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Thursday, February 7, 2013
Updated: February 20, 3:56 PM ET
2013 Position Preview: Catcher

By Brian Gramling
Special to ESPN.com

The catcher position has historically been the weakest of all the offensive positions in fantasy baseball, and this year is no exception. But that doesn't mean the backstops are useless. Before you decide to wait until the final round (or spend your final auction dollars) to fill out your catcher position, consider that there certainly are some squatters who deserve better than this final-round fate.

Power is the area where most catchers can help a fantasy ballclub, as 24 backstops smacked 10-plus homers, and nine of them hit at least 20 taters. Eighteen catchers compiled at least 50 RBIs, and 11 of those players knocked in 65 or more runs.

However, many of these sluggers were absolute destroyers of team batting averages; 10 of the 24 double-digit-homer catchers hit .233 or worse. And of the 47 catchers with at least 200 plate appearances last year, 19 of those players (40 percent) batted .230 or below. This, of course, makes the five backstops who batted .315 or better (Buster Posey, Carlos Ruiz, Jonathan Lucroy, Joe Mauer and Yadier Molina) that much more valuable than .300 hitters playing "mask-less" positions in the field.

Do you have the need for speed? Try your luck elsewhere, as there were just three catchers who amassed more than five stolen bases in 2012: Yadier Molina (12), Joe Mauer (8) and Russell Martin (6). This lack of steals and typical low lineup placement led to just three catchers reaching 70 runs scored in 2012: Mauer (81), Posey (78) and Carlos Santana (72). Meanwhile, 13 backstops scored 50-plus runs, with eight of those players touching home at least 65 times.

For leagues that start just one catcher, the depth here is sufficient enough that there's no need to panic if you don't get Buster Posey. But for fantasy leagues requiring two starting catchers, there is a significant drop-off in talent at about the No. 16 mark (if not before that). The quality of talent between Nos. 17 and 26 doesn't appear to be all that different, so don't reach for a catcher ranked in that range. If you do not secure one of the top 16, you can always wait until the very end, and even have teammates as your backstop to guarantee playing time every day. Only nine catchers qualified for their league's batting title last year. The position is the most physically demanding, and there are plenty of waiver-wire options because no self-respecting owner starts a catcher at his or her utility slot, not to mention there's a lot of turnover due to the high number of injuries that occur to backstops compared to other positions.

Cream of the Crop

Buster Posey is the creamiest of all crops here, as the gap between him and all other catchers is the widest between the top guy and his peer group in any position this year. Posey is rightfully in the top 20 overall in our rankings, and the second-best catcher, Yadier Molina, is inside the top 60. If Posey is not the top catcher selected in a draft, then something is very, very wrong. He is 26 years old, the reigning National League MVP and will probably log close to 150 games again because he also plays first base, starting 29 games there in 2012. Posey led the majors in hitting (.336 batting average) and drove in 15 more runs than any other catcher in the majors. Posey's 78 runs were topped only by Joe Mauer at his position, and maybe most impressive were Posey's 24 homers (tied for fourth among catchers), only seven of which came at AT&T Park, which was by far the hardest stadium to hit home runs in during the 2012 season, according to our park factors page.

There are four other top-tier fantasy catchers: Yadier Molina, Matt Wieters, Joe Mauer and Carlos Santana. This quartet is all age 30 or younger, and all four have many desirable qualities:

Yadier Molina
Yadier Molina finished second among catchers on the Player Rater in 2012.

Molina is coming off a career-best season in virtually every offensive category, including a head-shaking 12 stolen bases, the most of any catcher. He has caught at least 135 games in each of the past four seasons, and there's no reason to expect him to slow down (except maybe on the bases) in his age-30 season.

Wieters is just 26 and has been healthy enough to log at least 130 games in three straight seasons. Batting in the middle of an improving lineup will only help him get closer to reaching the gaudy potential that made him the fifth overall pick in the 2007 MLB draft. Wieters should really consider batting right-handed all the time, as he finished with a .908 OPS from the right side of the plate, but just .715 OPS as a lefty in 2012.

Although Mauer is entering his 10th major league season, he doesn't turn 30 until April. He stayed fresh with 30 starts at first base last year, and was consistently excellent, posting an on-base percentage of .378 or better in all six months. He also posted an incredible .372 BA/.500 OBP/.514 SLG line in 148 at-bats with runners in scoring position, showing he can produce numbers no matter how bad the other hitters in his lineup are.

Santana experienced a slight power dip in 2012 (from 27 to 18 homers), but exploded for a .283 BA/.368 OBP/.504 SLG in the final 65 games of the season, which could be a sign of a breakout 2013 campaign. His plate discipline (91 BBs, 101 K's) goes well beyond his 26 years and should keep him near the top of this list for the next seven years or so.

The sixth-best catcher is Victor Martinez, who is an interesting case because he did not play at all in 2012 due to a torn ACL. He's now 34 years old and might not qualify at catcher in rigid fantasy leagues that count last year as zero games caught. And some fantasy league commissioners may simply rule that Martinez no longer qualifies as a catcher due to the speculation that he's not likely to ever put on the catcher's gear again because of his surgically repaired knee. He also has hit just nine homers in 436 career at-bats at spacious Comerica Park, making him less of a power option than he has been in the past, with five career 20-homer campaigns.

The Next Best Thing

After Victor Martinez (No. 89 overall) there is a big gap before you hit this next tier, starting with Mike Napoli at No. 156 overall. He is likely the biggest question mark of the top 10 with his hip condition, but will once again be hitting in the middle of a great batting order and playing half his games in a more hitter-friendly stadium, as Fenway Park (1.206) ranked slightly ahead of Rangers Ballpark (1.183) for runs in ESPN's Park Factors for 2012.

Three other potential difference-makers, especially in long-term keeper leagues, at the catcher position include three players who are 24 or younger: Wilin Rosario, Salvador Perez and Jesus Montero.

Rosario sure loved playing at Coors Field in 2012, posting an OPS 236 points higher at home than on the road. This difference was even more prevalent after Aug. 1, as he posted a slash line of .442/.500/.844, with nine homers and 23 RBIs in 23 games in Colorado, but slashed just .204/.233/.337, with 3 homers and 8 RBIs in 27 road games over the season's final two months.

Perez will turn 23 in May and put together an excellent 2012 season despite missing nearly half of it after tearing his meniscus in spring training. Perez posted an .872 OPS with runners on base last season, showing he has 75-RBI potential batting in the fifth spot of a Kansas City Royals lineup that is getting better and better.

Jesus Montero might not be the highest Montero on our list (Miguel Montero is No. 7), but the only thing keeping him below 25 homers is Safeco Field, the second-hardest park to hit long balls in last year. He split time between catcher and designated hitter in 2012, but was much more effective when calling pitches (.841 OPS in 213 ABs as a catcher) as opposed to sitting in the dugout between at-bats (.574 OPS in 301 ABs as a DH). And with Seattle's signing of two DH-types in Kendrys Morales and Raul Ibanez, Montero likely will play more behind the plate in 2013.

Where's The Ceiling?

Jonathan Lucroy had just 316 at-bats last season, but still finished ninth in the 2012 Player Rater with a well-rounded stat line highlighted by a .320 batting average. The 26-year-old wasn't a product of Miller Field either, as his .348 road batting average ranked third in the majors among all players with at least 150 road plate appearances. Only Juan Pierre (.376 road BA) and juiced-up Melky Cabrera (.367 road BA) posted higher averages on the road than Lucroy did.

Ryan Doumit enjoyed a power surge in his first season in the American League, posting career highs in homers (18) and RBIs (75). He didn't really suffer any prolonged slumps, but he could've been more productive in clutch situations, batting just .239 with runners in scoring position and hitting .217 in late-inning pressure situations. At age 31, he could still be on the incline portion of his career bell curve.

J.P. Arencibia and Alex Avila are still young enough at age 27 and 26, respectively, to have their breakout seasons in 2013. Both players are part of potent lineups, but Arencibia provides more power, while Avila is a more natural gap hitter who is much more patient at the plate.

Where's The Basement?

Unfortunately, the "basement" is pretty crowded at this position, as only 17 catchers are listed among the rankings for the top 300 fantasy players. However, most leagues require more than 17 starting catchers, so here are a few names to fill your roster with:

Russell Martin goes from hitter haven Yankee Stadium to spacious PNC Park, but maybe now he'll stop trying to hit the ball out of the park and attempt to hit more doubles again. Martin's batting average has dropped in each of the past five seasons to a puzzling .211 last year, but he's still just 29 years old, and his career numbers versus National League pitching (.270 BA, .363 OBP) are much better than when he faces AL arms (.237 BA, .330 OBP).

John Jaso finished third among all major leaguers with a 1.106 OPS with runners in scoring position last year, driving in 40 runs in just 74 at-bats in this scenario. His move to the Oakland Athletics (4.3 runs per game) from the Seattle Mariners (3.8 runs per game) can only help bolster his RBI totals, especially if he's playing nearly every day as the team's primary catcher.

Yasmani Grandal is a good-looking 24-year-old who posted a .967 OPS in road games last season. But playing half the time at Petco Park will cap his power numbers, even though he does show good plate discipline with nearly as many walks (31) as strikeouts (39) last season. He mostly batted fifth in the San Diego Padres' order last year, which is rare for a National League catcher, but this also shows how bad his other teammates are. There's also that matter of that 50-game suspension he'll have to serve at the beginning of the season.

Steady As He Goes

A.J. Pierzynski
A.J. Pierzynski hit 16 of his 27 homers before the All-Star break.

A.J. Pierzynski has to slow down eventually, but you can't overlook his head-scratching power surge at age 36 last year, when he went from 8 homers to 27 long balls in just 15 more at-bats. However, 18 of those homers were in Chicago; Pierzynski struggled on the road, notching a dreadful .296 on-base percentage. Texas is also a hitter-friendly venue, but the Texas Rangers' lineup looks a lot less potent this season without Josh Hamilton and Mike Napoli.

Other players not to forget about in the later rounds are two seasoned veterans who could both miss time, Carlos Ruiz and Brian McCann. Ruiz will sit out the first 25 games of the season after testing positive for amphetamines, but he was too good last year to ignore. Ruiz batted .368/.443/.600 with RISP and posted a .940 OPS on the road in 2012. The Philadelphia Phillies' lineup should be much more potent this season with a healthier duo of Ryan Howard and Chase Utley, plus the additions of Ben Revere and Michael Young, so there should be more chances for Ruiz to rack up runs and RBIs.

McCann suffered a torn labrum last season and underwent surgery right after the season. Initial thoughts were that he would miss one or two months, but McCann is saying he's ahead of schedule and expects to be in the lineup on Opening Day. If this happens, look for him to climb a few spots in our rankings, because despite last year's sharp drop in batting average down to .230 (.167 BA with RISP), he still smacked 20 homers for the fifth straight season. He'll continue to get plenty of RBI opportunities hitting cleanup for the Atlanta Braves.

Thanks But No Thanks: The Do-Not-Draft List

Kurt Suzuki's days as an everyday player are numbered with 25-year-old future stud Wilson Ramos inevitably taking his starting role. Suzuki was batting .211 with zero homers in 232 at-bats in the first half of 2012, but he salvaged his season with an .836 OPS in September.

Chris Iannetta's decent numbers in the early part of his career could be attributed mostly to Coors Field, where he batted .262 with a .492 slugging percentage. But in every other major league ballpark, he's a .216 hitter with a .376 SLG. And last season he batted .189 (10-for-53) with RISP and slugged .304 at Angel Stadium.

Tyler Flowers is the Chicago White Sox's new starting catcher, and he has 20-homer potential. But that power comes with a price. In 273 major league at-bats, Flowers has batted .205 with an eye-popping 107 strikeouts, or once every 2.6 at-bats.

Talkin' prospects

Mike Zunino turns 22 in March and was the No. 3 overall pick in last June's draft. In 44 minor league games in Class A and Double-A, Zunino posted a .360/.447/.689 slash line. He also smacked 13 homers in 161 at-bats with considerably more RBIs (43) than strikeouts (33).

tk
Travis d'Arnaud racked up 52 RBIs in 67 games at Triple-A in 2012.

Travis d'Arnaud will eventually be the everyday backstop for the New York Mets, but he might start the 2013 season in the minors. He just turned 24, and he tore up Triple-A Las Vegas last year with a .333/.380/.595 slash line in 67 games, belting 16 homers with 52 RBIs. We could see the Mets quickly tiring of starting catcher John Buck, who is coming off a .192/.297/.347 line in Miami. Mr. d'Arnaud could be in the majors by the end of May.

Austin Romine might not be starting behind the dish for the New York Yankees on Opening Day, but he could very well receive the most at-bats of any Yankees backstop this season. His minor league numbers aren't overwhelming (.278/.333/.414) but at age 24, he could develop into a 15-homer, 70-RBI player with regular time in the Bronx.

Rob Brantly is just 23, and he posted an .832 OPS in 100 at-bats with the Miami Marlins last season. He'll be the team's regular backstop in 2013 and should be a serviceable fantasy option for leagues that start two catchers.

Points Versus Roto

Points-based fantasy leagues seek the well-rounded players who do a little (or preferably a lot) in every major category. Besides the obvious elite catchers such as Buster Posey and Yadier Molina, guys like Miguel Montero and Jonathan Lucroy always seem to help in some capacity, both weekly and throughout the season. It helps that both players log half of their games in hitter-friendly parks, as Chase Field and Miller Park ranked sixth and seventh in the majors for runs in the 2012 Park Factors.

For Roto leagues, the goal is to capture players who are strong in the specific categories, but the catcher position doesn't have too many specialists, especially in the stolen base category. But there are some players who can really boost your batting average outside of the top dogs. Carlos Ruiz, A.J. Pierzynski and Yasmin Grandal are all projected to hit above .280 this season. If you're craving sluggers, take a flier on Jarrod Saltalamacchia, J.P Arencibia or Tyler Flowers, who are all capable of 20-homer seasons.

Bottom Line

There are certainly more "important" positions to focus on in the early rounds than catcher, as Buster Posey is the only backstop who needs to be drafted in the first five rounds in a standard-sized league. There are a few other top-notch catchers, but the depth at this position runs about 16 deep before thinning out. This isn't the place to find speedsters, though catchers do possess some forgotten power. There are plenty of squatters under the age of 27 who not only have a good amount of upside, but will also be available in the waning moments of your draft.