Second look: Top 20 fantasy catchers for 2012

Over the next week or so, in an attempt to catch up on fantasy season, I am going to do a top 20 or so list by position for the players who will either be eligible at that position under Yahoo! default standards to start the season or who are projected to gain eligibility within the first month of the season (e.g., Miguel Cabrera and Jesus Montero). The rules of eligibility for Yahoo fantasy leagues:

The following conditions apply to a player’s position eligibility:
1. A player’s position eligibility will not be adjusted prior to the beginning of the season. (If a player in spring training is playing a “new” position, that position will not appear until a player has met the criteria for a change.)
2. Players will not lose eligibility at a previously established position at any time. (For example, if a catcher-eligible player begins to play first base exclusively, he will remain eligible at catcher for the entire season.)
3. It is not possible to customize this setting within Custom Leagues. All leagues are subject to the same constraints.

Gaining eligibility at a new position:
If a position player makes five (5) starts or 10 total appearances at a new position during this season, he will become eligible to play that position in Yahoo! Sports Fantasy Baseball. Pitchers need to make three starts to become eligible as a starter and five relief appearances to qualify as a reliever.

ESPN imposes a more rigorous default position eligibility standard (e.g., 20 games played at the position last season, 10 games played in the present season), so you may have to do additional research if you play ESPN fantasy to verify that players listed in these articles are in fact “position eligible” in your league.

These rankings are based on 5×5 standard Yahoo! Roto leagues. Rankings are not based on real-life value but fantasy value. Hence, players like Juan Pierre tend to have value for you closer to what Kenny Williams is willing to pay him in real life. Projections listed below are courtesy of Brian Cartwright’s Oliver projection system. I recommend that you purchase a subscription, as the pre- and in-season updates are an invaluable fantasy tool.

My rankings are not exclusively based on Oliver’s projections, however. Rankings are primarily determined based on total production by category, balance in production, and scarcity of production level. Because I am ranking players by position, positional flexibility is not taken into account in my rankings (though you should absolutely consider positional flexibility at the draft board).

Tiers represent groups of relatively fungible players, guys who if you traded me the guy at the bottom of that tier for the top guy would not require you to add “too much” value to pull off a trade. In other words, guys within a tier are relatively easy to trade for one another.

If you have any specific questions about my rankings, please post them in the comments.

Here are my top 20 fantasy catchers for 2012.

TIER 1
Rank  Player Name           Team      Oliver's Projected Triple-Slash
1     Mike Napoli           TEX       .268/.349/.509
2     Brian McCann          ATL       .274/.354/.473
3     Carlos Santana        CLE       .252/.364/.468

TIER 2
Rank  Player Name           Team      Oliver's Projected Triple-Slash
4     Buster Posey          SFG       .286/.354/.449
5     Joe Mauer             MIN       .318/.391/.467

TIER 3
Rank  Player Name           Team      Oliver's Projected Triple-Slash
6     Miguel Montero        ARI       .275/.339/.441
7     Jesus Montero*        SEA       .282/.338/.491
8     Matt Wieters          BAL       .258/.323/.407
9     Alex Avila            DET       .258/.346/.429
10    Geovany Soto          CHC       .236/.327/.408

TIER 4
Rank  Player Name           Team      Oliver's Projected Triple-Slash
11    J.P. Arencibia        TOR       .220/.273/.416
12    Wilson Ramos          WAS       .265/.311/.430
13    Devin Mesoraco        CIN       .250/.313/.449

TIER 5
Rank  Player Name           Team      Oliver's Projected Triple-Slash
14    Yadier Molina         STL       .284/.340/.401
15    Salvador Perez        KCR       .263/.292/.386
16    Russell Martin        NYY       .244/.334/.363
17    Kurt Suzuki           OAK       .253/.306/.397

TIER 6
Rank  Player Name           Team      Oliver's Projected Triple-Slash
18    Jarrod Saltalamacchia BOS       .222/.284/.387
19    Jonathan Lucroy       MIL       .257/.314/.372
20    Chris Iannetta        ANA       .225/.342/.399

Tier 1 analysis

You’ll always feel safe with a tier-one catcher, but, Mike Napoli arguably aside, how confident overall are you with paying top dollar for a top-tier catcher when the most you can reasonably expect from him is likely a high of a .270 batting average, maybe 25 home runs, 60-ish runs and hopefully 70-plus RBI?

Between injury propensity and the constant need to rest, catchers are a risky and relatively lackluster position of production. Aside from closers, if there’s any position to ditch, it’s catchers. The big names will costs you a premium price over the return; unless you have extra money to blow, give drafting a top-flight catcher serious reconsideration.

That said, I doubt the three names in this tier, or their order, are very controversial. Napoli won’t hit .300 again, but 2012 might be the first year his team finally believes in him enough to give him regular, consistent playing time to start the season. Of all the catchers on the list, Napoli and Carlos Santana are the only ones I feel confident projecting for 25-plus home runs next year.

Both players have their batting average risks—and never let a catcher’s low BABIP fool you; it’s not just bad luck when you get thrown out on more routine plays when you squat all day—but at least a .260 average won’t kill you (especially since it’ll come with a lot fewer at-bats than a guy like Ichiro Suzuki or even Carlos Pena).

Both Napoli and Santana should help out pretty well on the OBP side, as well. Santana is probably the better bargain for 2012, likely to cost up to $10 less, but I doubt the difference in their end-of-season production will be that great.

I always love Brian McCann, and he was great when healthy last season, but at this point in his career, he is what he is: a .275 or so hitter with 20-to-25 home run power, modest high 60s run production, 80 RBI potential, and a handful of stolen bases thrown in for good measure. McCann produces at a consistent clip every year, year in and year out, and consistency at that level for a catcher is rare, especially when you consider he’s a middle-of-the-order hitter for the Braves.

Tier 2 analysis

Tier two is compromised of a pair of players with the potential to put up numbers on par with McCann/Santana/Napoli but with clear risks that keep their floors from putting them on par. Joe Mauer is not a model of health. Even with consistent DH/first base reps every week that should bolster his playing time and the value of his batting-average contributions, there is no guarantee he will/can stay healthy.

I have now owned Mauer in two seasons—2007 and 2011—and I have sworn him off forever more. How much stock do you want to put into a catcher with modest-at-best “low teens” home run power whose biggest assets in standard leagues is his batting average talents when his knees just won’t stay healthy? When Mauer isn’t hitting .330, he looks an awful lot like a Yadier Molina clone.

Buster Posey, likewise, has two major risks. The first is coming back from injury/surgery. So far, all signs on that front seem positive. The second risk is that Posey just is not the player he teased us with in 2010. Last preseason, I noted:

I ranked Buster Posey below Victor Martinez because I am concerned that much of Posey’s 2010 power was a “fluke.” A look at Posey’s monthly splits reveals that his power bursts were largely limited to two months (July/September). In fact, his July power output was largely relegated to a five/six day span between the fifth and 10th of the month. I think Posey’s .290+ AVG potential is certainly legit, but his power leaves me with questions…”

Posey has done nothing since to overcome that worry, and last year’s .105 ISO and four home runs over his first 45 games hardly did anything to dispel my concerns. Posey’s posted a consistent ISO right around .200 at every level in the minor leagues, and he did the same in 2010 for the Giants, but how often does a .200 ISO directly translate at the major league level? Consider me continuously skeptical. i think the batting average is still legit, and his floor is much higher than the guys in the lower tier, but let’s temper out expectations for the return of Posey. Oliver projects a .285/.353/.442 line (.795 OPS) for Posey this season, with only 13 homers per 400 or so at-bats. I’d likely take the over on that, but not by much. A .290-.295 batting average with 15-18 home runs is my best guess.

Tier 3 analysis

Pretty much every guy in this tier is the same mold of player with roughly the same expected type of production. The rankings in this tier, then, are by each player’s floor.

Miguel Montero is probably the best bet of the group to turn in a McCann-like season and not be a total bust for you if he does not. McCann gets tier one status, however, because he’s a production machine whereas Montero’s breakout year was just last season. I expect Montero to do just about what Posey should do, with a little more power upside and a noticeably lower batting average.

Once he qualifies for the position (it could take up to a month, with him expected to catch only 1-2 days per week), Jesus Montero could be a top-five catcher this year. He could even be a top-three catcher by season end, and he is the most likely person on this list to be the No. 1 overall catcher outside tier one.

So why the low rating? With fewer than 100 plate appearances to his name, a lot of what I expect Jesus Montero to do is still mere projection. His brief showing at the end of September last year was impressive, and we all know how the now-only-22 year old pummeled minor league pitching, but can he sustain that level of production at Safeco Park? Only time will tell, but I’m betting yes.

If I had ranked the younger Montero in my top five, I would have surely been ostracized in the comments and looked a total fool if he busted. So consider his “relatively low” ranking a CYA kinda thing that acknowledges the floors of rookies can get awful low sometimes.

Was Matt Wieters‘ second half legit, or should we be buying into his overall line? Or is more of 2009 and 2010 and the first half of 2011 to be expected? This is why Wieters can’t be ranked any higher. His floor is still pretty high, though, and considering the pedigree, there is plenty of reason to buy into the breakout theory.

What I said about Wieters can also apply to Alex Avila, only without the pedigree. Avila’s power fell off the map in July, rebounded in August, and then dipped again in September. Those swings raise serious questions about Avila’s ability to repeat his 20-home-run power in 2012.

A greater sample size will be necessary to determine where his true batting talents lie, for now making him more of a risk with more of a floor (see his 2010 production) that most of the other guys in this group. For what it’s worth, Oliver thinks Avila has legit “Matt Kemp power” (a term of art invented by yours truly several years ago).

Last, but certainly not least, this tier rounds out with my boy Geovany Soto. I own his jersey, and he seems to hit a home run or multiple run-scoring double every game I attend, but Soto’s inconsistencies are too hard for me to ignore, even with my homer-glasses. Will he hit .270-plus or around .220?

At least Soto’s power has been consistently legit save for a shoulder-injury-related fluke of a season in 2009. Worrisome are Soto’s steps back in the strikeout and walks department last year after consistent strides forward since 2008. On the bright side, Soto seems to alternate great seasons in even-numbered years with disappointing ones in odd-numbered years, so 2012 could be the rebound year for jersey No. 18!

Tier 4 analysis

Tier four is comprised of an interesting mix of players. By and large, Arencibia is a one-tool player. His walk rate is slightly below average, at best, and he has Carlos Pena batting average upside with 144 strikeouts in 523 career at-bats. Additionally, he is not a fast runner and has been caught stealing (one time) as many times as he has been successful (again, a meager one time). But man, that one tool, power, is totally legit and enough to make you overlook the rest of his flaws when you consider catcher’s batting averages are less important than players at other positions. (It’s an at-bat thing). Arencibia is almost a lock for 20 home runs with consistent playing time in 2012, and 25 is surely not out of the question.

Wilson Ramos does not seem to have a whole lot of upside, but at the same time he doesn’t seem to have a whole lot of downside. A .270 batting average with 10 home run as the floor and a high teens home run ceiling is pretty solid catcher production, and it makes Ramos just barely mixed-league starting catcher relevant.

Devin Mesoraco has the pedigree to rank among the guys listed in tier three, but with less of a pedigree than Jesus Montero and a less-than-successful first cup of tea last year, Mesoraco’s floor is clearly much lower than anyone else in tier three. Consider further that, even with Yasmani Grandal out of the picture, Dusty Baker still hates his rookies, and you can see Ryan Hanigan easily sticking around long enough to zap Mesoraco’s 2012 relevance despite “Geovany Soto in his prime”-like upside.

Mesoraco is a much better play in dynasty leagues, where 2012 is the ideal “getting in on the ground floor”-type pick with the hope to see returns in the second half of the season. Take my word and don’t draft Mesoraco as your primary guy. Stash him with the hopes he makes his way to starting catcher status by the end of May.

Tier 5 analysis

This is the tier of players where you cringe with risk-averse fear if they are your No. 1 catcher, but you feel comfortable enough if they are your No. 2 catcher. Yadier Molina leads the pack with a modest ceiling but high floor. A useful batting average and potential double digit home runs is better “in the bag” production to draft than hoping for more while planning for much less.

Salvador Perez seems like a Molina clone with a little more power upside and a lot less track record. Perez has the potential to hit in the mid-.280s with double digit home runs, but will he? Oliver’s a bit bearish on Perez, but a mid-.260s batting average with 10 home runs per 500 plate appearances is pretty solid for a second catcher. With no one really “waiting in the wings” for the Royals at the catcher position and the Royals projecting for another season middling in the AL Central at best, Perez should have a moderately long leash (unlike Mike Aviles last year).

Russell Martin and Kurt Suzuki are about the same player in my mind. Potential double-digit power, .250-.260 projected batting averages, and five-plus stolen-base potential if/when healthy. But health is a huge issue for these guys. Both are about the same age, so there’s no “youth edge” between then, but Martin’s higher perpensity for running on the basepaths gives him the edge over Suzuki.

Martin’s always been an overrated catcher, but now that most people are so down on him, if he can stay healthy, he could be a sleeper to be borderline mixed-league relevant in 2012. Perpetual injury issues keep him outside the top 15, however.

Tier 6 analysis

Last, but not least, we have the dregs—guys with modest ceilings but poor floors. Jarrod Saltalamacchia has inconsistent flashes of potential at times, showing us why he once had the kind of hype that Miguel Montero had coming up, but too often he does too little to be relied on consistently. Salty could make a nice streaming option if you believe in riding the streak.

Jonathan Lucroy has Yadier Molina-like upside, with Salvador Perez-like downside. He likely won’t do much of anything, but at least he won’t totally kill you. To me, Lucroy is the quintessential midseason stopgap for those silly enough to draft Mauer.

Chris Iannetta is a lot like Saltalamacchia, but it’s been a while since his last useful flashes of brilliance. Can a change of scenery help? Moving away from Coors is never a good thing for a power-hitter, and if Napoli is a cautionary tale, we know Mike Scioscia is probably not the best manager to bank your starting fantasy catcher on.

As always, leave the love/hate in the comments below.

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Comments

  1. Mark Himmelstein said...

    I’m sure you all know this by now, but I’m really high on Wieters this year. The one thing that still gets overlooked at the catcher position is playing time. It doesn’t entirely get overlooked—this is why we love guys who might have C eligibility but don’t play the position. I think Wieters finishes in the Top 3 among catchers this year in PAs (and one of the other guys I see in the Top 3 is Jesus Montero, who won’t have eligibility until at least a few weeks in). I’m also buying his second half surge last year, and the combination of a friendly ballpark and available DH slot in the O’s lineup gives him a decent floor even if I’m wrong. That makes him a great potential value even in the back half of the first 10 rounds. I’d rather have him than Posey or Mauer. The risk seems greater for those guys and their ceilings seem lower in PT and production rates thanks to a combination of their recent injury histories, unforgiving ballparks, and modest lineups. The Monteros are a bit closer, I’d probably have tier two consist of those guys plus Wieters and flip Posey and Mauer into tier 3.

  2. Jeff said...

    I know Wil Myers has C eligibility in Yahoo! but he is not threat to Salvador Perez’s PT, if he comes up in 2012 it will be as an OF, where he played all year last year and is slated to play again year this.

    Also, there is significant risk that Jesus Montero will never get C eligibility. With Olivo and Jaso on the roster, no incumbent at DH,  Montero’s poor D and the need to keep his bat in the lineup, Seattle has very little incentive play him at C. I know the talk is that he will play there regularly but once the real games start, saner heads may just prevail. This risk alone keeps out of the top tier.

  3. Jeffrey Gross said...

    @Dr.BGiantsFan,

    Totaly oversight on my part. Doumit would rank in tier 5 if I hadn’t forgot to rank him!

    @Jeff,
    You’re 100% right. I forgot he got moved off the position. I’ll edit accordingly.

  4. Jeffrey Gross said...

    @Jeff,

    In Yahoo, Jesus Montero needs to merely PLAY at five games. No reason to think by mid-May that Montero won’t get eligibility considering the team’s announced they intend for Montero to play 1-2 games at catcher a week. Whether he gets eligibility is obviously a risk (and it’s why he is starred), but for now all signs point to C eligibility this year, and thus next, in at least a low-threshold positional eligibility format like Yahoo’s default rule.

  5. Jeffrey Gross said...

    @Mark,

    I can certainly see that happening, but the rankings are more than just upside. They’re also about downside and track record. I guess you could argue Mauer has huge downside (though plenty of 1B/DH reps should offset a lot of it), but Wieters need to put it all together for longer than 3 month to get a confident ranking above “safer” productive picks like Montero and Posey.

    I have Wieters in both the keeper leagues I play in, so I am also hoping for the best here, but Wieters is not by any means a surefire bet to outpace Posey or Mauer.

  6. Mark Himmelsetin said...

    @Jeffrey

    I don’t disagree that Posey or Mauer could be better than Wieters, I just don’t see them as any less risky, if anything I think they’re more risky. They’ll hit for more AVG but Wieters will hit more HR, so production-wise I don’t see a huge expected difference (it’d be different if I thought the HR upsides on Posey or Mauer was more than 15ish, but I think that’s even expecting a lot). If Wieters could be anything from Wilson Ramos to Mike Napoli, Posey and Mauer could be anything from Yadier Molina to Joe Mauer in any year except 2009, so the production value ranges seem similar enough.

    As for PT, Mauer could also get out from behind the dish often enough, but his situation is a cloudier with Morneau and Doumit (not to mention Chris Parmelee, who is a decent AL-only CI flier). That trio looks like a head trainer’s nightmare.

    In Posey’s case, I don’t trust Bruce Bochy at all, ESPECIALLY at his word (he says all kinds of things in the Spring). Posey’s going to have to be tearing it up and showing almost no ill effects for him to get any kind of consistent playing time at 1B. More likely I think he plays no more than 5 games per week, at least in the first half. I see him as possibly having the most upside of the three, but also the most risk, since his PT is going to be more closely related to his production (and the production of Brandon Belt and Aubrey Huff, and adding to that thought, Posey and Belt might make an interesting handcuff….you’re almost assured a big profit out of one or the other, its just tough to know which one) than the other two.

    Meanwhile, Wieters plays in a hitters park, for a team that could manage a respectable offense despite not having a true first baseman or DH. Not a whole lot going on in his production jump that screams regression (BABIP below career average so AVG might actually improve, modest but significant improvements in HR/FB and K% and could easily retain either or both, well balanced batted ball profile), so I think he’s a pretty good gamble in the 70-100 pick range. I think he’s more likely to be a top 3 catcher overall and less likely to result in a significant loss of value out of that draft spot than Posey or Mauer at the same price. I’d be thrilled if I had him in two keeper leagues.

  7. harry mamis said...

    How do you rank Yadier Molina as a tier 5 catcher?In the second half of last season he had a .528 slugging percentage. As Baseball HQ said” is this a hint of what is coming. Catchers often develop late”

    He just received a big contract. I am sure that the STL cardinals are not stupid in evaluating ball players.

    Mesoraco could wind up back in the minors. I believe he hit below the Mendoza line in his brief stay.

  8. Frankie said...

    How about Josh Donaldson who has catcher eligibility, assuming he gets the nod at 3rd for the A’s?

  9. Jeffrey gross said...

    Frankie,

    He could make an interesting C2 play depending on how spring training shakes out

    Harry,

    What do you seriously expect from Molina?

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