Fantasy: Catching Fire

Usually, the catcher spot is the hardest position to fill on your fantasy roster. There just aren’t that many catchers in the major leagues who are good enough hitters to be exciting fantasy players.

This season, however, it seems like everywhere you turn there’s a catcher who’s hitting the snot out of the ball with regularity. It’s very early, however, and many of these hot starts are definitely not going to last. So, I’m going to take a look at the 18 — yes, 18 — catchers who have an .800 OPS or better in more than 20 at-bats this season.

1. Javy Lopez, Orioles: With 11 games under his belt, Lopez is hitting .455/.538/.750 with three home runs, eight runs and nine RBIs in 44 at-bats. He was obviously a great hitter last season (.328 average, 43 home runs, 109 RBIs), but I’ve said several times that I didn’t think he could even come close to matching those numbers.

Well, the longer he keeps this going, the more difficult it’s getting for me to stick to my guns on this issue. The most impressive stat, to me, is that Lopez already has eight walks. If he makes it halfway to his current projection for walks, he would draw 59 free passes, which would equal his walk total from the previous two seasons combined.

It’s getting pretty close to the point where you have to just assume Lopez is going to have another great season. I still don’t think he’ll quite match last year’s numbers, but maybe he can hit .315 with 40 homers and 110 RBIs. It certainly doesn’t hurt that the designated hitter position should allow him to play a career high in games if he can stay healthy.

2. Henry Blanco, Twins: Blanco has played 10 games and he’s hitting .344/.475/.750 with three home runs, nine runs and 10 RBIs in 32 at-bats. My theory here is that the baseball gods realized that they were going a little overboard with all the injuries to the Twins and decided to make up for it by giving Blanco the ability to hit like Barry Bonds for awhile.

Seriously, Blanco is obviously not even close to this good. He is 32 years old and coming into this season he was a .219/.295/.353 hitter. Even worse for his fantasy value is that he’s going to lose his starting spot when Joe Mauer gets healthy whether he’s still hitting like this or not.

If you want to gamble that the baseball gods will continue to let Blanco hit like this for the two weeks or so until Mauer returns, that’s your business. I sure wouldn’t, though.

3. Paul Lo Duca, Dodgers: Lo Duca has played 11 games and is hitting .512/.542/.605 with no homers, four runs and six RBIs in 43 at-bats. Lo Duca came out of nowhere in 2001 to have a great season (.320 average, 25 home runs, 90 RBIs). He declined precipitously in 2002 and declined a little more last year.

Lo Duca clearly isn’t going to hit above .500, or even .400 and probably not even .300, this season and he hasn’t shown any great improvement in his power or patience. He should hit somewhere in the .275-.290 range, but he won’t hit more than 10 or so home runs and he won’t drive in that many runs.

4. Jorge Posada, Yankees: Appearing in all 13 games, Posada has hit .256/.375/.692 with five home runs, eight runs and 12 RBIs in 39 at-bats. Posada doesn’t hit for a great average, but he has very nice power and patience.

I didn’t think he’d be able to match last year’s number, but it’s possible thath he’s just a late-blooming catcher who’s still in his prime even though he’s 32 years old. He clearly won’t get the 62 homers he’s on pace for, but there’s no reason he can’t set a career high with 31 homers (or a few more).

5. Michael Barrett, Cubs: Barrett has played 10 games and he’s hitting .333/.375/.667 with three homers, seven runs and nin RBIs in 36 at-bats. Barrett was once a pretty good offensive prospect, as he hit .320 with 19 home runs and 87 RBIs in 120 games at Class AA in 1998. The problem is that he didn’t have much patience then, and he doesn’t have much patience now.

Since he can’t work the strike zone all that consistently, Barrett’s batting average has been all over the place in the major leagues. He hit just .208 last year, but he hit .263 the season before that. His hot start this year is encouraging, because he does have the potential to not be terrible offensively for a catcher.

He’s not going to be somebody you’re likely to want to start every day, but if he can hit .265-.270 with 12-15 home runs, he’d make a very solid backup catcher.

6. Jason Kendall, Pirates: In 11 games, Kendall has hit .385/.479/.462 with no home runs, a steal, nine runs and eight RBIs in 39 at-bats. Kendall’s hot start isn’t a good sign for anybody hoping his power would start to come back, but it is very nice if you were simply hoping that last year wasn’t a fluke after a pretty terrible two-year stretch in 2001 and 2002.

I don’t know if Kendall was still recovering from his injury those two year or if he had something else going on, but they’re completely out of line with the rest of his career. Kendall hit .274 in those two seasons and he’s hit .317 the rest of the time. He hit .325 last year and he’s done nothing so far this season to suggest that he can’t hit at least .310-.315.

If he does eventually show some power, that’s a bonus, but that kind of average is nice to get from a catcher all by itself.

7. Kevin Cash, Blue Jays: Cash has played 11 games, and he’s hitting .333/.385/.556 with one home run, three runs and eight RBIs in 36 at-bats. If he keeps hitting like this, he will become the second straight Blue Jays catcher to have a great season out of nowhere. Last year, Greg Myers hit .307/.374/.502 with 15 homers and 52 RBIs in 329 at-bats at age 37 for Toronto.

A good season from Cash would be less surprising than Myers’ 2003 season was, because Cash has had solid, although not spectacular, numbers in the minor leagues the last three seasons. It’s most likely that Cash will fall offand hit around .250 with a little bit of power. However, if you’ve got a roster spot available, it’s worth picking him up to see if he can keep hitting well enough to give himself some value.

8. Jason Varitek, Red Sox: With 11 games played, Varitek has hit .297/.447/.459 with two home runs, eight runs and three RBIs in 37 at-bats. Varitek hit .278 with 32 home runs and 110 RBIs in 193 games in 2001 and 2003 and he hit .266 with 10 homers and 61 RBIs in 2002, when he was pretty clearly still recovering from the elbow injury that ended his 2001 season prematurely.

Varitek’s been a full-time catcher for about 4.5 seasons and he’s been a rather good hitter for 2.5 of those seasons, so it’s not really a surprise to me that he’s hitting well this year. It is a bit surprising to see him with 10 walks already, though, because while he’s never been particularly impatient at the plate, he’s also never drawn more than 60 walks in a season.

I don’t think Varitek will keep his average around .300 all season, but he can hit .270-.280 with 20-25 home runs and his RBI total will rise accordingly if he does do that.

9. Mike Matheny, Cardinals: Matheny has played 12 games, and he’s hitting .333/.354/.533 with a home run, five runs and five RBIs in 45 at-bats. To put it simply, Matheny is one of the catchers on this list who is absolutely, definitely, just having a fluky start to his season.

In 10 seasons in the big leagues, Matheny’s career highs in batting average, OBP and SLG are .261, .320 and .362, respectively. He’s never hit more than eight home runs in a season, he’s never even knocked in 50 runs in a season and he’s never even reached 45 runs scored this season.

Even if he sets career highs in every category by hitting .265/.325/.370 with 10 home runs, 45 runs and 50 RBIs, he still wouldn’t be worth a spot on your fantasy roster except in rather deep leagues.

10. Ivan Rodriguez, Tigers: In 11 games, Rodriguez has hit .358/.375/.491 with a home run, seven runs and 10 RBIs in 53 at-bats. After easily setting a career high by drawing 55 walks in 144 games last year (he walked just 67 times in 310 games the three previous seasons combined), Rodriguez is back to his free-swinging ways with just two free passes so far this season.

Maybe Rodriguez will still be able to succeed without any patience at the plate, but he’s not going to keep the batting average anywhere near that high and he hasn’t shown much power yet. My best guess at this point is that Rodriguez could hit .315-.320 with about 15 home runs.

Regardless of exactly how good he is, it’s pretty clear that this Detroit lineup is significantly improved from last year, which may help Rodriguez to better run and RBI totals than people were expecting.

11. Mike Piazza, Mets: Piazza has played 11 games, hitting .292/.333/.521 with three home runs, six runs and five RBIs in 48 at-bats. Injuries were the big concern coming into this season and while Piazza’s been fine, injuries haven’t helped him either. Jose Reyes, expected to bat second and get on base ahead of Piazza, has yet to play this season and No. 3 hitter Cliff Floyd was only able to play six games before hurting himself.

Piazza will put up his numbers, whether they’re simply very good or truly great, as long as he stays healthy. If the rest of the Mets lineup can stay healthy around him, it would be a nice boost for his run and RBI totals.

12. Brad Ausmus, Astros: With 11 games played, Ausmus is hitting .318/.348/.455 with a home run, seven runs and four RBIs in 44 at-bats. Ausmus is almost as unlikely to have a good season this year as Matheny is.

Unlike Matheny, Ausmus was actually not a terrible offensive player at one point. From 1997 through 2000 (two years with Houston and then two with Detroit), Ausmus had an OPS+ above 80 each year, even getting as high as 98 in 1999.

Since returning to Houston, however, he has been completely awful, with an OPS+ below 60 in two of the three seasons. At this point, a good season for Ausmus would be to hit .260 with eight home runs, 60 runs and 50 RBIs, so there’s no reason for you to even think about him.

13. Charles Johnson, Rockies: He’s only received 29 at-bats in nine games, but Johnson is hitting .379/.486/.739 with three home runs, seven runs and 10 RBIs so far. He’s obviously hitting out of his mind right now, but Johnson’s certainly playing for the right team to put up some solid numbers if he can stay healthy.

Strangely, Johnson actually hasn’t gotten much help from Coors Field yet, as 21 of his 29 at-bats have come on the road. You should definitely make sure you at least use Johnson in Colorado, and if he stays healthy he could even hit .270 or so overall with a nice amount of home runs and RBIs.

14. Miguel Olivo, White Sox: Olivo has only played eight games, but he’s hitting .391/.429/.739 with a home run, two steals, seven runs and seven RBIs in 23 at-bats. Olivo was a terrible hitter last year, but he did provide six home runs and six steals in 317 at-bats.

He obviously only has such good numbers right now because 23 at-bats is a tiny sample, but he could actually be a decent fantasy catcher this year. If he gets more playing time, say 450 at-bats, and improves on last year’s numbers a little bit, he could hit .250 with 10-12 home runs and 10-12 steals. If he does that, he’s at least a nice backup catcher to have around.

15. Gerald Laird, Rangers: Laird’s played nine games and he’s hitting .387/.429/.516 with no home runs, six runs and three RBIs in 31 at-bats. The Rangers didn’t trade Einar Diaz away because they were particularly high on Laird, but rather because they thought anybody would be better than Diaz, and they were right.

Laird has some success in the minor leagues, but not much and he’s unlikely to have much success in the major leagues. He plays in a good park and is part of a good lineup, so it wouldn’t hurt you to pick him up for awhile if you have a roster spot open and are desperate to try and hit the jackpot on a catcher. Ultimately, though, he probably won’t do much this year.

16. Jose Molina, Angels: Having played in nine games, Molina is hitting .296/.321/.556 with a home run, two steals, six runs and seven RBIs in 27 at-bats. Unfortunately, he’s already lost his starting spot in the lineup.

The only reason Molina was in the starting lineup in the first place is that his older brother, Ben, was injured. Now that he’s healthy, however, Ben has started four of the last six games for the Angels, and neither of the Molinas has much fantasy value, if any.

17. Damian Miller, A’s: Miller’s played 10 games, and he’s hitting .294/.368/.441 with a home run, four runs and four RBIs. Miller was actually a pretty decent offensive player during his time in Arizona before he went to Chicago and struggled mightily last year.

Since he’s had some success, he could hit well enough to be a decent backup this season. However, he’s playing in a home park that’s tough on hitters and he’s 34 years old now, so the odds of him returning to the level he was at in Arizona aren’t exactly good. Unless you’re really desperate for help behind the plate, it’s probably best to forget about Miller.

18. Craig Wilson, Pirates: Wilson has played in all 12 games for the Pirates and he’s hitting .396/.442/.771 with four home runs, eight runs and eight RBIs in 48 at-bats. He’s not really a catcher, but he played 21 games behind the plate last year, so he should qualify there in most leagues.

Wilson’s hot start isn’t good news because there was some question about how well he could hit, but rather because there was some question about how much he’d play. When the Pirates signed Raul Mondesi and Randall Simon, it appeared Wilson would be left picking up scraps yet again.

However, if he keeps wielding a scorching bat, I would think the Pirates would have to find a spot for him in the lineup. Coming into this season, I would have been happy if Wilson had been guaranteed at least 400 at-bats. If he earns a full-time job and actually gets 500 at-bats, he could hit 30 home runs and take up residence in the top five list of catcher-eligible players.

If he’s somehow still available in your league, you have to pick him up without question. He might not get the 500 at-bats I mentioned above, but he’ll be one of the best fantasy options at catcher around whenever he does take the field.

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