With the MLB season coming sooner than you think, ESPN's fantasy baseball experts have gathered to break down each position to help you prepare your draft-day strategy.
How are our fantasy analysts approaching the catcher position, and which players are they picking and avoiding in their drafts?
How are you approaching the catcher position this season?
In ESPN leagues in which a mere one active catcher is needed, I mostly ignore the position until the final round or two. There is not much reliable depth, but then again, I do not want to spend a high selection on Gary Sanchez, either. Catchers are not like other hitters in terms of dependability, either statistically or for durability. Buster Posey is awesome; he averaged a mere 13 home runs the past two seasons! Give me Yadier Molina or Welington Castillo in the final round. -- Eric Karabell
My approach to drafting catchers is going to vary greatly dependent upon league format, but whatever it is, I regard the catcher position as the most woefully thin position in fantasy baseball, and it's indisputably not close. Using Player Rater measures, which don't adjust for position scarcity, only six catchers in 2017 cracked the top 300, and not a single one made it into the top 100 overall. The No. 10 catcher, Yasmani Grandal, batted .247 with 22 home runs, 58 RBIs and 50 runs scored, thresholds that were attained in combination by 71 other non-catchers. The replacement level at catcher is terrifying -- a near-certain detriment to your roster -- but at the same time, paying a premium for a catcher is a bad idea, considering the limited number of plate appearances they get compared to players at other positions (the position as a whole had seven percent fewer PAs than the average at all other field positions in 2017).
I'm therefore likely to wait as long as possible for the right catcher to fall into my lap at the proper price, and in a shallow enough format, such as our ESPN 10-team standard with one starting catcher, I'll dabble with the idea of making my catcher my last pick and streaming the position in-season. The one format in which I might pay a little more for the position is in a points league, where the catchers who get the most playing time have greater value compared to replacement, but even there it won't be by much. Using 2017 data again and ESPN's standard point scoring system, be aware that Posey finished 99th in fantasy points (130th in Rotisserie), Sanchez 117th (102nd), Molina 137th (170th), J.T. Realmuto 160th (180th) and Salvador Perez 185th (209th), and it's also worth noting that pitchers typically dominate the scoring in points leagues so those final rankings would be relatively higher compared to all hitters' finishes. -- Tristan H. Cockcroft
Because the catcher position tends to be extremely top-heavy, I know there's always the urge to grab Sanchez or Posey early on in the draft in order to try and get a huge leg up on the competition. That would make a whole lot of sense in a league where victory is determined by a separate head-to-head comparison of each position, but as I've never actually seen such a league in practice, I just don't see the logic in wasting a pick on a catcher in the first 10-12 rounds. As it currently stands, I don't even have 10 backstops in my top 300 for points leagues, so when it comes down to the last few picks of the draft, I'll be happy to select my catcher then -- with a very real shot at nabbing someone who will end up in the top 10 at his position. -- AJ Mass
The approach here depends on your draft. Entering standard-sized one-catcher leagues, my plan is to wait forever on filling the position, but I'm open to adjusting based on the flow. More specifically, if Perez falls as a result of everyone following the "I'm not paying for a catcher" mantra, I'll happily invest. I've yet to see any of the top three catchers fall to a point where I'm ready to pounce, so my strategy is simple: Perez at a discount or Mike Zunino late. -- Kyle Soppe
My sleeper for this position is:
Castillo seems like a sleeper to me because he is not going among the top 10 at his position, and I rank him as he should be. While his batting average could go in several directions, it also could settle in at .260 with 17 home runs. Nothing wrong with that considering the investment. -- Eric Karabell
Zunino, the catcher you're practically guaranteed to get in Round 20 or later who has a legitimate chance at developing into a top-five backstop. -- Tristan H. Cockcroft
Last season, you could have gotten 17 HR from your catcher with either Realmuto or Robinson Chirinos on your roster. The major difference was that Chirinos did so in 270 fewer plate appearances. He's locked in as the starter again for Texas, only with the team planning to limit his workload to a maximum of about 120 games. I know people tend to shy away from a player when they hear that word "limit" but keep in mind Chirinos played in only 88 games last season. This particular "limit" is actually a huge leap forward in playing time and could easily result in a 25-HR season. -- AJ Mass
Austin Barnes's batting average was 78 points higher than teammate Grandal's in the second half of last season and that resulted in him holding a 42-to-8 postseason at-bat edge over Grandal. I'll say that Barnes' batting eye (second-lowest chase rate among catchers with 100 plate appearances last season) earns him a regular spot in this strong offense sooner than later and that should be enough to make him a fantasy starter when all is said and done. -- Kyle Soppe
My bust for this position is:
Posey did not finish among the top 75 hitters on last season's Player Rater, mainly thanks to steadily declining power that is not showing any hint of returning to past levels. To make him a top-75 option in drafts is risky, and not something I ever plan to do. Sanchez, for that matter, is also being chosen too aggressively. -- Eric Karabell
Not that I dislike the guy, but I can't envision Realmuto winding up on many of my fantasy teams. The Miami Marlins' competitive weaknesses are going to hinder Realmuto's runs/RBIs chances, which makes up a decent chunk of his value, and since I think some fantasy managers are going to get fooled into getting caught up in a midround position run fearing they'll be left with the position's scraps, I anticipate he's going to frequently go in the Rounds 12-14 range in standard leagues, which is simply too soon for my tastes considering his production. -- Tristan H. Cockcroft
I could really talk about any of the top three at this position and call it a day, but I do believe Sanchez and Posey will end up being among the best at catcher, even if they don't necessarily earn back value given the round they are selected. By the numbers alone, I think Willson Contreras has a chance to shine, and a .280-20-75 season is well within the cards, er, Cubs. That said, I can't completely ignore the fact that baseball players are people too, and there's plenty of distractions that could play some havoc Contreras' 2018 at some point in the form of league discipline. I hope that's not the case, but it's not something I can completely ignore either. -- AJ Mass
Let me be clear here: Sanchez will be productive. Very productive. But will he be worth nearly twice as much as the consistent Posey? The power is elite and that's nice, but hitting homers isn't as valuable as it once was. Posey's reliability in terms of batting average and games played make him the better value in my eyes, so even if I break the mold and decide to spend up on a catcher, I'd rather go Posey's floor. Again, Sanchez is a good fantasy option ... I just don't like the premium price point. -- Kyle Soppe
If I could get any player at his current draft position cost to build around in drafts, it would be:
There really is not a building block at catcher, unless it is Sanchez. He is getting the "Rob Gronkowski" treatment as the obvious, safe, top option at his special position for his sport but we have only about a year and a half of proof there. I think Molina or Castillo 15-plus rounds later is a better block. -- Eric Karabell
Evan Gattis tends to be the player who most often lands in the proper draft range for my valuation of him, and part of that has to do with his having as good a chance as anyone at leading the position (fantasy-qualified, not on-field) in plate appearances thanks to his serving as the Houston Astros' primary designated hitter. -- Tristan H. Cockcroft
When a catcher signs a two-year, $15 million contract, he's going to play. Castillo hit 20 HR last season in Baltimore and, while there are few guarantees in fantasy baseball, I suspect he won't suffer any power loss in moving from Camden Yards to Guaranteed Rate Field. I'll happily wait until my last few picks to grab the Chicago White Sox backstop and be just as well off as those who sprung for Perez many, many rounds earlier. -- AJ Mass
If Jonathan Lucroy's ADP remains low based on last season, he's my target, but if not, I'll roll with Zunino. A .944 OPS in the second half is enough for me to speculate on and I think this Seattle offense will surprise as a whole this season. The asking price is next to nothing, so the risk that comes attached to this selection is far outweighed by the potential reward. -- Kyle Soppe
The young star who could break out at this position is:
Jorge Alfaro of the Phillies will be the team's starter and he boasts the power to be a top-5 option at the position, though there are obvious concerns about that someone drawing less than one walk per week can hit .250. Still, the power is real. If the Rockies would give Tom Murphy another chance -- and they still might -- I would pick him as well. After all, one year ago today everyone loved Murphy. What changed? -- Eric Karabell
This is such a toughie since the position's outlook is so bleak, but among the "youngsters," I think Blake Swihart is going to finally matter this year. That said, I also think there's a good chance it's going to be with a different team than the Boston Red Sox, whom I could see trading him around the point of final spring cuts. He's out of options and too good to lose outright via waivers, so I think he's going to be on someone's roster. -- Tristan H. Cockcroft
Austin Hedges struck out 122 times in 417 plate appearances in 2017. He walked just 23 times. That's an absolutely abysmal 0.19 BB/K rate that should send points league participants running for the hills. That said, a 20 HR/80 RBI season is not out of the question for the San Diego catcher about to enter his age-25 season. While spring stats mean very little in the grand scheme of things, I am pleasantly optimistic about his having hit four homers in his first 16 AB, along with a 1.00 BB/K rate. That's a really good sign. -- AJ Mass
OK, so it's not like Contreras is a prospect waiting in the wings or a catcher off your radar right now, but I wouldn't be surprised if he is the top catcher on our Player Rater by seasons end and I'd say that qualifies as a breakout. He crushed 21 homers in just 377 at-bats last season and that was with a level swing that resulted in 53.3 percent of his batted balls being hit on the ground. Maybe his HR/FB drops a bit this season, but I expect him to be the next hitter to adjust his swing and that has me thinking a 30-home run and 100-RBI season is obtainable in the heart of this loaded offense. -- Kyle Soppe