2012 Fantasy Baseball Early Position Rankings: Catcher Profiles

NAP-O-LI! NAP-O-LI! NAP-O-LI!

I released my early 2012 catcher ranks yesterday (emphasis on early), which generated quite a bit of discussion. Thanks for joining in the conversation. You guys gave me a lot to think about. I didn't change any of my ranks for this morning's write-up, but I'll certainly take your arguments into consideration next time around. Feel free to keep the conversation going today.

Before we jump in, a word about the catching position. Several commenters were right to point out that catchers should not be a position you reach for in the draft. You don't want to treat them like many people do closers, but here are three great reasons to wait:

  • Catchers are more likely to get injured.
  • Catchers receive less playing time than any other position. There are certain players that are able to mitigate that somewhat by playing first or DH-ing, and you should take advantage of those situations, but you're still giving away at least 10-15 games a season to other, more stable positions.
  • The catcher pool is deep this year, and there are enough shallow positions that you should focus on those first.

I'll try to provide a short snapshot of positional strategy each time we release these ranks. To the profiles!

1. Carlos Santana

In his first, injury-shortened season, the switch-hitting Carlos Santana hit righties at a .314 clip, while he struggled against lefties, managing just a .146 AVG. In his second, full season, those fortunes were reversed. It has been well-established that switch hitters often have a longer adjustment period in the majors before they are able to hold their own against pitchers of both hands. There's no guarantee that Santana will become a player that hits .300 or better against all pitchers, but it is entirely possible. As it is, batting average remains the only obstacle to Santana claiming the title of the game's best offensive catcher, and there's reason to believe he can turn that around. Owners in leagues that use OBP instead of AVG (Join the revolution!) should treat him as the unquestioned #1, and all others would be wise to jump on board before the secret is out about Santana.

2. Brian McCann

Mr. Consistent had a down year in 2011, at least by his own standards, leading some to question if we were witnessing the Beginning of the End. It's worth noting that the Braves lineup was down as a whole, suppressing McCann's opportunities at the plate. Also contributing to his struggles were a decreased line drive rate of 15.6%, the worst of his career by a count of 3.2. Perhaps part of the problem was an increase in Contact %. Yes, you read that right. More contact isn't always better, especially when it's on pitches out of the zone. Still, I like his chances at bouncing back. If you can't buy into that, consider this: His down year was still good for 4th in RAR among all catchers.

3. Victor Martinez

Martinez is in a fantastic situation. He played enough games at catcher in 2011 to qualify in 2012 (will he do the same going forward?), but he was able to get into 145 games because of time spent at first base and at designated hitter. As a result, you could place his age 32 season up against any of his others, and your only criticism would be a slight dip in power. That is a troubling development, and it's hard to justify a bounceback in power given his age, but it's easy to live with 10-15 home runs when he's producing in every other category (except steals, of course).

4. Matt Wieters

This is an admittedly aggressive ranking, but I'm buying Wieters to finally live up to his infamous PECOTA projection. Some second half stats for you: .259/.336/.504 with 14 HRs and 34 RBIs in 61 games - all while sporting a ridiculously low .253 BABIP. Breakout.

5. Buster Posey

It's hard to nail Posey down because of his injury, the circumstances of which I won't debate in this space. We do know that there's very little doubt he will be ready in March, so don't discount him there. Before he went down, he was showing that he could indeed live up to the bar he set in his rookie season. If he's fully healthy, doesn't suffer any residual effects (e.g. power sapped because his leg isn't at full strength), and is allowed to play a full slate of games, than he will outperform this ranking. It will be very interesting to track his ADP as the 2012 season nears: will owners be receiving a discount because of the uncertainty involved, or will he be drafted alongside Santana?

6. Mike Napoli

I've placed Napoli this "low" not because of his performance, but because of his projected playing time. I believe that his games played threshold is right around 120. If you'd like, you can see a discussion about this in yesterday's post. If you're inclined to believe that Napoli can play more regularly, you would obviously want to bump him up a spot or two (I firmly believe #4 is his ceiling, though). I implore you, however, to read this before you make a statement about how Napoli could be the #1 catcher next year. Of course he could. So could Jarrod Saltalamacchia. Ask yourself: Would you have made that same statement before the playoffs started?

7. Miguel Montero

Montero is as complete a catcher as you'll find (these days, steals don't enter into the equation at all for this position). So why is he at #7? Well, as I stated yesterday, the position is quite deep. One could argue that a viable strategy would be to let your opponents reach for the first few guys on this list, then snag Montero or a similar player at a discount. Sounds good to me. The other reason is durability. If he can give you a full season of at bats, he's in Mike Napoli territory. I'm not sure I'm ready to count on that from him.

8. Alex Avila

Alex Avila had a fantastic 2011. He also carried quite a workload, as this article indicates. That doesn't mean he's broken forever, but will he provide that many appearances again? If he does, will he break down during the crucial last few weeks of the season?

9. Joe Mauer

Word out of Minnesota is that Mauer's back troubles are the real deal, and of course the knee is a problem. If he's completely healthy, Joe Mauer is the best catcher in baseball. He's not completely healthy, and he's not likely to be. Further, Target Field has sapped his power, which really only showed up in 2009, the same year he sustained a 20.4 HR/FB% (Career: 10.2). Unless there's a dramatic improvement to the Twins lineup, he'll not likely produce RBIs or Rs at a high level. Mauer is still valuable, and there may be a bounceback here. Will it be enough of one to justify his price on draft day?

10. Jesus Montero

Since Montero only played 3 games at catcher during his September call-up, his eligibility at the position is somewhat in question. Will ESPN, Yahoo!, et al list him at his natural (non-DH) position, or will he be tagged as a Utility player until he gathers enough games at the position to be eligible? Until we know for sure, I'll continue to list him as a catcher, if only to pre-empt the question about where he would rank.

11. Yadier Molina

Molina started catching in the big leagues at age 22. He's played in three World Series, and perhaps most notably, he has long been associated with his two older brothers, Jose and Bengie. He won't turn 30 until the middle of the 2012 season, and while that's not exactly young, especially for a backstop, he's not nearly as done as you might think. Far better than his "all defense, no bat" reputation, he put together arguably his best offensive season in 2011 while playing in 139 games. His career high ISO of .160 was buoyed somewhat by an inflated HR/FB% (9.1), and his strikeout and walk rates each took a slight hit, but there's no reason to think he can't outperform his career slash of .274/.331/.377. You know what Molina can give you. Just don't reach for him based on his 14 home runs in 2011.

12. Wilson Ramos

Ramos is a streaky hitter - almost every one of his graphs on FanGraphs looks like the one below - but he provides pop, and presumably he will be playing more regularly in 2012. He won't kill you with his average while you're chasing those home runs, either. A sneaky upside pick.

(I'm having trouble inserting the image at this time. Here's a link.)

13. J.P. Arencibia

The popular mantra is that Arencibia has Travis d'Arnaud nipping at his heels, but the Jays are likely to place him in AAA to start the season. (By the way, d'Arnaud tore a ligament in his thumb during the recent Baseball World Cup, putting this issue further to bed.) If both have a good season at their respective levels, Toronto will be faced with a tough decision going into 2013. As far as JPA goes, the batting average (.219, with an OBP of .282) is atrocious, but a line drive percentage of 15.7 will generally support a slightly better BABIP (his was .255). The strikeouts must decrease, and they won't until he stops swinging at balls outside the zone (35.9%, vs. the MLB average 30.6), but he has 30 homer potential and he will drive in runs in that potent Toronto lineup.

14. Nick Hundley

Hundley's 2011 stats, extrapolated out to 162 games: .288/.347/.477/17/57. Before you get too excited, realize that (A) This is obviously a terrible way to do a projection, and (B) He was helped by a pretty lucky .362 BABIP. If you want to get excited again, though, here's another fact: He was owned in just 15.3% of ESPN mixed leagues to end the year. This guy is on nobody's radar. Now he's on yours.

15. Jonathan Lucroy

While his fantasy numbers didn't look great in the latter part of 2011, here's one encouraging stat: In September his BB/K was 0.69, by far his best month and well above his season average of 0.30. A deeper look is in order, but it's possible that he started to figure major league pitching out as the season went along.

16. Geovany Soto

Geovany Soto will do two things for you: hit double digit home runs and strike out a lot. He's not exactly Mark Reynolds, but Soto is as close to a three true outcomes type hitter you'll find in the catcher pool. One other thing he'll do: he'll either hit around .280 or .210. I don't buy into predicting a player's season based on year-to-year fluctuations - Prince Fielder being good every other year, for example - but if that's your game, Soto is due for a solid season at the plate.

17. Salvador Perez

Perez impressed in a small sample size after his August call-up, hitting .331/.361(Where are the walks, buddy?)/.473. The BABIP was high (.362), but was supported by a 29.2 LD rate. That's not sustainable, but it's nice to know that he knows how to hit the ball on a rope. I get the sense that people are more willing to believe in him based on the pedigree of the Kansas City Royals farm system. We want to make sure to evaluate him on an individual basis. Until I see more, I'm reluctant to rank him much higher than this, but he could have some helium with a nice spring.

18. Russell Martin

Martin is a free agent this winter, but he would be wise to re-up with the Yankees (and vice versa). The starting job is his, and he is unlikely to be threatened by the presence of Jesus Montero. He hit well at Yankee Stadium in 2011, though it would be a mistake to characterize him as merely a product of the short right porch, as he also hit 10 dingers on the road. Just about anybody will have value in the Yankee lineup, and Martin is no exception.

19. Devin Mesoraco

Mesoraco's playing time is sort of up in the air at this point. Ramon Hernandez is arbitration-eligible, and it would make sense if the Reds let him walk...except that he's likely to be a Type A free agent, and Cincinnati won't get the compensatory pick unless they offer him arbitration. It's a gamble - will Hernandez actually test the free agency waters, or would he be content staying in familiar surroundings with a fringe contender for guaranteed money? Okay, so let's assume he decides he can get more money on the open market. That means Mesoraco is the unquestioned #1, right? Well, no. Ryan Hanigan, who by all accounts handles the Reds pitching staff well (and by the way, he had a decent season at the dish as well) signed an extension last spring that keeps him in town through 2013. Add in the fact that Mesoraco's service clock hasn't started yet, and uncertain starts to become a pretty weak descriptor for the situation. Still, I've listed him here because if the stars do line up just right, Devin is a middle of the order bat, as he proved in (very brief) flashes in September.

20. Chris Iannetta

Iannetta is best used in a fantasy platoon, as his numbers at home are predictably much better than his numbers on the road, and he's always preferred to hit lefties. If you can afford to use him in this way, you can count on a little bit of power. Of course, if he's moved this offseason to make room for Wilin Rosario (though at this point in the offseason, that seems unlikely), his value takes quite a hit.

JUST MISSED (by request)

Ryan Lavarnway

Lavarnway is not a good defensive catcher, according to scouting reports, and that puts him in good company with platoon mate Jarrod Saltalamacchia (Yips!). Something to watch this winter is what sort of philosophy the new Red Sox GM will take towards backstops: if s/he's looking for a strong signal-caller rather than a masher at the plate, free agency will likely provide an answer. Looking at the situation as it stands today, Lavarnway could see some PAs as a DH if David Ortiz walks, though whether the organization is willing to let a rookie step into that spot remains to be seen. Lavarnway's brief stint in the majors at the end of 2011 was not encouraging, though small sample size is an obvious retort. Still, he'll need to show that he can hit right-handed pitching before he breaks out of platoon purgatory. He's got pop, so if you buy into him winning the job outright, he makes a great sleeper pick.

Other "Just Missed" Catchers: Josh Thole, Kurt Suzuki, John Jaso, Wilin Rosario

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