There’s no wider gap between real-life and fantasy importance in a position than there is at catcher. Just two catchers, Buster Posey and Kyle Schwarber, are inside the top 100 in the expert consensus rankings at FantasyPros (and one of those guys will get most of his playing time in left field). Second base and shortstop, the next shallowest positions, feature a combined 12 players in the top 100 in average draft position, including potential first rounders Carlos Correa and Jose Altuve. The catcher position will be lucky to see two of its members off the board in the first five rounds of a typical 12-team draft.
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Salvador Perez racked up 3.2 offensive and defensive bWAR in 2015 while making the All-Star Game and winning a Gold Glove for the third straight year for the World Series Champion Royals. He was also the 258th-ranked player in standard 5x5 leagues, trailing the likes of Andre Ethier, Yangervis Solarte and Erick Aybar. Given the positional scarcity at catcher, he justifiably had a much higher ownership rate than those three players last year, but that illustrates how and why fantasy owners can be patient at the catcher position.
That’s just the reality of the position. The physical demands of catching 120-plus times over six months takes a toll on a player’s numbers when he steps into the batter’s box. It’s why Posey has spent more time at first base over the years. It’s why the Nationals quickly moved Bryce Harper, who was a catcher in high school, to the outfield and why the Cubs are doing the same with Schwarber. Their bats are simply to valuable to force them behind the plate.
This year, the most interesting question at catcher concerns its top two players by ADP. Would you rather spend a second-round pick on Posey, the position’s one sure thing, or would you prefer to roll the dice in the fifth round on Schwarber and his immense upside?
Over the last four seasons Posey has played between 147 and 150 games, posting per-season averages of .315/.381/.490, 20 home runs, 90 RBI and 71 runs scored. He has never hit worse than .294, had a lower OBP than 364, or a slugging percentage south of .450. He has ranged from 15 to 24 homers, 72 to 103 RBI and 61 to 78 runs. So long as he’s healthy, he’s going to be comfortably within those ranges, as every system from PECOTA to Steamer to Marcels have projected. He may have the lowest ceiling of any player inside the top 40 in ADP, but his floor is likely as high as any non-first-round selection.
Schwarber, on the other hand, is one of this season’s ultimate unknowns. He burst on the scene last June, nearly a year to the day that he played his last college game at Indiana University. He went 4-for-5 with a triple and two RBI in his first start and never looked back, ultimately slashing .246/.355/.487 with 16 homers and 43 RBI in 273 plate appearances. There’s no doubt that Schwarber has legitimate 30-homer power, making him potentially the only catcher who could reach that threshold. He’ll be in the middle of what could be the best lineup in the majors, providing him with plenty of run-scoring and RBI opportunities. He also struck out in nearly 30% of his plate appearances last year, a tendency that could, and did, significantly curb his production. The good news is he also posted a 12.3% walk rate, and the Cubs appear committed to getting him 500-plus trips to the plate this season.
If you go early at the position, this is the choice you have to make. A late-second or early-third round pick on the reliable Posey, or a fifth- or sixth-round pick to gamble on the allure of Schwarber. Or, of course, you could also go through door No. 3, targeting the palatable options from Jonathan Lucroy and Russell Martin, all the way to Yan Gomes and Yasmani Grandal. That’s the door we here at SI.com will open up most often.
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Breakout: Travis d’Arnaud, New York Mets
We could be looking back at, not forward to, a breakout season from d’Arnaud had he not missed all of May, most of June and all of July with various injuries. He returned to the Mets lineup for good on July 3, and hit .262/.344/.476 with eight homers, 11 doubles and 24 RBI over his final 44 games started, which translates to a 162-game average of 28 homers and 83 RBI. While those numbers may be out of reach absent some major growth, especially since he won’t start all 162 games, it hints at the type of player he can be.
Last season, he had a manageable 18.3% strikeout rate, and a solid 8.6% walk rate that is going to make him slightly more valuable in OBP leagues than he is in formats that use batting average. Still, d’Arnaud’s attractiveness is tied up in his power, and he could legitimately hit 25 home runs this year if he’s able to get, say, 120 starts behind the plate.
Sleeper: Blake Swihart, Boston Red Sox
A prospect at a shallow position who plays for the Red Sox would usually be too popular to be considered a genuine sleeper, but Swihart is going outside the top-200 picks in a typical draft. The Red Sox never planned on him making his debut as early as he did last year, but injuries to Christian Vazquez and Ryan Hanigan left them no choice. He struggled early but hit .303/.353/.452 in 168 plate appearances after the All-Star break, showing legitimate growth in his rookie season. He struck out less frequently, walked more, and raised his line-drive rate nearly two full percentage points in the second half. Those are exactly the strides you want to see for a player, even when you acknowledge the fact that he had an unsustainable .359 BABIP, as well as an ugly .118 isolated slugging percentage.
Vazquez is back healthy and is a far superior defensive catcher, but he doesn’t offer the offensive upside of Swihart. If you miss out on the fat middle of the position that includes Lucroy, Martin, Brian McCann, d’Arnaud and Devin Mesoraco, Swihart makes a great endgame target.
Deep sleeper: Jason Castro, Houston Astros
There’s no getting around the fact that Castro has been a serious disappointment each of the last two seasons. After hitting .276/.350/.485 with 18 homers in 2013, he plummeted to a combined .217/.284/.365 with 25 homers across ’14 and ’15. Still, the foundational power is there, and this Houston lineup could be among the league’s best. Castro shouldn’t have any trouble beating out Max Stassi for the starting gig in Houston given that Stassi couldn’t hit a thing in Triple-A last year, and he’s a below average receiver and pitch framer.
With Jose Altuve, Carlos Correa, George Springer and Carlos Gomez on top of this lineup, there are going to be a lot of RBI opportunities for the bottom half of the order. Castro’s likely presence for 120 starts and his underlying power make him a worthwhile gamble at the catcher position.
Bust: Salvador Perez, Kansas City Royals
This one is easy to see coming. Perez’s offense has stagnated over the last three seasons. He has seen his strikeout rate increase every year since becoming a regular in 2012, and his walk rate fell to an embarrassing 2.4% last year. He’s a high-profile player, thanks to being on the World Series Champions and owning a reputation as one of the best defensive catchers in the game, but all that will serve to do is drive up his draft-day price to a point where selecting him cannot be justified. He’s batting average neutral and a drag on OBP, meaning he has to hit 20-plus homers to deliver any value to his fantasy owners.
On top of all that, he has caught at least 129 games in all of the last three seasons, and that doesn’t include the deep postseason runs the Royals made in 2014 and ’15. Given his ADP, this is the last catcher I’d take on draft day.
Prospect: Gary Sanchez, New York Yankees
The 23-year-old Sanchez had the best year of his professional career in 2015, slashing .274/.330/.485 with 18 homers between Double-A Trenton and Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre. With apologies to the Cubs’ Willson Contreras and Phillies’ Jorge Alfaro, Sanchez looks like the best catcher prospect in baseball, especially at the plate. He’s blocked by Brian McCann at catcher and Alex Rodriguez and DH, but this team could use some added pop after losing Greg Bird to a season-ending shoulder injury.
Sanchez will almost certainly start the year at Triple-A, but we could see him in the Bronx by midsummer. He’ll be fantasy-relevant immediately upon his promotion, and should be on your draft-day radar in keeper leagues.
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