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State of the Position - Catcher

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Kicking off our Position Ranking series with a look at the strength and depth of the catcher position

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Welp, we're stumbling out of the gates of our positional rankings with the uninspiring catcher position. What is quickly becoming the equivalent to the kicker in fantasy football, this position is becoming harder and harder to roster each season. The recent history of the position is marked by offensive inconsistency and a rotating group of top performers. Just take a look at this list of qualified catchers and the number of times they have finished in the Top 6 of catchers in wRC+ since 2012:

Player Top 6 finishes Last Season in Top 6
Buster Posey 4 2015
Joe Mauer 2 2013
Yadier Molina 2 2013
Carlos Santana 2 2013
Jonathan Lucroy 2 2014
Brian McCann 2 2015
Miguel Montero 1 2012
A.J. Pierzynski 1 2012
Salvador Perez 1 2014
Yan Gomes 1 2014
Kurt Suzuki 1 2014
Dioner Navarro 1 2014
Francisco Cervelli 1 2015
Stephen Vogt 1 2015
Russell Martin 1 2015
Derek Norris 1 2015

Not many repeat performers, especially in the past two seasons. We can attribute a large part of this change at the top to the evolving evaluation of catchers by MLB decision-makers. There is no doubt the advances in quantifying the value of framing is adjusting how GMs and managers allocate playing time to their backstops. A catcher's offensive ability is more and more becoming of secondary importance to their defensive capabilities and their ability to control the running game. As fantasy owners, whose interests are not directly aligned with managers, we're left with the decision to pay a premium for the select few who have the offensive capabilities we desire or to pay nothing at all and find a player(s) that can perform at league average.

I tend to find myself in the "sit-and-wait" camp for catchers. Buster Posey and Kyle Schwarber will give you an edge at that position, but your opportunity cost is extremely high when it comes to the raw statistical output of other player's being selected in the same stage of the draft. In order to makeup these numbers later in the draft, it requires connecting on one or two mid-round picks; players who tend to have a much wider range of potential outcomes. If your confident in your abilities to find value late in the draft, then jumping the gun on catchers can be profitable. This is why I only consider going early on catcher in leagues, which 1. I feel the competition is weaker and 2. Is a draft and not an auction. The first point is intuitive, but the second is because mid-round auction value is tough to find. Players almost always go for market price or sometimes a slight premium. Value in an auction is more commonly found in the $1 fliers and that is where you'll have to make up ground after ponying up for a catcher. That's a risky proposition and a lot of pressure to put on your drafting skills.

Instead, my preference is to wait on catchers and steal a player or two coming off a down or injury-riddled season. The beauty of a position that is so difficult to play is that a team's starting and backup roles are quite clearly defined and rarely are still pending by spring training. This means when drafting, there's little need to reach for an option with a clearer path to playing time. Catchers ranked in the 7-20 range are expected to carry roughly the same work load, and barring injury, won't lose the job. This is even more reason to sit on the position and grab your sleepers in other positions/bullpen depth before taking a C. Don't worry about filling out your starting roster before filling bench spots. Stock up elsewhere and take high upside plays before a Catcher. They will have more impact and a higher likelihood of hitting then your catcher.

So what are we looking at for 2016 at the position? The elite and obvious play is Buster Posey and I see no reason for that to continue. The biggest wildcard is Kyle Schwarber. He's getting a ton of love for his catcher eligibility, but you're almost guaranteed not to return value at his current Round 3 price tag. His run last post-season was unbelievable and he's one of the most interesting power prospects to come around in a long time, but he's far from a complete hitter and hasn't been forced to adjust to big league pitching. He's going to be a special player, but when that time comes, his eligibility at this position will be long, long gone.

The next tier is intriguing, but the price is still a little too steep for my tastes. Travis d'Arnaud, Russell Martin, Jonathan Lucroy, Brian McCann, and Sal Perez each have their own warts and the difference in raw stats between these players and the others going around them is still too wide to find their price attractive. I might be willing to jump on these guys if they fall 2 or 3 rounds past their current ADP, but full price is just about out of the question for me.

Then we start getting into some of the interestning names. Once 6-7 catchers are off the board, and most teams have checked out of looking for catchers, the fun really starts. This is the group of players that will provide the most value in 2016. Guys like Nick Hundley, Blake Swihart, Yasmani Grandal, Welington Castillo, and Devin Mesoraco are a few of my favorite targets. My advice for fantasy owners wanting to wait this long is to not get attached to one or two targets. It will cause you to reach, when the optimal play is likely to sit and take whatever falls to you late in the draft. I prefer Swihart over J.T. Realmuto, but if in 10 months I see that Realmuto had a better season then Swihart, I wouldn't bat an eyelash. Same goes for Francisco Cervelli, Stephen Vogt, Matt Wieters, and Miguel Montero, so why reach two or three rounds earlier for the buzzy prospect in Swihart? Take what falls to you, and monitor it closely during the season in order to cut bait before a poor performance drags you too far under water.

Catchers will cause you more headaches than triumphs; but where there's disaster, there's opportunity. Let the position's recent inconsistency trap other owners into thinking they need to secure a "sure-thing". Recognize that there is no "sure-thing" at this position, and you'll be able to find 2 or 3 above-replacement level options on the waiver wire as the season goes on.

I'm looking forward to working through our Positional Rankings week and providing you all with a lot of great content. Ray has put together a fantastic staff of fantasy writers and there is information aplenty coming the next 8 weeks. If you have any questions or suggestions for future articles/changes, feel free to e-mail me (bcreagh119@gmail.com) or reach out on Twitter (@BrianCreagh).