2019 Catcher Primer (Fantasy Baseball)
You probably don’t need me to tell you that catcher is not a position brimming with fantasy studs. Last year, J.T. Realmuto was the only catcher to finish among the top 100 hitters in terms of standard 5×5 roto value, according to Baseball Monster, and even he barely made the top-75. It was a similar story in 2017 when Gary Sanchez was the only catcher to rank among the top 95 fantasy hitters in roto value. It’s not surprising, then, that Realmuto and Sanchez are the only catchers currently going in the top 100 picks in average draft position (ADP).
If you’re a believer in position scarcity like I am, it’s not outrageous to grab Realmuto or Sanchez with a fifth- or sixth-round pick. But if you miss out on them, there is a second tier of fairly reliable backstops who should at least keep you competitive at the position. Then there’s a third group of catchers with a lot of upside but also some question marks in terms of ability and/or playing time.
Between those three tiers, there may be just enough appealing catchers to go around in a standard 12-team mixed league, although it will partly depend on whether intriguing names like Francisco Mejia and Willians Astudillo lock down roster spots in Spring Training. But if you play in 15-team, AL-only, NL-only, or two-catcher formats, there is no doubt that many managers in your league will have to resort to rostering catchers with some major warts, such as serving in a time-share or being a major drain on batting average.
Ultimately, you shouldn’t necessarily feel the need to reach for Realmuto or Sanchez over a better all-around hitter at a more stacked position, but you also don’t want to be left scrambling at the position. I have some favorites at the position that I’ll get to in a moment, but the bottom line is that if you’re not willing to invest in the Big Two, you can likely wait until at least the 11th or 12th round of a mixed league draft and still get a “set it and forget it” catcher you should be able to comfortably deploy all season long.
Realmuto may have less pure upside than Sanchez, but he’s still the top catcher on my board. In moving from Miami to Philadelphia, Realmuto moves from the worst ballpark for right-handed power hitters to the second-best one. Combine that with the massive upgrade he gets in supporting cast, and he is well positioned to establish new career highs home runs, RBIs, and runs scored. He’s also a good bet to lead all catchers in plate appearances, thanks to both his durability and the possibility that he sees the occasional start at first base when he isn’t behind the plate. Don’t draft him expecting a .300 average or 30 home runs, but a .280-25 kind of season is entirely within reach.
After hitting .283 with 53 home runs over his first 674 Major League at-bats, Sanchez came crashing back to Earth in 2018, hitting just .186 with 18 home runs as he was able to play in just 89 games due to nagging groin and shoulder injuries. Sanchez is due for a good bit of positive batting average regression following last year’s anemic .197 BABIP — the second-lowest mark among all hitters with at least 350 plate appearances — and there is little doubt he can again top 30 home runs if he remains healthy. Hitting in a stacked lineup, run and RBI opportunities should also be plentiful. Sanchez is certainly a risk/reward option this year, but he’s easily a top-two fantasy catcher and possesses the most upside of anyone at the position.
It may surprise you to learn that Molina has finished as a top-three catcher in standard 5×5 roto leagues in back-to-back seasons and a top-five catcher in three straight seasons. Whereas he was once a perennial .300 hitter, Molina has recently traded some batting average for home runs by dramatically increasing his launch angle and hitting more fly balls. It’s been a good tradeoff from a fantasy perspective. Molina does carry a little bit of risk this year as he recovers from offseason knee surgery, but durability has been his calling card throughout his career, and if he’s able to remain on the field there is a good chance he will again outperform some of the other names going ahead of him in fantasy drafts.
Grandal’s 2018 season was one of torrid hot streaks (April and July) and ice-cold slumps (May, June, and August). But while his monthly batting averages fluctuated wildly, his power remained fairly consistent and the end result was a top-three finish among catchers. Looking at the bigger picture, Grandal ranks among the top five catchers in HRs, RBIs, and runs over the last three seasons, and will now be moving from Los Angeles to Milwaukee, where he’ll get more job security and a ballpark upgrade while hitting in a comparably potent lineup. He stands a good chance to again be a top-five backstop in standard 12-team leagues.
Perez is as consistent as they come at the catcher position, with four straight seasons of 20+ home runs and five straight seasons in which he’s finished as a top-eight backstop in standard roto leagues. His batting average dipped to .235 last year, but that should rebound into the .250-.260 range as his .245 BABIP regresses to his career norm. The Royals will likely struggle to score runs, but Perez is still one of the safest bets at the position for 25 homers and 75 RBIs. He doesn’t possess the upside of some of the other top-end options at the position, but if you just want to set it and forget it, Perez is your man.
After missing most of the 2017 season with a torn ACL, Ramos was just about as good last year as he was in his breakout 2016 season, despite missing some time due to a hamstring injury. He isn’t likely to match last season’s .306 batting average, but he has proven that he has more batting average upside than most catchers and should be able to reach 20 home runs if he can avoid any lengthy DL stints. His new home of Citi Field is not a great place to hit, but that shouldn’t prevent Ramos from being a rock-solid starting catcher in fantasy leagues.
Maybe calling Contreras “reliable” is a bit of a stretch after his brutal 2018 season, but it is hard to imagine him being that bad again. He hit only 10 home runs last year after belting 21 long balls the previous season, and the lack of homers was also responsible for dropping his batting average by more than 25 points, as his strikeout rate and BABIP were virtually identical to 2017. The lack of homers was matched by a decline in his hard-hit rate, in a year when most players saw their hard-hit rates soar. But Contreras is just 26 years old and didn’t deal with any notable injuries last season, so it stands to reason that a big bounce back season could be in store. He is a bit riskier than the other names in this group, but he also has more upside.
Posey fell apart in 2018, managing to hit a measly five home runs while playing through a hip ailment that eventually required surgery. However, he didn’t show any obvious signs of decline in his batted ball profile, and his plate discipline remained as good as ever, so a modest bounce back should be expected. He remains one of the very few catchers with a realistic shot at hitting .300. The biggest obstacle to Posey returning high-end fantasy value might be that the Giants begin to rest him more often to preserve his health. Given his poor hitting environment, weak supporting cast, and lack of category juice, Posey needs to rack up a lot of at-bats in order for his typically high batting average to be a true difference-maker for fantasy owners.
Castillo was a top-eight catcher in 2017 and was off to a good start in 2018 before receiving an 80-game PED suspension in late May. He returned from the suspension and a brief DL stint in September but didn’t do much down the stretch. He’s unlikely to match his career-best 2017 season and has never played in more than 113 games in a season, but he’s proven that he’s capable of delivering above-average power for a catcher with a decent batting average. Barring a dramatic decline in production post-PEDs, Castillo should be able to hit around .260 with 15-20 home runs and be a useable starting catcher in 10- and 12-team mixed leagues.
After batting .323 across three minor league levels in 2017, Jansen hit .275 with 12 homers and five steals through 88 games in AAA last year before earning an August call-up to the Blue Jays. He hit .247 with three homers over 31 games in Toronto, and it’s reasonable to expect him to hit .250 with 15 HRs and a few steals in his first full Big League season — with the potential for more. There is a lot of uncertainty at this position once the first eight catchers are off the board so at that point, it makes sense to take a chance on Jansen’s unknown upside. Even if he can’t replicate his minor league production, he could still be a serviceable mixed league starter.
Mejia hit .293 with 14 home runs over 110 games between the Indians’ and Padres’ AAA affiliates last season, a close approximation of his numbers for Cleveland’s AA affiliate the year prior. Between 2017 and 2018, he’s hit just .176 over his first 76 Major League plate appearances, but the contact skills he’s displayed in the minors are exceedingly rare among Major League backstops. The bigger question is how often he’ll play — he will need to battle Austin Hedges for time behind the plate and may have trouble squeezing into the Padres’ crowded outfield rotation. Despite the uncertainty, Mejia is a high-upside talent who I’d take ahead of Jansen if his playing time were assured. If you’re looking for a dark horse candidate to eventually join Realmuto and Sanchez among the position’s elite, Mejia is the guy.
With a strikeout rate below five percent at every level of the minors — and during his 30 game cup of coffee with the Twins last year — Astudillo has the kind of high-level contact skills that can make him a strong asset in batting average, particularly at the weak-hitting catcher position. He could also pop 15 home runs if given regular at-bats, but it’s his at-bat total that is the big question mark. Astudillo isn’t guaranteed a roster spot, let alone a starting job, but if he can find a way to reach 300+ plate appearances, he could surprise and finish as a top-12 catcher in mixed leagues. He’s worth monitoring closely in Spring Training — and drafting if he makes the team.
It’s hard to feel great if one of these guys is your number one catcher, but each has a plausible path to fantasy viability.
My favorite of the bunch is Chirinos, who has finished as a top-12 fantasy catcher in back-to-back seasons, including a top-seven finish last year. His 35 home runs over the last two seasons ranks eighth at the catcher position, and he’s expected to serve as the Astros’ starting catcher after signing a one-year deal in the offseason. He’s likely to be a drain on batting average considering his high strikeout rate, but he should benefit from a good hitting environment and lineup, and the pop is legit. Look his way if you’re hunting for a sleeper at the position.
There’s nothing sexy about drafting Sukuzi, a 35-year old journeyman backstop who’s never hit 20 home runs and may not even be the Nationals’ quote-unquote “starter” behind the plate. But thanks to a bit of pop and very good contact skills for a catcher, Suzuki has quietly finished as a top-11 fantasy catcher in fewer than 400 plate appearances in each of the last two seasons. It remains to be seen how playing time will be divided between Suzuki and Yan Gomes in Washington, but between catching and even getting the occasional start at first base, Suzuki could get enough playing time to once again sneak into the starting catcher conversation in 12-team leagues.
I viewed Barnes as something of a sleeper last year, but his Spring Training struggles carried over to the regular season, and he got permanently buried on the depth chart when Grandal started the season hot. Still, Barnes showed his potential upside with the .289-35-8-38-4 line he put up over 218 at-bats in 2017, so perhaps he can finally put it all together with Grandal no longer in the picture. The problem, of course, is that Barnes now has to battle Russell Martin for playing time, so his outlook remains cloudy.
Narvaez quietly put together some decent production for the White Sox while Castillo was suspended, hitting .275 with nine homers in 280 at-bats. He’s now hit .274 over his first 634 Major League at-bats, although that has been fueled by a .324 BABIP that feels a bit inflated. There’s not much in his minor league track record to suggest Narvaez should be much of an asset with the bat, but he has a seemingly clear path to playing time on a rebuilding Mariners squad, so he’s a bit of a sleeper for that reason if nothing else.
Alfaro is another young catcher who presents the allure of the unknown. He shouldn’t struggle for playing time on the perennially-rebuilding Marlins and has managed to slug 15 homers over his first 467 Major League at-bats. However, that has been accompanied by a massive 35.2 percent strikeout rate, which suggests some major regression is coming to the .270 batting average he’s compiled up to this point. There’s no shame is taking a shot in the dark on Alfaro once the trustworthy catchers are gone, just be ready to quickly pull the plug before he sinks your batting average.
Speaking of batting average albatrosses, Zunino is one of the better sources of power at the catcher position, but with a .207 lifetime average and 34.2 percent career strikeout rate, he is a major liability in the batting average department. As a result, he’s finished as a top-14 fantasy catcher just once — in 2017, when he rode a completely unsustainable .355 BABIP to a .251 batting average. He’s simply too big of a batting average drain to be an appealing starting option in 12-team leagues.
You hopefully won’t come out of your draft with any of these guys are your starter in a 12-team mixed league, but given the state of the position, any of them could sneak into fantasy relevance if things break right. Cervelli and Barnhart are both capable of producing double-digit home runs with a .250 average, but lack upside. Flowers has been a decent part-time player in Atlanta, but not good enough to accrue much mixed league value. Hicks and Kiner-Falefa have some sleeper appeal if they can earn regular playing time at a position other than catcher. Kelly put up some decent numbers in the Cardinals’ farm system, but it remains to be seen if it will translate to the Big Leagues and he’ll need to duke it out with Alex Avila, John Ryan Murphy, and Caleb Joseph for playing time in Arizona.
Hedges has plenty of power but is a batting average liability and could quickly lose playing time to Mejia. Gomes is coming off a solid season but should see his .266 batting average regress and could struggle for at-bats while splitting time with Suzuki. Iannetta is back playing his home games in Colorado, but there’s not much else to recommend him. Lucroy used to be one of the top options at the position, but he has just 10 home runs over the last two seasons combined after hitting 24 in 2016.