis d'Arnaud, but in standard leagues, these are the talented youngsters you may want to snatch up in the hopes that 2014 is the season where they get enough playing time to see their potential come to the fore.

Although Devin Mesoraco and Welington Castillo may have been around a little bit longer, they really hadn't been handed the opportunity to play on a regular basis prior to last season. With a little bit of experience now under their belts, both backstops could be ready to take that next step forward and provide you with double-digit production without costing you an arm and a leg.

Points Versus Roto

It's hard to know exactly what you're going to get from Yasmani Grandal after a lost season thanks to a PED suspension followed by a season-ending ACL tear in July. Still, he may well be ready to go in April, and while you may fear a lack of counting stats due to playing time concerns, even with only a few games per week, any hitter with as good an eye as his is bound to help you far more than he hurts you.

Similarly, John Jaso might get you only 350 at-bats on the year, but in points leagues, you're always on the lookout for players who have a high on-base percentage as compared with their batting average. For his career, Jaso is .106 points better in that regard. If he manages to get you 10 homers on top of that, as a second catcher, he could make all the difference in the standings.

Bottom Line

While it's always preferable to draft the top players at any position, if there's one spot in your lineup you can afford to wait a bit, it's at catcher. The future multipositional eligibility of players such as Joe Mauer and Carlos Santana certainly are reasons to grab those veterans before their tiers dry up, but there's no reason to otherwise reach here. Remember, you can get 15 home runs and 65 RBIs in the last round of the draft with a guy such as Alex Avila, so there's no reason to rush into a pick of A.J. Pierzynski in the middle rounds just because there's been a run and you start to panic.