From a macro perspective, little changes at the catcher position from season to season. Sure, players cycle in and out of the league and up and down the rankings. There are new standard bearers that lead the way behind the dish every couple of years, with the old guard slowly but surely receding from view. Take away the names, though, and the position is the same every season, more or less. There are a handful of early-to-mid round targets, a glut of serviceable options, and an unattractive mess of largely fungible players. In other words, it’s always the worst position in fantasy baseball.
Somehow, the position is in an even worse spot now than it was a year ago. That owes largely to Gary Sanchez and Willson Contreras falling short of expectations last season and Buster Posey’s gradual decline, which is more pronounced in the fantasy game than it is in real life. Sanchez is still plenty attractive because of his power, and J.T. Realmuto is going to be a top-60 pick in most leagues. There are arguments for buying a handful of other players at their average draft position, including Wilson Ramos and Yasmani Grandal (one of which we’ll discuss shortly). Still, this is a position where you’re going to want to bide your time and strike late in your draft nine times out of 10.
Three Burning Questions
1. Is it worth it to take J.T. Realmuto or Gary Sanchez?
I’m going to be perfectly frank and say that I hate both these players at expected draft-day cost. Both are sitting right around pick No. 60, which places them at the end of the fourth round or beginning of the fifth in 14- and 15-team leagues. You could maybe—maybe—talk me into Sanchez because of the 40-homer potential, but even that’s a stretch. I want to focus, however, on Realmuto, who I believe is the most overvalued fantasy player this season.
I hate the way that sounds for two reasons. First, I don’t want to come off like a jerk. Second, he’s a great real-life player and if he isn’t the best all-around catcher in the league, he’s one of the two or three best. Reality doesn’t translate to fantasy perfectly, though, and that’s easiest to see behind the plate. Defense doesn’t matter in the fantasy game, and the notion that positional scarcity makes catchers more valuable is a myth.
Realmuto had a career year in 2018, hitting .277/.340/.484 with 21 homers, 30 doubles and 74 RBI in 531 plate appearances. Over the last three seasons, during which he has been a top-flight fantasy catcher, he’s slashed .286/.338/.454, with his homer totals climbing from 11 to 17 to last year’s 21. Taking position out of the equation, those are solid, but not extraordinary, numbers. The rates should increase a fantasy team’s bottom line, but not by much. The homers are nice, but not eye-popping. Salvador Perez and Yasmani Grandal both had more homers last year, while Yadier Molina, Mike Zunino, Robinson Chirinos and Gary Sanchez (in 150 fewer plate appearances) were all within three. He doesn’t run at all. And while that’s true of all catchers, remember, Realmuto’s ADP forces you to compare him with the player pool at large, not only catchers. His numbers are dwarfed by the hitters being selected in the same draft-day neighborhood.
Consider Tommy Pham, the hitter going right after Realmuto in a typical draft. He had a disastrous first half last year before being traded to the Rays, hitting .248/.331/.399 in 396 plate appearances. Even after being saddled with that sunk cost all year, Pham finished the season with a .275/.367/.464 slash line, 21 homers and 15 steals. The year before, he hit .306/.411/.520 with 23 jacks and 25 swipes.
How about Lorenzo Cain, the next hitter by ADP? He hit .308 last season, posted a .395 OBP, stole 30 bases and scored 90 runs. The next two? Matt Carpenter and Joey Votto. And then Jean Segura. And then Miguel Andujar. And then Corey Seager. Now in his age-28 season, it’s safe to say that this is who Realmuto is, a good player who will contribute meaningfully, though not overwhelmingly, to four fantasy categories. He has more real-life than fantasy value because of the position he plays. That’s not someone worth a top-60 pick.
2. Is there any non-endgame option worth targeting?
I suppose I can’t say no, right? That wouldn’t be much of an answer to this burning question. In fact, if the answer were no, this wouldn’t be a burning question at all, would it? As much as I hate this position in a fantasy context, I do think there’s someone with a top-200 ADP worth targeting.
Injury has been the only barrier between Wilson Ramos and reliable production. In 2016, he slashed .307/.354/.496 with 22 homers, 25 doubles, 80 RBI and a 121 OPS+ in 523 plate appearances. Just as the Nationals were getting ready to go to the postseason that year, Ramos tore his ACL in the final week of September. He didn’t return until late June of the following season and clearly wasn’t the same hitter, hitting .260 with a .290 OBP in 224 plate appearances in 2017. The power, however, came back quickly. Ramos hit 11 homers and slugged .447 that season, fostering plenty of confidence going into 2018. He came all the way back last year, hitting .306/.358/.487 with 15 homers, 22 doubles, 70 RBI and a 130 OPS+ in 416 plate appearances, but spent about a month on the DL with a strained hamstring. Guess how many other catchers in the league have hit a 120 OPS+ or better twice in the last three seasons? That would be zero.
Add it up, and in his last two healthy seasons, Ramos has slashed .307/.356/.492 with seasonal averages of 18.5 homers, 24.5 doubles and 75 RBI. In other words, he’s J.T. Realmuto, only coming off the board at pick No. 138.31 on average, rather than pick No. 61.91. I can get on board with Ramos at ADP. Otherwise, I’ll be one of the last people in my leagues to address the position.
3. OK, hotshot. Who should we be happy with at this position?
In leagues where I don’t get Ramos, I’ll be targeting a group of catchers all with ADPs outside the top 250.
Francisco Mejia, Padres: The former Indians prospect should be the primary starter in San Diego this year, though he’s likely to share time with Austin Hedges. Mejia spent most of last season at the Triple-A level, hitting .293/.338/.471 with 14 homers, 30 doubles and 68 RBI in 468 plate appearances. His prospect status remains intact, and he enters this season with a high rank of 20 and a low of 32 by the three primary prospect rating services. There’s major upside here, especially with the Padres’ offense ascending after the addition of Manny Machado and the eventual promotion of Fernando Tatis Jr.
Yan Gomes, Nationals: He’s the middle-class version of Ramos. So long as he stays healthy, something that has been an issue for him in his career, he’s going to give you decent three-category production. He slugged .449, hit 16 homers and drove in 48 runs in 435 plate appearances last year. The team context is strong, as well, with the Nationals likely to be among the best offenses in the NL.
Welington Castillo, White Sox: Another catcher upon whom we can count for bankable power. Castillo slugged .453 with 19 homers in 2015, .423 with 14 homers in 2016, and .490 with 20 homers in just 365 plate appearances in 2017. He was limited to 181 plate appearances because of injury last year, but still left the yard six times. He should expect 400 plate appearances as the White Sox’ primary catcher.
Mike Zunino, Rays: It won’t be pretty, but Zunino will give you plenty of pop. Over the last three seasons, he has a .462 slugging percentage, 57 homers, 139 RBI and a 107 OPS+ in just more than 1,000 plate appearances.
Robinson Chirinos, Astros: We can pretty much take what we said for Zunino, and copy and paste it here, changing up the particulars. Going back to 2014, Chrinos has a .446 slugging percentage, 67 homers, 197 RBI and a 103 OPS+ in 1,516 trips to the plate. Looking at just recent history, he has a .456 SLG, 35 homers, 103 RBI and 107 OPS+ the last two seasons. He gets a major context boost, as well, joining the mighty Astros after six seasons with the Rangers.
Tucker Barnhart, Reds: Barnhart is more of an option in super deep or two-catcher leagues, but there’s something intriguing here. His glove will keep him in the lineup as much as any catcher in the league. He hit 10 homers, scored 50 runs and drove in 46 last year. He’s always been willing to take a walk, racking up a 10.3% walk rate in 2018. And with the additions the Reds made, joining an already strong offense featuring Joey Votto, Eugenio Suarez and Scooter Gennett, there’s some real potential that his counting numbers will increase across the board.