Fantasy baseball position primer: Should you splurge early at catcher?

1:28 | MLB
Fantasy Baseball: Top picks for the 2017 season
Wednesday March 8th, 2017

Just a few short years ago, catcher, shortstop and second base comprised the Bermuda Triangle of fantasy baseball. Each position had a handful of standout players, but that was it. The three were the shallowest in the game despite two of them being the most important defensive positions in real life. Teams have always been comfortable trading bats for gloves at these positions, and that trickled down to fantasy—or at least, that once was the case.

We’re in the middle of a golden age of shortstops, with Corey Seager, Carlos Correa, Francisco Lindor, Xander Bogaerts, Trevor Story, Addison Russell and Trea Turner leading the charge of 25-and-under stars at the position. Second base isn’t quite as deep overall, as formidable at the top or as young, but it, too, is in good hands with Jose Altuve, Robinson Cano, Brian Dozier, Daniel Murphy, Dee Gordon, Rougned Odor and Jason Kipnis headlining the position.

But catcher remains, by and large, a fantasy wasteland. Buster Posey and Jonathan Lucroy are still doing their respective things, and there has been a bit of a youth infusion at the position, but it’s clearly the least valuable in fantasy. Just three catchers—Posey, Lucroy and Gary Sanchez—have top-100 consensus rankings on FantasyPros. Willson Contreras joins them in the top 100 in NFBC ADP, but he’s barely on the right side of that divide.

The question for fantasy owners at catcher, yet again, is whether to go early and gain a significant advantage on most of your league at the position, or go late and focus your resources on other spots. As is typically the case, we here at SI.com recommend going late nine times out of 10.

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Take the top two catchers as examples. Posey remains the king of the position: He hit .288/.326/.434 with 14 homers, 80 RBIs and 82 runs last season. The Giants have given him more time at first base with each passing season, which has helped him reach at least 595 plate appearances a year for five straight years. As far as catchers go, he brings a minimal injury risk. And yet Posey’s ADP just doesn’t match up. He’s coming off the board right at the end of the third round of a 12-team league on average, with an ADP of 36.45. That’s about two picks before Daniel Murphy, seven before Nelson Cruz, eight before Johnny Cueto and 14 before J.D. Martinez. All this for a guy who could come up easily short of 20-80-80 marks in homers, RBIs and runs.

Lucroy, meanwhile, was actually fantasy’s top-rated catcher last year, but he was still just 117th in standard 5x5 leagues after slashing .292/.355/.500 with 24 homers, 81 RBIs and 67 runs. Over the last four seasons, Lucroy has hit .286/.351/.457, averaging 19 homers, 82 RBIs and 75 runs per 162 games. There’s little reason to think he’ll fall short of the standard he has set for himself since becoming a fantasy fixture. But do you really want to use a fifth- or sixth-round pick on him, which both his NFBC ADP and FantasyPros ranking suggest will be his price? His ADP is higher than that of Carlos Carrasco, Christian Yelich, Yoenis Cespedes, Jose Abreu and Gregory Polanco. Not only would I take all of those players before Lucroy, but the Rangers' backstop also wouldn’t even be a faint blip on my radar if they were still on the board. Again, Lucroy was the top catcher last year in what was the best season of his career, and he ranked 117th in standard 5x5 leagues.

The flip side to this argument is that there are so few impact catchers that getting one gives you a major edge behind the dish, and the other positions are deep enough to absorb any deficits you’d face by drafting Posey or Lucroy at their ADPs. The logic may be sound, but it doesn’t hold up in practice.

POSITION PRIMERS: 1B | 2B | SS | 3B | OF | SP | RP

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Five Big Questions

1. Where does Gary Sanchez go from here?

What Sanchez did last year is incredible. In just 53 games and 229 plate appearances, Sanchez hit .299/.376/.657 with 20 homers and 42 RBIs. He left the yard in one of every 11 trips to the plate and, adding in his 12 doubles, tallied an extra-base hit in 14% of his plate appearances. The sample size is way off, but for the sake of comparison, Mike Trout had an extra-base hit in 11.2% of his PA last season and has never had a rate higher than 11.9%. He may have been in the league for just two months, but Sanchez earned every bit of that AL Rookie of the Year consideration.

What does Sanchez do for an encore? For starters, his slash line will come down across the board, and likely in significant fashion. In just shy of a full season’s worth of PA at Triple A, he hit .286/.342/.478. Fantasy owners, however, will live with the dip in rates if Sanchez can approach his home-run rate from last year. Whether he can do so is a mystery to even the world’s best scout, and anyone who tells you otherwise is selling a bill of goods. The problem with Sanchez as a fantasy player in 2017 is that his draft-day price tag assumes he matches or even exceeds his rookie year.

Sanchez has a consensus ranking of 66 on FantasyPros and an NFBC ADP of 50.4. No matter how you look at it, you’re likely going to have to use somewhere between a late-fourth to mid-sixth-round pick to nab him. At the high end, he’s being taken ahead of J.D. Martinez, Ryan Braun and Carrasco. On the low end, he’s off the board before Matt Carpenter, Kyle Schwarber and Ian Kinsler. For Sanchez bring a profit at that price, he would have to continue on nearly the same trajectory he set last season. Risk mitigation is a huge determiner of fantasy success, and Sanchez is undeniably a significant gamble.

2. Is Willson Contreras ready for the fantasy spotlight?

Contreras is sort of like Sanchez-lite. Not including the postseason, he logged 283 plate appearances in 76 games, slashing .282/.357/.488 with 12 homers and and 35 RBIs. He got about one-third of his plate appearances as an outfielder last season, a rate that will likely come down with the return of Schwarber and the retirement of David Ross. Contreras should be in the lineup most days, but he will spend a greater share of his time behind the plate than he did last season.

Contreras didn’t have quite the prospect profile Sanchez did and wasn’t a one-man wrecking crew like his Bronx counterpart. Still, it was an impressive rookie year, especially when you consider he was learning a new position on the fly. Given the difference in their ADPs—Contreras is coming off the board about 50 picks later than Sanchez is a typical draft—there’s a good argument that the Cubs' catcher brings better draft-day value to the table. If I have to take one at his ADP, I’m going with Contreras.

The issue for him will be making contact. Contreras's 32.3% hard-hit rate, according to Fangraphs, compared favorably with the top of the catcher position, and his 17.7% soft-hit rate was better than every catcher other than Posey and Yadier Molina. His strikeout rate, however, was up at 23.7%. There is reason to be optimistic that he’ll cut that in his second season. Strikeouts weren’t an issue for him in the minors: Over the last two seasons at Double and Triple A, he had a combined strikeout rate of 12.4%. He also has a discerning eye and a good understanding of the strike zone, evidenced by a 9.2% walk rate in the majors last year and an 11.2% walk rate in his last two minors stops. Add to the equation his presence in a lineup that should surpass 800 runs again this season, and Contreras becomes even more attractive.

3. I took your advice and waited on the position. Who should I target?

If you wait—really wait—on the position, you’re going to miss out on guys like Salvador Perez, Yasmani Grandal and Russell Martin. That’s fine, because the middle tiers of the position likely provide the worst bang for your buck. Once the typical draft gets to about pick No. 200, a few catchers should begin to pique your interest.

The first is Welington Castillo, now in his first year with the Orioles. Six catchers have ranked in the top 12 at the position both of the last two years: Castillo, Posey, Martin, Perez, Brian McCann and Evan Gattis. This season, he’ll play half his games in the hitter’s paradise of Camden Yards and is a good bet to log 120 games behind the plate. Castillo is cheap, his playing time is reliable, and he should easily hit thresholds of 16 homers and 70 RBIs.

The second is Tom Murphy. This isn’t as simple as, “He’ll play half his games at Coors and hit behind Nolan Arenado, Carlos Gonzalez, Trevor Story and Ian Desmond.” Murphy raked at Triple A last year, hitting .327/.361/.647 with 19 homers and 59 RBIs in 322 PA. Compare that with Contreras, who racked up 240 PA in the same Pacific Coast League and slashed .353/.442/.593 with nine homers and 43 RBIs. Murphy made his first appearance on a top-100 prospect list before last season and should beat out Tony Wolters for the starting gig behind the plate.

4. Are there enough at-bats to go around in Houston?

Two of the six catchers who were in the top 12 in 2015 and '16 are now teammates. The Astros traded for McCann early in the off-season, and incumbent Gattis is coming off a season in which he belted 32 homers and posted a .508 slugging percentage. The duo should form a platoon that gives the Astros as much production from behind the plate as any team, but will the pairing curb either's fantasy value to the point that they are too frustrating to own?

The bet here is that the Astros will be the first team in years to place two catchers inside the top 12 at the position. Let’s go back to 2013 for a second. Gattis was a rookie in Atlanta that year and blocked by McCann, who was the Braves' primary catcher and slashed .256/.336/.461 with 20 homers in 402 PA. Gattis ended up playing 39 games at catcher and 48 in leftfield, ultimately hitting .243/.291/.481 with 21 homers in 382 PA.

That exact path to getting both playing time won't be available to the Astros. Gattis spent all of his time either behind the plate or at DH last season, so it’s safe to say that A.J. Hinch doesn’t see him as a viable outfielder. Houston also signed Carlos Beltran to be its primary DH, though he could get time in the outfield. Other than George Springer, no Astros outfielder is locked into an everyday position. Hinch should be able to figure out a way to use the catcher, DH and corner outfield spots (for Beltran) to get McCann and Gattis plenty of at-bats. There’s also the chance that one or both could give Yulieski Gurriel time off at first base.

Given the lack of depth at catcher, McCann and Gattis have track records too impressive to ignore, even if they have to fight one another for playing time.

5. What’s the worst pick I could make at the position?

The reason you should divide your rankings into tiers is because there’s often little practical difference between the first and last players in one. It's even less pronounced at a position like catcher, where all but the very best can seem interchangeable. There’s a reason why just three catchers are ranked inside the top 100 on FantasyPros but seven are ranked between 112 and 166. In terms of how they’ll affect your team’s bottom line, they’re just about the same player.

That’s why you won’t catch me within shouting distance of J.T. Realmuto this year. For my money, Posey and Lucroy are the sure things at catcher, with Sanchez and Contreras as strong upside plays who also bring solid floors to the equation. After those four, the position drops off significantly. Realmuto is widely seen as the No. 5 catcher, and that status is a kiss of death for his fantasy value.

To be fair, Realmuto is a fine player and completely deserves being viewed as the fifth-best offensive catcher in the league after hitting .303/.343/.428 with 11 homers and 48 RBIs in 545 plate appearances. He’s entering his age-26 season, so there’s good reason to believe he will take another step forward this year. But is there really any reason to jump out and draft him when players like Gattis, McCann, Grandal, Perez and Martin are all available (let alone long-range options like Castillo and Murphy or bounce-back candidates like Travis d’Arnaud and Yan Gomes)? Realmuto’s opportunity cost is a player like Rick Porcello or Miguel Sano. For McCann, the opportunity cost dips to the likes of Tim Anderson and Raisel Iglesias. Realmuto essentially serves as a stand-in for the fifth catcher off the board here. Either go early or go late, but do not go in the middle.

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