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Travis d'Arnaud: The risk and the reward

When discussing the Mets catcher, it's as much about draft strategy as it is about player profile. But d'Arnaud carries so much upside.

Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

I'm going to tell a little story here. I'm telling it because it makes a point I want to make. The fact that the story also makes me look super smart? That's just a side effect, I promise. (But it really does. I'm so genius-y.) (I'll also try to keep it kinda short, since, you know, baseball blog.)

So back in Week 2 of the NFL season, the SB Nation Fantasy quarterback rankings came out. That week, the Eagles played the Cowboys. At the time, conventional wisdom said a few things. One was that Chip Kelly could make any quarterback good, and that Sam Bradford, off of a productive bit of preseason, would particularly succeed in this offense.

I didn't buy it. Bradford had looked bad in Week 1, had some injury questions heading into the week, was facing what I saw as an underrated Dallas defense. I ranked him 21st among quarterbacks. The other rankers in the group had him much higher, at fourth, seventh, ninth and 12th.

One of the readers was not having it. Called me a nit. Promised me he'd give me fifty bucks if Bradford was outside the top 20 quarterbacks that week. (He was outside the top 20, and I received no money, but whatever.)

But the point Mr. Wrong Commenter Guy missed was the difference between a fantasy ranking and a performance projection. I wasn't saying that I thought Bradford would finish the week 21st in fantasy points among quarterbacks. I thought he had a limited ceiling. Maybe he was more likely to get 12, 14 points than some guys I had ranked above him, but I thought the others were more likely to catch fire. That matters. It's why a straight after-the-fact ranking of production compared to an expert rankings isn't fair. And that difference is especially at play when considering the fantasy ranking here of Travis d'Arnaud.

(Woooooo, baseball. Told you I'd get there.)

I have d'Arnaud as my No. 3 catcher in rankings this year.

  • WHAT THAT MEANS: I would take d'Arnaud third among catchers in fantasy drafts. I would take Buster Posey and Kyle Schwarber before him. I would take the rest after him.
  • WHAT THAT DOES NOT MEAN: I think d'Arnaud will finish the season as the third-best fantasy catcher, or with the third-most fantasy points at the position in points leagues.

If there's one thing we know about d'Arnaud, it's that dude is not a health-stayer. He has played 100-plus games in a season three times: 2009, in A-ball; 2011, in AA; and 2014, mostly in the big leagues. He's played more than 130 zero times. Parts of him break off at inopportune times.

But the other thing we can feel pretty comfortable about with d'Arnaud is that when he does play, he hits the ball. Last year, he had 12 home runs in only 268 plate appearances. That was good for a .218 ISO and an .825 OPS. These weren't surprise numbers, either. This is a guy who was a key part of trades for both Roy Halladay and R.A. Dickey, who was a top-10 prospect in just about every system. Give him a full season of at bats at the same rate as 2015, and he hits 24-ish home runs? The only catcher who hit more than 24 home runs last year was Brian McCann, and his OPS was about 70 points lower.

That's not the point either, though. I don't expect d'Arnaud to hit 24 home runs in 2016, because I don't expect him to get a full season of at bats.

For some, that's reason enough to ding d'Arnaud in the rankings. "You can only count on him to play about 100 games?" the thinking goes, "so you're screwed the rest of the year when he's hurt. He can't be worth a high draft pick."

For a first baseman, an outfielder maybe, I'd agree. The gap in per-PA production between the top handful of first basemen is so close that I'll take the guy whose likely to play 150 games over the guy who'll play 120 even if the 120 guy is more productive when he's there.

But at catcher? Shortstop, second base? The super productive guys, the ones like Troy Tulowitzki or, to a possibly lesser extent, d'Arnaud? Screw it. When they're out there, they're producing more than the rest of the position to such an extent that I'll take their numbers when they're out there. He gets hurt, pick up A.J. Pierzynski or something. The advantage you get by taking the 100-game strong man over the 140-game

It's a strategy I've been toying with the last couple of seasons. Take the (relatively) guaranteed production, even if it's not for a full season, and fill in around it. The math checks out, for me: 80-100 games of d'Arnaud plus 60-some of an injury replacement is still worth more than 130 of, say, Yasmani Grandal. And if d'Arnaud stays healthy? He'll push for No. 1 at the position.

A first baseman who spends half the season on the DL is a half-season of wasted opportunity. A catcher who does it is a half-season of big production. It's the glass half-full vs. the glass half-empty, the optimist vs. the pessimist. Considering the alternatives, you see the bright side in the catcher and the downside in the first baseman. I don't think Travis d'Arnaud finishes the season with the third-most fantasy points at the position, because I expect that injury at some point. But the relative safety of his production combined with a viable waiver-wire backup? I can get behind that. With d'Arnaud, it's all upside, and whatever, you find a catcher when he's out. It's not without risk, but the reward is just so nice.

And speaking of reward, where's my fifty bucks?