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Johnny Bench's favorite current MLB catcher is...
1:35 | MLB
Johnny Bench's favorite current MLB catcher is...
Wednesday July 6th, 2016

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Only two players on the Cubs have started every game since June 23: Kris Bryant, the major league leader in home runs who’s in the middle of the NL MVP race in his second season, and rookie catcher Willson Contreras, who has quickly turned into a mainstay in the Chicago lineup.

Contreras forced his way to the majors by bullying the pitchers of the Pacific Coast League, slashing .353/.442/.593 with nine homers in 240 plate appearances at Triple A Iowa. He made his major league debut on June 19, getting into the game as a pinch-hitter and promptly homering on the first pitch he saw. He made his first career start the next day, and has been on the bench for just one game since, starting the last 13 games with the Cubs. Contreras is hitting .300/.391/.617 with five homers and 12 RBI in 69 plate appearances.

When the Cubs first promoted Contreras, the brain trust said he’d spend valuable time learning how to catch a major league game from veterans Miguel Montero and David Ross. The second day he was with the Cubs, however, Dexter Fowler suffered a hamstring injury; since Jorge Soler was already on the DL with the same injury, the Cubs didn’t have an obvious answer for one of their three outfield spots, opening the door to regular playing time for Contreras.

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The 24-year-old catcher by trade has made eight of his 15 starts behind the dish. Six more have come in left field, and the final one was at first base while Anthony Rizzo was dealing with back spasms. Contreras never spent an inning of his minor league career in the outfield. Half of his major league starts, however, have come patrolling left. That speaks to the power of his bat, as well as the faith Joe Maddon has in him, but it also highlights a risk factor that could come into play after the All-Star break, when Fowler is likely to return from the DL. Will Contreras still get enough playing time to be a worthwhile fantasy player in typical formats?

There are two spots available to Contreras when Fowler returns—left field and catcher. Soler will play when he returns from the DL. Javier Baez and Tommy La Stella, who’s also on the DL with a hamstring injury, are Maddon favorites who force Kris Bryant into left when they’re on the lineup card. Centerfield will be spoken for every day when the Cubs activate Fowler. David Ross catches every Jon Lester start, and the Cubs have been unwilling to pair Contreras with Jake Arrieta just yet.

The bet here is that he will remain fantasy-relevant, especially given the success he has already had at the plate, making Contreras an interesting sell-high candidate right now. You should only be considering it if you have someone who’s more than just a warm body you can plug in at catcher and if you aren’t in a long-term format. If you satisfy both of those criteria, making Contreras available over the next week or so could be a boon for your team.

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Contreras checks off every box on the sell-high cheat sheet. He has hit everything in sight during his first few weeks in the majors. He has a top prospect profile and the sort of track record in the minors that strongly suggests the experience of the last couple weeks will be the rule, not the exception, in his career. He plays a shallow position where multiple owners in your league might be willing to knowingly overpay for his services, simply because it has been a nightmare to fill all season. Finally, there’s an identifiable risk with respect to penciling him in as your everyday catcher on the horizon.

When we talk about risk associated with sell-high players, we’re typically referring to their production taking a downturn. With Contreras, we’re talking about the uncertainty of his playing time. His foundation of success will make it harder for a rival owner to smell his sell-high candidacy. Even if they understand the risk, the fact that he has played this well after tearing through Triple A will make it one worth taking for an owner who has dealt with the likes of Russell Martin or Salvador Perez or Evan Gattis behind the plate all year. If Contreras’s playing time doesn’t change with Fowler back, you’ll likely regret dealing him, but that’s a minimal risk worth taking considering the return Contreras can command on the trade market.

Buy

Scott Kazmir, SP, Dodgers 

At this point of the season, fantasy owners know well their strengths and weaknesses, and many have at least an injury or two they’re trying to cover. That pushes a lot of them into the pitching market, where Kazmir is an attractive piece. He has plenty of strikeout upside, whiffing 101 batters in 94 2/3 innings this season, he won’t cost you much and there’s reason to believe his numbers will improve over the second half.

Kazmir is among the league-leaders in soft-hit and hard-hit rate, and yet he has a 4.37 ERA and 1.27 WHIP. Those cosmetic numbers simply don’t match up with Kazmir’s batted-ball rates. He’s a reliable backend starter in leagues with at least 12 teams, and few pitchers with his modest fantasy value, in terms of his likely price tag in a trade, carry the same strikeout ability he does.

Michael Brantley, OF, Indians

Yes, Brantley is injured, but there are positive signs, and he still shouldn’t cost you much given his injury-riddled campaign to date. Brantley went through a normal pre-game workout on Tuesday, an indication that he can’t be too far from starting a rehab assignment. He may not be back with the Indians until late July or early August, but that would still give him plenty of time to make an impact on the playoff run in fantasy leagues. Making a move Brantley, or any injured player, has as much to do with the price you pay as it does with his upside. A few weeks ago, I traded Adam Eaton straight up for Brantley in a 14-team league. That’s the sort of move I’d endorse for a player of Brantley’s caliber in his present situation.

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Sell

Chris Archer, SP, Rays 

The best time to try to sell a struggling pitcher is immediately after a good outing. Archer had just such a start last Sunday, tossing 5 2/3 shutout innings while striking out 10 and allowing three hits and three walks. He ran his pitch count up to 115, which prevented him from getting a quality start, but it as one of his best trips to the mound this season. Still, there’s no spinning the fact that he is far from the pitcher he was a season ago. His strikeout ability—Archer has 127 strikeouts, tops in the AL, in 104 innings this year—keeps his fantasy value up despite a 4.50 ERA and 1.43 WHIP, but it can only go so far. You won’t get near the price you paid for Archer on draft day, but you can likely still get 75 or 80 cents on that March dollar, especially if there’s an active market for pitching in your league. Given the way he has performed this year, that wouldn’t be a bad return at all.

Danny Espinosa, 1B/2B/3B/SS, Nationals 

I’m not going to pretend like it will be easy to sell Espinosa. He needs just four more homers to break his previous career high of 21, and he has arrived at this point with less than half the plate appearances it took him to reach that number back in 2011. Everyone in your league will be able to identify the sell-high nature of a deal involving Espinosa. On the other hand, players largely are what their stats say they are at this point of the season, and Espinosa is the No. 42 hitter in standard 5x5 leagues, sandwiched between Charlie Blackmon and Starling Marte. It’s likely that every other owner in your league is weak at one of the spots Espinosa qualifies in the fantasy game, making him a potential fit for every roster. All that helps to make Espinosa saleable, and there’s almost no doubt that we’ve already seen his best this season.

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Closers on non-contenders 

There’s no reason to beat you over the head with this idea that we’ve been pitching for a few weeks now. We saw the first domino on the relief pitcher market fall last week, with the Marlins acquiring Fernando Rodney from the Padres. Rodney owners who were unable to divest themselves of him before the deal lost a closer without getting anything in return. Fantasy owners who own closers on other non-contenders are at that same risk.

Hold

Raisel Iglesias, SP/RP, Reds 

Iglesias has made four appearances as a reliever, throwing 7 1/3 innings. He has allowed a total of one run on three hits in that time, striking out seven while walking three. It’s no secret that the Reds are grooming Iglesias to take over as their closer, and it’s easy to see why. Freed from the necessity of saving bullets for the sixth or seventh inning, Iglesias has increased his average four-seam fastball velocity as a reliever to 95.5 mph, while his sinker checks in at 94.7 mph. Those two pitches, combined with a wipeout slider, could make him a filthy closer. The Reds would be wise to figure out what role he’s going to have for them in the future, and the only way to learn that is to put him into the closer’s role sooner rather than later.

Junior Guerra, SP/RP, Brewers 

Guerra celebrated his first Fourth of July in the majors in style, leading the Brewers into the nation’s capital and shutting out the Nationals for 7 1/3 innings, striking out seven while allowing a total of four baserunners. Guerra moved to 6–1 on the season with the win, and now sports a 2.93 ERA, 1.02 WHIP and 67 strikeouts in 76 2/3 innings. The 31-year-old rookie is the No. 25 starting pitcher in standard 5x5 leagues, and absolutely must be taken seriously for the rest of the season. You can still pluck him off the waiver wire in more than half of all fantasy leagues. Owners in those leagues should make him a priority add right now, while those who already have him shouldn’t assume he’s a sell-high candidate.

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