Nothing ever changes at the catcher position. Sure, players cycle in and out of the league and up and down the rankings. There are new standard bearers to lead the position every couple of years, with the old guard slowly but surely receding from view. Take away the names, though, and the position is more or less the same every season. There are a handful of legitimate early-to-mid round targets, a glut of serviceable options, and an unattractive mess of largely fungible players, a few miscast as fantasy starters, simply because there have to be at least 10–14 in every league. In other words, it’s annually the worst position in fantasy baseball.
That song isn’t quite the same this season, and the tune is, against all odds, worse. The position starts off just fine. Gary Sanchez, Buster Posey and Willson Contreras comprise the top tier of catchers. You’ll have to use a prime pick to secure their services, but you’re highly unlikely to be disappointed, regardless of which of the three you attain.
After that, however, the position takes a sharp, deep turn, falling much further to its second tier—with respect to draft-day value—than it typically does. The next set of catchers by average draft position includes Salvador Perez and J.T. Realmuto. They’re fine players in their own right, but not exactly guys people fight over at the draft table. From there, the position drops to Evan Gattis and Yadier Molina, before dropping yet another few rounds into the likes of Wilson Ramos, Mike Zunino and Welington Castillo. After that, it essentially careens into a ditch.
That leaves fantasy baseball owners with a question that isn’t easy to answer. Do you use one of your first six picks on Sanchez, Posey or Contreras, or do you play fantasy baseball version’s of roulette, hoping your number comes up more often than not this season? It’s one that every fantasy owner is going to have to think about more than a bit before sitting down to a draft or auction.
A minority of owners will feel confident in their catcher after draft day, but that doesn’t mean those owners are out of contention before the first pitch of the season is thrown. It does mean, however, that they need to be flexible at the position, and ready to act fast. With the barrier to entry at the position so low, the answer to catcher woes can appear on the waiver wire at a moment’s notice. It also means that owners need to be comfortable with being uncomfortable at catcher. Sometimes all it takes to win at the position is to not lose.
Five Big Questions
1. Which top-tier catcher is the best choice at his expected ADP?
Oftentimes, the answer ends up being the player with the lowest ADP. This is true at any position in any sport. If players share a tier, the skills and expectations that separate them should be no more than marginal. If that’s the case, the player who costs the least is the best value, and value is really what we’re concerned with here.
In that vein, I’m going to say Contreras. But the fact that Contreras is coming off the board about three rounds later than Sanchez, and one round after Posey, isn’t what drives this. It certainly helps, but I think Contreras is a better fantasy player than Posey, and that Sanchez is nowhere near three rounds better than him.
Contreras, who turns 26 in May, is entering his second full season in the majors. He carries a .278/.356/.494 slash line for his career, and last season, he hit .276/.356/.499 with 21 homers, 74 RBIs and five steals in 428 plate appearances. If nothing else, he has proved a consistent, high-level producer across more than 700 trips to the plate. There’s reason to believe, however, that what we saw last season was his floor.
Contreras suffered a hamstring injury in early August that put him on the disabled list for about five weeks. Had he stayed healthy, he would’ve made a run at 30 homers and 90 RBIs. He had a 10.5% walk rate, just 0.2 percentage points behind Posey and three full percentage points better than Sanchez. He’s expected to hit in the middle of the order almost every day for a team that will likely score 800 runs. Everything points to Contreras finding another level, from both real-life and fantasy perspectives. If that happens, he’ll turn more profit on his ADP than either Sanchez or Posey.
2. Sanchez, Posey and Contreras are gone. Now what?
Wondering who’s next in the rankings assumes that the No. 4 catcher is a worthy choice at his ADP. No matter if you judge the No. 4 catcher to be Perez, Realmuto or someone else, that is not a safe assumption. Instead, this is all about the overall plan to attack this position once the only sure things are off the board.
The general idea of settling into a tier doesn’t work at catcher. It works just fine mostly everywhere else, where everyone inside the top three or four tiers is, more often than not, a palatable starter. The player in question may not be perfect; he may not be your first, second or third choice. But you don’t have to squint and strain to find a way for him to provide at least replacement level value. That can be the case at catcher.
At the same time, there are few popular catchers outside the top three. If there are a couple of guys you like not named Sanchez or Posey or Contreras, chances are you’re not going to have much competition for them. There simply aren't big names that attract a crowd behind the plate. That’s why, more than at any other position, I feel comfortable homing in on a few non-elite targets who I believe will return starter’s value, trusting that I can read the draft room to make sure I land one of them. Forget about the No. 4 or No. 5 catcher. That’s the strategy you want if you miss out on the big three at the position.
3. OK, so who are those catchers?
The first one is Welington Castillo, now in his first year with the White Sox. Castillo first became a regular in 2013, logging 428 plate appearances with the Cubs that season and hitting a respectable .274 with a .349 OBP, showing modest power with eight homers and 23 doubles. His rates dipped the next season, but he hit 13 homers in about the same number of plate appearances. In 2015, most of which he spent with the Diamondbacks, he left the yard 19 times and his slugging percentage jumped to .476. Had he simply remained at that level, he’d likely project as a worthy backend fantasy starter.
Castillo enjoyed the best individual season of his career last year, in what turned out to be his only season with the Orioles, hitting .282/.323/.490 with 20 homers and 53 RBIs in 365 plate appearances. He spent two weeks on the DL at the beginning of May with a neck injury and missed one more week in June after taking a foul ball off a very sensitive area, likely costing him about 60 to 70 plate appearances. Now part of the White Sox' impressive rebuild, Castillo will should start about 120 games and provide a veteran presence behind the dish for the team’s young pitching staff. Given what Guaranteed Rate Field can do for righthanded power, Castillo may top last year’s numbers.
Another option is Robinson Chirinos. Entering his age-34 season, it’s unlikely he will find another level this year, but that’s perfectly fine for someone who turns a profit simply by being a top-12 catcher. Chirinos has always hit for solid power and taken his walks: In 1,090 plate appearances starting with the 2014 season, he has 49 homers (one for every 22.2 plate appearances) and an 8.6% walk rate. Those numbers spiked last year, when he belted 17 homers and owned an 11% walk rate in 309 plate appearances.
One thing Chirinos has never done is hold down a starting gig over a full season; his 88 games and 309 trips to the plate last year were both just shy of career highs. No matter how well a catcher plays, and no matter how bad the position is, no one who gives you 300 plate appearances can be counted on as a full-season option. One of the big differences this year, however, is that the Rangers enter spring training counting on Chirinos to give them 100-plus starts for the first time in his career. If he stays healthy, he has a great shot to be a valuable starting fantasy catcher at a throwaway draft-day price.
4. What do we make of Jonathan Lucroy?
In July 2016, Lucroy was one of the most sought-after targets leading up to the trade deadline, and with good reason. He made his second All-Star team in three seasons that year, hitting .292/.355/.500 with 24 homers and 81 RBIs. But a year and a half later, he can’t find a job after struggling in 2017, slashing .265/.345/.371 with just six homers. A midseason trade to Colorado didn’t do much for his power, either; he hit two home runs in 175 plate appearances with the Rockies.
At press time, Lucroy remains without a team for the 2018 season, and he hasn't generated any significant conversation. The Mets, Nationals and Athletics all look like reasonable landing spots that could offer Lucroy a starting gig, and, for the sake of this conversation, we’ll assume that he is indeed some team’s starting catcher in 2018.
Lucroy is almost certainly going to be a bargain for whichever team signs him, and he could be the same in fantasy leagues. His power remained dormant with the Rockies, but he hit .310 with a .429 OBP after the trade, looking much more like the Lucroy who was a top fantasy catcher in 2013, '14 and '16. Neither a career-altering injury nor age-related decline—Lucroy will turn 32 in June—are at play here. We’ll have to see where Lucroy lands before we can properly value him in a fantasy context, but a rebound campaign is well within reason.
5. Is there any hope of in-season reinforcements at the position?
If you don’t end up with Sanchez, Posey or Conteras, there’s a chance your catcher position will be a disaster. I could confidently grab Castillo or Chirinos and end up in that same boat. Someone in your league will be scouring the wavier wire for a catcher replacement during the season; it might be you. If it is, you’ll need to have some names already in the back of your head, and the most exciting one is a big-time prospect set to join what could once again be one of the best teams in the league.
Francisco Mejia is expected to land with the Indians for good during the 2018 season. He spent most of the year at Double A Akron last year, hitting .297/.346/.490 with 14 homers and 52 RBIs in 383 plate appearances after splitting 2015 between two levels of A-ball, slashing .342/.382/.514 with 11 round-trippers and 29 doubles.
Entering his age-22 season, Mejia was considered a top-40 prospect by all three of the major prospect rating services last year. He’ll be higher this season and will likely be the No. 1 catcher prospect in all of baseball. With just Roberto Perez and Yan Gomes in front of him, he could be the Indians' regular catcher sooner rather than later. In fact, there’s a chance he could break spring training with the club. If that’s the case, you’ll need to place him on your draft board. If it isn’t, he’ll likely be the highest-profile catcher promoted from the minors this season.