Drafting catchers in the first four rounds is always dangerous, much like picking a tight end early in fantasy football. Still, Victor Martinez looked like a sure thing last year. Martinez seemed to have the total package — a .300 hitter with 30 homer potential on a supposedly up-and-coming team.
(Cue sound of multiple planes crashing)
Martinez struggled through an elbow injury, coming back to hit 2 homers in February — his only taters of the season. For the most part my stance regarding catchers is it’s best to draft a sleeper in the late rounds and rotate as need be via the waiver wire. Last year I settled on Ryan Doumit in a few leagues, and although he suffered several minor injuries that ranged from freak to nagging, Doumit never really harmed my teams. Even in limited action Doumit provided more in terms of average and power than any other catcher available (Kenji Johjima, anyone? Anyone?).
Still, like how there’s always the guy in your fantasy football draft who’ll take Antonio Gates in the fourth round, there are always guys willing to reach on a top tier catcher. That’s especially true in one of the leagues I play in every year, where my buddy Francis — a hardcore Twins fan — drafts Joe Mauer way too early every season. Since I’m not sure he’s even a top-three fantasy catcher this season, I would advise Francis to think twice this year (but I know he won’t).
These rankings are based on mixed 5×5 leagues:
1. Brian McCann, Braves (2008: .301 AVG, 68 R, 23 HR, 87 RBI, 5 SB)
Many are seduced by the Russell Martin’s steals or Mauer’s average, but McCann is the safest bet this season. McCann was the best hitter I saw in person last year, going 3-for-4 off Tim Lincecum with a double and two singles, each one an absolute laser. McCann’s only 25, he slimmed down from 248 lbs. to 226 lbs. during the offseason and he’s your best shot at getting 20+ homers and an average over .300 from your catcher.
2. Russell Martin, Dodgers (2008: .280 AVG, 87 R, 13 HR, 69 RBI, 18 SB)
The decision between Martin and Mauer for this slot depends entirely on two things: if your league gives Martin 3B-eligibility and whether you think Martin can keep stealing bases. Since Martin’s steals either stayed the same or increased every month last season (finishing with 5 steals in September), his speed doesn’t look to diminish anytime soon. Martin’s power seemed to fade near the end of the year however, as he failed to slug over .400 in any of his last three months after hitting extremely well in the season’s first half. Those wondering whether Manny Ramirez’s free agency situation has anything to do with Martin’s future need not pay attention — Martin’s stats actually went DOWN after Manny donned the Dodger Blue.
3. Joe Mauer, Twins (2008: .328 AVG, 98 R, 9 HR, 85 RBI, 1 SB)
The AL Batting Champion is the only catcher in baseball who seems to be a surefire Hall-of-Famer (even Ivan Rodriguez might have his suspected steroid use held against him), but that doesn’t mean he’ll be the top fantasy catcher of 2009. Not only is Mauer’s lack of power holding him back, his kidney surgery in December is more than a tad worrisome. The Twins insist that although Mauer won’t be ready for Spring Training he’ll be behind the plate on Opening Day, but how strong will Mauer be? Will his body be able to withstand the rigors of baseball’s most demanding position even though he hasn’t worked out in months?
4. Geovany Soto, Cubs (2008: .285 AVG, 66 R, 23 HR, 86 RBI, 0 SB)
Soto had a higher OPS than Derek Lee last season, and he’s entering his second year in the middle of a good lineup in a great hitters’ park. You could argue based on potential he should be ranked higher, but I’m not in the camp of those thinking Soto’s numbers are going to rise just because it’s his second year in the Bigs. Still, no one will complain if his 2009 numbers match he did last year.
5. Victor Martinez, Indians (2008: .278 AVG, 30 R, 2 HR, 35 RBI, 0 SB)
If his elbow’s healthy, his stats make him the Brian McCann of the AL. Martinez will also be getting 1B-eligibility, in part to keep him healthy and also to get Martinez’s surprisingly deft injury replacement from last year, Kelly Shoppack, back behind the plate.
6. Ryan Doumit, Pirates (2008: .318 AVG, 71 R, 15 HR, 69 RBI, 2 SB)
It seems like the Pirates feel Doumit is finally committed to keeping himself in shape. If that means he can finally stay healthy we’re talking about a guy who could be a breakout player. After all, he’s the catcher with the sweetest swing in the Majors other than Mauer. Still, it’s tough to draft an injury-prone guy like this and feel extremely confident.
7. Mike Napoli, Angels (2008: .273 AVG, 39 R, 20 HR, 49 RBI, 7 SB)
Are you sleeping on Napoli? If so, we have two words for you: Designated Hitter. His power averages are nothing short of amazing, but the guy hasn’t been able to stay on the field. However, barring the Angels signing Adam Dunn or Bobby Abreu (doubtbul) or Manny (real doubtful), the Angels are almost sure to DH Napoli a good portion of the time instead of Vlad Guerrero (who still wants to be an everyday right fielder) or Juan Rivera (who’s ceiling as a hitter is much lower than Napoli’s). Napoli could give you a .240 average and five stints on the DL, but if he is the regular DH he’s liable to give you 30 homers and 10-15 steals.
8. Bengie Molina, Giants (2008: .292 AVG, 46 R, 16 HR, 95 RBI, 0 SB)
Anybody who thinks Molina will come close to hitting .290 will be sorely disappointed, but guys who make contact on nearly every at-bat (Molina struck out 38 times and earned 19 walks in 2008) don’t just forget to hit or suffer through many slumps. Still, the slowest player in baseball is 34 (to be fair, I’ve never seen Joba Chamberlain run) and played more games at catcher (136) than any other year in his career, so be wary of injuries even though he’s in a contract year. Of course, if the Giants sign Manny before your fantasy draft, pick up Molina. He’ll be needed for fewer games, and he’s one of the best hitters in baseball with men on base.
9. Chris Iannetta, Rockies (2008: .264 AVG, 50 R, 18 HR, 65 RBI, 0 SB)
Not sure if I’m quite sold on Iannetta, although maybe I should be. After all, the guy had a .895 OPS last year. There’s a couple problems, though. Iannetta doesn’t exactly have the a great lineup surrounding him in Colorado, Coors Field isn’t the launching pad it once was and don’t be surprised if backup Yorvit Torrealba plays at least 35-40 games at catcher.
10. Ramon Hernandez, Reds (2008: .257 AVG, 49 R, 15 HR, 65 RBI, 0 SB)
In his contract year, Hernandez gets to play his home games in Great American Ball Park. Not that Camden Yards is a pitchers’ park to the degree of PETCO or AT&T, but hitting at GAB is like playing baseball on the moon. Why do you think Adam Dunn isn’t getting a sniff as a DH right now? There’s no way he hits 40 homers a year in any AL park. Hernandez has always been a nice buy-low power hitting catcher; don’t be surprised if he hits over 20 homers in 2009.
11. Pablo Sandoval, Giants (2008: .345 AVG, 24 R, 3 HR, 24 RBI, 0 SB)
He’ll have catcher-eligibility in most leagues, along with 3B and 1B. Not a bad gamble at all, especially if the Giants sign Joe Crede (which would let Sandoval split time between 1B and C).
12. Matt Wieters, Orioles (2008 [Minors]: .355 AVG, 89 R, 27 HR, 91 RBI, 2 SB)
Kind of tough to tell you to draft someone who might not be on the team on Opening Day, but Wieters is huge (6’5″, 230) and widely thought of as the best prospect in the game.
13. Kelly Shoppach, Indians (2008: .261 AVG, 67 R, 21 HR, 55 RBI, 0 SB)
Monster numbers after the Break, but you kind of have to pray for an injury to Martinez, Ryan Garko or Travis “Pronk” Hafner.
14. A.J. Pierzynski, White Sox (2008: .281 AVG, 66 R, 13 HR, 60 RBI, 1 SB)
Drafting Pierzynski like drinking Diet Pepsi out of a can. It won’t do anything bad to you, but it isn’t real enjoyable either.
15. John Baker, Marlins (2008: .299 AVG, 32 R, 5 HR, 32 RBI, 0 SB)
Go ahead and believe Jorge Posada will be ready for Opening Day after shoulder surgery. Draft Dioner Navarro even though he only hits singles. I’ll take Baker, the guy who played outstanding ball after getting called up just before the All-Star Break…plus he’s from Alameda! Of course, if the Marlins decide to sign Pudge to the veteran’s minimum or trade for another catcher, all bets are off.