As the first installment in my fantasy baseball position breakdowns, I’ll be taking a look at the top 20 backstops. Most leagues require two of these guys, and usually the only goal is to avoid drafting catchers who will significantly hurt your offense.
1. Victor Martinez: V-Mart arrived as a top notch fantasy catcher in 2004, and he’s the easy choice for the first spot in 2006. However, even Martinez’s most adamant supporters began to doubt him after the first two months of 2005. He posted an atrocious .210/.280/.331 line through his first 157 at-bats, and panicked owners started trading him for table scraps. The law of averages won out, and Martinez finished the season at .305/.378/.475. Look for further improvements in his batting average plus 20+ home run and 90 RBIs in 2006.
2. Joe Mauer: Mauer is probably the only receiver who can swipe more than 10 bags. His power numbers should progress and he could hit .310 in his age 23 season. Most analysts think Mauer will contend for batting titles one day.
3. Kenji Johjima: One of the offseason’s earliest signings, Johjima jumped from Japan to play for the Mariners. He could get near 500 at-bats in 2006, and he has good power even after adjusting his Japanese numbers. I think he’s capable of hitting .290 with 15-17 home runs this season. Lock him up before he becomes a household name in fantasy.
4. Josh Willingham: I’m obviously very high on the young Florida catcher. The only potential problem is the possibility of Miguel Olivo stealing his at-bats. If Willingham manages to rack up 400 at-bats, he’s probably good for 18 home runs and a .280 average. As a 26 year-old, he mashed 19 home runs in just 219 Triple-A at-bats in 2005. He can draw a walk, too, so that should mean 75 runs scored if he gets the playing time and stays healthy.
5. Ramon Hernandez: After playing in only 210 games over the last two seasons, Hernandez should return to his previous level for 2006 as a means of justifying his fat new contract with the Orioles. At the high end, 460 at-bats could mean a .290-20-80 season for Hernandez. If he’s a bit off, you might downgrade that projection to .280-16-70, which is still a great season for a catcher.
6. Ivan Rodriguez: Pudge decided not to take walks in 2005. He still managed to hit .276 and have a passable fantasy season. I expect his average to go up to the .290 range, and no change in his power production. Don’t mistake 34 year-old Pudge for his prime in Texas.
7. Jason Varitek: Tek will likely drift toward the .270 range in ’06 while holding steady with his 20 home runs and 70 RBIs. Certainly a nice fantasy boost from a catcher.
8. Mike Piazza: He’s getting up there, entering his age 37 season. The hope for fantasy owners is that Piazza spends most of ’06 at DH. He’ll still have his catcher eligibility, and a break from the rigors of catching might do his bat some good. In fact, I think he’ll come back up to the .270 range and could hit 25 dingers if he gets 460 or more at-bats.
9. Jason Kendall: Without the .300 batting average, Kendall’s status drops quite a bit. I can see him rebound to around .285 with 80 runs scored and 10 steals. Not your conventional catcher, but he’ll get a lot of at-bats and pitch in in a few categories.
10. Javy Lopez: With Ramon Hernandez in the fold, Lopez is a good candidate to be dealt. His health is a bit risky, but with 460 at-bats you could get a .285 average and 17 homers. Solid numbers, but I still can’t believe he hit .328 with 43 home runs in less than 500 at-bats a couple of years ago.
11. Jorge Posada: Just two years removed from one of his best seasons, Posada looks to be entering his decline phase. His power and on-base numbers were down in 2005, although still excellent for a catcher. His batting average might slip into the .250s, but he’ll still hit near 20 home runs with around 70 RBIs and runs. That’s still an admirable job for a backstop.
12. Bengie Molina: Molina has to be disappointed in how the market for his services shaped up this winter. He’s coming off his best season, during which he hit .295 with 15 home runs (both career highs). A healthy Molina—perhaps on a one-year contract—with a bit of a chip on his shoulder could be an interesting pickup. I wouldn’t be surprised if he replicated his 2005 performance, and maybe added a couple of homers and RBIs with some more playing time. That’s more than respectable.
13. Michael Barrett: Sometimes a change of scenery really does work. Since his trade to the Cubs two years ago, Barrett has consistently hit .280 with 16 home runs. He’s a streaky hitter month to month, so hang with him if you have him on your fantasy team.
14. Javier Valentin: Valentin looked like a brand new player in his 220 at-bats with the Reds this year. He and Jason LaRue make an unbeatable combo behind the plate, and it’s possible the Reds trade Valentin while his stock is highest. He’ll need a full-time job to show whether he can hit over a full season and enter the fantasy top ten. As it is, he’s a solid second catcher for your team.
15. A.J. Pierzynski: A.J. may have sacrificed some batting average for a career high in HRs last season. His career worst .308 OBP fit right in on his new club. He’s not a good bet to hit .270 again, but he’ll hit at least 15 home runs.
16. Jason LaRue. Always one of the last catchers drafted, LaRue is a safe choice. He continues to improve every facet of his game and could find a way to hit .270 with 16 home runs in 2006. Nothing wrong with that.
17. Rod Barajas: Barajas is a guy who struggles to hit .250 but can put 20 home runs on the board. He’s not reliant on Ameriquest Field, as his slugging percentage was much higher on the road in 2005. If you can risk the batting average, he’s worth a pickup.
18. Brian McCann: The Braves traded Johnny Estrada to open up a full-time spot for McCann, who will be 22 when the season starts. He had a solid showing in 180 Major League at-bats last year, but he’s got a ways to go before he’s a top fantasy catcher. I’d be surprised if he hit better than .270 with 12 home runs.
19. Jeff Mathis: The Angels chose to cut Bengie Molina loose and give Mathis a full-time job at age 23. He’s got very good power and could hit 15 home runs in his rookie season. Expecting a batting average much over .250 would be gamble, however. A decent upside pick if the best options are off the board.
20. Ryan Doumit: Another part of a decent crop of young catching prospects, Doumit will be 25 entering the ’06 season. He held his own in his rookie season, and could hit .270 with 12 home runs in 2006. Humberto Cota will steal a good share of his at-bats, however.