Fantasy Keepers: Catchers

With the regular season, and thus fantasy seasons, just about over, it’s time to begin to think about next year (or to begin to think about thinking about next year, at least). With that in mind, I’m going to spend the next couple months rankings the top keepers at each position. We’ll start today with the catchers.

My thoughts on keepers are that you should consider what you expect to get out of them in the next three seasons, but should be mostly concerned with what you think they will do next year. After all, next year is the only year you’re sure to have the player for, and too much can happen to change any plans past three years. With that in mind, here are my top 10 catcher keepers.

1. Victor Martinez, Indians: I was expecting Martinez to develop into a good hitter, just not this soon. He hit .289 in his 49 games in the majors last year, but he only hit one homer. His power developed quickly, though, as he has 23 homers right now to go along with his .290 batting average, 77 runs and 108 RBIs.

Martinez will only be 26 years old next year, which means his next three seasons should be the best of his career. There was some talk when he was in the minor leagues that he might have to move out from behind the plate, but I haven’t heard anything negative about his defense this year, so you should be safe there.

Basically, Martinez was the second-best fantasy catcher this year, and he’s seven years younger than the guy who was the best. He’s also at least four years younger than any of this year’s other top-five fantasy catchers. That makes him the guy you really want to keep at this position.

2. Ivan Rodriguez, Tigers: Rodriguez is never going to have another season like he did in 1999, but he was as good this year as you could have reasonably expected him to be. He’s hitting .337 with 19 homers, seven steals, 72 runs and 85 RBIs. Playing in a pitcher’s park for a team that wasn’t supposed to have much offense around him, that’s pretty good.

The only negative about Rodriguez is that he’ll be 33 years old when next season begins. You have to figure that there’s a pretty good chance he’ll hit the wall and have a bad season sometime in the next three years. However, there’s no reason to expect him not to have another solid season next year, and a look at the ranks of catchers doesn’t provide many names who could make it so that Rodriguez isn’t among the top three fantasy catchers again in 2005.

3. Javy Lopez, Orioles: It says something about the rest of the catchers in baseball that a player who will be 34 at the beginning of next season and who has less than half as many home runs this year as he hit last year is No. 3 on this list.

The only reason I have Lopez this high is that he’s hitting .313 and he set a career high in games played this year. He only has 21 home runs, 80 runs and 82 RBIs after reaching 43, 89 and 109 last year, but he should at least be good for a .300 average and 20 homers again next year.

The problem is that all the players who were close enough to him this year that they could move past him if he slips a little and they improve a little are nearly as old as he is. In fact, due to their ages, I would expect there to be massive changes in the second through sixth spots on this list next year.

4. Jason Kendall, Pirates: The good news is that Kendall has played at least 140 games in each of the five seasons since his 1999 campaign was cut short by injury. The bad news is that he appears to have lost all his home run power. The other good news is that after a two-year absence from the .320-.330 batting average range, he’s been back in that vicinity the last two seasons. The other bad news is that it doesn’t look like he’s ever going to steal 20, and maybe not even 15, bases again.

Kendall’s hitting .320 with 10 steals and 86 runs this year, but he only has three home runs and 51 RBIs. Fortunately, he’s not quite as old as some of the other guys on this list, as he doesn’t turn 31 until late June. For that reason, and because he’s been so durable the last five years, I’d say he has the best chance of all the over-30 players on this list to improve next year.

5. Jorge Posada, Yankees: I think we can all accept that last year was a career season for Posada. He’s hitting .271 with 21 home runs, one steal, 72 runs and 81 RBIs this year, and he’s hit fewer than 23 homers three of the last four years. If you go into next season expecting his home run total to be closer to 30 than 20, you’re likely to be disappointed.

The more disturbing thing about this season for Posada is that he’s going to have his lowest totals of games and RBIs since before he was the full-time catcher. He’s also 33 years old now, and it’s unlikely that he’s going to improve on what he was this year — a solid fantasy starter, but not one of the best at his position.

6. Jason Varitek, Red Sox: You might think Varitek should be higher than this since he’s had two solid seasons in a row, but I’d be careful. First of all, he’ll turn 33 early next year, which makes him a candidate for the same age-related decline in the future as many of the other players on this list.

Also, as a career .270 hitter, he’s unlikely to hit .300 again next year. He’s also not likely to steal nine bases again, since that’s how many he had in the previous five seasons combined. And I don’t see him getting back up to the 25 homers he hit last year, since that was the first time in his career he topped 20. Finally, if he doesn’t re-sign with the Red Sox this off-season, his new surroundings could end up being another thing that lowers his value.

Varitek is a fine fantasy catcher and I’d feel comfortable with him starting for my team, but I think it’s more likely that he’ll decline next year than that he’ll stay the same. And I don’t think there’s any chance he gets better.

7. Michael Barrett, Cubs: Barrett finally delivered on some of the potential he showed so long ago in the minor leagues, as he’s hitting .292 with 16 home runs, a steal, 55 runs and 65 RBIs. And it may seem hard to believe after all those disappointing seasons in Montreal, but Barrett will only be 28 years old next season.

With everything catchers have to do defensively, sometimes it just takes a little longer for them to put things together at the plate. Barrett always showed the ability to be a good hitter, and it might be that he’s now ready to put that ability to use. Since he’s still in his prime, I would expect him to be at least as good next year and possibly even better.

8. Johnny Estrada, Braves: Estrada showed that he’s not just some minor-league toss-in on a salary dump, as he’s hitting .313 with nine homers, 56 runs and 75 RBIs. Now he has to prove he can do it again.

Although this is his first full season in the majors, Estrada’s not a real young guy. He’ll turn 29 years old in late June and he didn’t show much power. If he can’t develop the muscle to knock a few more out of the park, he’ll need to keep that batting average at least above .300. Otherwise, he becomes questionable as somebody you can rely on in your starting lineup.

9. Ramon Hernandez, Padres: Hernandez gets overlooked a lot, but he’s hitting .276 with 18 home runs, a steal, 45 runs and 63 RBIs this year. He’s had at least 14 homers and 60 RBIs four of the last five years, which isn’t bad for a catcher.

The last two years, Hernandez has hit .275 with 39 home runs in 249 games. He turns 29 years old in May, which means he should have at least three more seasons before you really need to worry about age-related decline. He may never be a top-five fantasy catcher, but you should be able to count on him being around the top 10.

10. Joe Mauer, Twins: This ranking will probably end up being either way too high or way too low. Mauer demolished minor-league pitching last year, but nobody was quite sure what to expect from him after skipping Triple-A to go right to the majors.

He answered the questions by putting on a show and hitting .308 with more power than he had shown in the minor leagues. Unfortunately, it was a brief show as injuries limited him to just 35 games. I had to put him on this list because he showed enough with the bat to convince me that he could be a top-three fantasy catcher next year. However, I couldn’t put him higher than No. 10 because he still needs to convince me that his knee will allow him to catch in the major leagues.

If you’re in a position where you’re considering keeping Mauer, you’re pretty much going to have to go with your gut. I’d probably rather have him than any catcher besides Martinez and Rodriguez, but at least the other seven guys ahead of him on this list don’t have a scary injury history for a body part that’s pretty important to catchers.

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