Fantasy Baseball Sleepers: Catcher
Position scarcity is often exaggerated in fantasy baseball analysis. Particularly after last year’s power surge, even middle infielders were popping off for 20-plus homers with regularity. With plenty of depth to go around these days, you don’t have to worry about finding quality starters at any given position.
Of course, there is one major exception to this rule; catcher. Outside of a handful of stars, who are still generally inferior to their elite, non-catcher counterparts, the fantasy goodness dwindles into a wasteland rather quickly. And if that wasn’t bad enough, traditional rotisserie formats require two starting catchers, a cruel requirement akin to what it would be like if fantasy football leagues required two tight end spots (no one wants that).
Thus, the nature of catcher sleepers is a little different to other positions. These aren’t the late picks that will get you excited, or net you props from your draft mates. They’re inherently riskier and some will almost certainly disappoint. But the ones that pan out will give you an edge at a typically weak position.
Welington Castillo (BAL): ECR No. 231
Now a member of the Orioles, Castillo isn’t exactly known for his defensive prowess, but that doesn’t matter so much in fantasy. He is, however, a solid offensive catcher, and a nice target in standard leagues if you choose to punt the position. Last year, Castillo slashed a respectable .264/.322/.423 with 14 home runs and 68 RBIs. Among catchers with at least 400 plate appearances, Castillo led the league in hard-hit rate (39.8%), which was no fluke given his excellent career rate (35.8%). His .159 isolated power (ISO) fell in line with his career average (.162), suggesting that while his .216 ISO from 2015 may not return any time soon, he should continue to provide decent pop.
Although a career high line-drive rate (25.4%) and career low fly-ball rate (32.8%) led to an above average BABIP (.337) and improved .264 average — he hit just .237 in 2014 and 2015 — a 24.9% career strikeout rate shows he’ll never be a batting average asset. And in a deep Orioles lineup, Castillo is expected to bat low in the order, putting a damper on his counting stats. He’s also never surpassed 457 plate appearances in a season.
But at the end of the day, we’re not asking for any miracles here, particularly with Castillo’s average draft position (ADP) falling outside the top 200 in many leagues. He’s projected for around 15 homers, 60 RBIs and a .250 average, but if he ups the fly-ball rate, 20 bombs shouldn’t be out of the question. Castillo could also get a bump in plate appearances if he receives the occasional start at DH.
Castillo will turn just 30 in April, and yet he’s often being drafted after grizzled veterans like Brian McCann (33 years old), Russell Martin (34), and Yadier Molina (34). Those players may have name value, but they’re no longer the safe plays they were in their primes. Let other owners take the old guys and grab Castillo instead.
Matt Wieters (WAS): ECR No. 246
With Castillo taking his spot on the Orioles, Wieters had to sweat out the offseason job-hunting before landing with the Nationals in late February. However, from a fantasy standpoint, Wieters and Castillo aren’t really so different. Tommy John surgery took away most of Wieters’ 2014 and 2015, but last year he put up a .243/.302/.409 line with 17 homers and 66 RBIs across 464 plate appearances. He’ll never be the star his former prospect status once foretold, but it’s a sign he may still be a semblance of the hitter who had at least 22 home runs and a .182 ISO from 2011-2013.
A high line-drive rate (24.2%) and above average hard-hit rate (33%) show that Wieters’ .243 average was likely the result of an unlucky BABIP (.265). But as a career .256 hitter with a low career BABIP (.286) we can only expect so much improvement moving forward. Similar to Castillo, his upside is also limited by a likely low spot in the lineup.
That said, with Derek Norris‘ release, Wieters won’t have much competition for playing time, so like Castillo a 15-60-.250 baseline should be expected. Either one is a solid punt in one-catcher leagues.
Travis d’Arnaud (NYM): ECR No. 326
Here’s where we get to the two-catcher league targets. With d’Arnaud there’s always been much promise, but he’s never been able to stay healthy long enough to fulfill it, only appearing in 142 games across the last two seasons. A strained rotator cuff deep-sixed his 2016, costing him two months early on, before returning to a putrid season at the plate. He finished with a lackluster .247/.307/.323 line and 74 wRC+ in 276 plate appearances.
So why should we care about d’Arnaud? In 2015 he showed enticing power, hitting 12 home runs in 268 plate appearances with a .218 ISO. Among catchers with at least 250 plate appearances, his 130 wRC+ was bested by only Buster Posey (136) and Kyle Schwarber (132). We’re looking at a small sample size, but if d’Arnaud can do anything close to that in a full season, he would easily be a top-10 catcher.
But even factoring in the injury, the fact that last season d’Arnaud looked nothing like the 2015 version puts a damper on things. His batted ball profile was well off his career averages, seeing jumps in ground-ball rate (52.2%), infield fly-ball rate (19.4%) and soft-hit rate (22.5%). Some of his issues may have been the result of an ineffective, longer swing, something d’Arnaud has reportedly worked hard to correct this year.
With his spotty track record, d’Arnaud is obviously no sure thing, but with a consensus ADP bordering close to 300, why not take a shot? Reports on the new swing have been positive, and one could argue that many of his injuries have been of the unlucky variety. As last year showed, the floor is basically zero, but if the 28-year-old can finally stay healthy, you’ll be very happy you invested.
Austin Hedges (SD): ECR No. 341
The 24-year-old Hedges has all of 64 games of major league experience, and in those games he’s hit a measly .161/.206/.236 and struck out 25.3% of the time. But the reason he’s interesting is last year in Triple-A he hit an impressive .326/.353/.597 with 21 home runs, 55 runs, and 82 RBIs. He also struck out just 15.3% of the time, and had an eye-popping 146 wRC+. That will get your attention!
On the rebuilding Padres, even if Hedges experiences some growing pains he should have every chance to succeed as their starting catcher. His lack of experience leave his projections fairly pedestrian, but if he can translate some of those Triple-A numbers to the Show, he’ll be well worth a late-round pick.
Devin Mesoraco (CIN): ECR No. 352
Another former top prospect, Mesoraco broke out in a big way in 2014, slugging 25 home runs and knocking in 80 RBIs with a .260 ISO and 38.7% hard-hit rate. Among hitters with at least 400 plate appearances, his 147 wRC+ ranked 14th in the entire league.
Since that time, though, he’s been nothing short of a disaster, plagued by hip and shoulder injuries leaving him with a paltry 106 plate appearances across the last two seasons combined. Given the multiple surgeries he’s had, at this point there’s no telling whether he’ll ever be healthy enough to recapture his past glory. Frankly, it’s probably best to remain pessimistic.
Still, on the off-chance the 2014 Mesoraco is hiding in there somewhere, there’s no question he deserves a deep league dice roll.
- Fantasy Baseball Sleepers: First Base
- Fantasy Baseball Sleepers: Second Base
- Fantasy Baseball Sleepers: Third Base
- Fantasy Baseball Sleepers: Shortstop
- Fantasy Baseball Sleepers: Outfielder
- Fantasy Baseball Sleepers: Starting Pitchers