Wednesday, March 08, 2006

FANTASY BASEBALL'S TOP CATCHERS!

Continuing our journey around the fantasy diamond, the Catcher... the backstop. Oftentimes given little credit, a top-notch receiver can make even the most average pitcher look good. Catching a ball that cuts through the air at 93 miles per hour or breaks 3 feet in the span of 3/10's of a second takes remarkable eye-hand coordination, and blocking the plate when a 6-3/225 1st Baseman rounds third with a full-head of steam, hoping to seperate you from the ball... and possibly your head from your shoulders, requires nerves of steel. In addition, the Catcher must keep a sharp eye on the men on base, for any ball player will take advantage of even a momentary lapse in catcher concentration. And, on top of all the above defensive assignments, a Catcher must also be able to hit! Naturally, the game's developed a special breed of "defensive catchers," but only teams with brutish lineups such as Houston, who plays Brad Ausmus, can afford to swap offense for almost exclusive defense.

Unlike 3rd and Short', there's no bumper-crop of fantasy backstops this season. Likewise, there's a substantial drop-off in talent after the top 5 or so. However, there is value to be had throughout the league. Keep in mind, though, that many formats require 2 starting Catchers. Unless you opt to sacrifice a pitcher or backup position player, the odds of landing a pair of above-average Catchers is slim. Pairing a 1st or 2nd tier player with a "super-prospect" or "sleeper" would be an excellent draft-day strategy.


"Cream of the Crop"

1. Cleveland Indians; Victor Martinez: Arguably the best receiver in the game, Martinez is a key catalyst for a very promising young Cleveland club. V-Mar' showed impressive maturity by pulling himself up and out of a substantial first-half, sophomore slump; his average was just .210 through the end of May. Prior to the break, the Indian Catcher hit .236/.380/.312 (avg/slg/obp), with 9 HR, 35 RBI, and 67 hits.
The 2nd half was an entirely different story and the dude looked like an entirely different player. Martinez pulverized the ball, hitting .380/.578/.449, with 11 HR, 45 RBI and 100 hits, and concluded the '05 season with an excellent fantasy line of .305/20/80.
At 27, V-Mar's just reaching his prime and tapping into his vast potential. Surrounded by a crew of bashers that include OF'er Grady Sizemore, SS Jhonny Peralta, 2B Ronnie Belliard, and DH Travis Hafner, the "crush-alot" Catcher should give you numbers more befitting of a Corner-Infielder or Outfielder.
Look for every one of Martinez's offensive values to increase in '06, and .310/25/98, with 95 Runs scored.

2. Minnesota Twins; Joe Mauer: Martinez may be the game's best young Catcher, but Minny' Twin Joe Mauer isn't far behind. Mauer's '04 rookie campaign ended disastrously; a torn-up knee cost the 22 year old Twin almost 130 games. But in 107 ABs prior to the injury, the former High School All-Star and first overall '01 draft pick pounded-out a line of .308/6/17 and teased the Minnesota faithful with his rare skills. Last season, "MI-Joe" fell a bit short of expectations in the power and production departments, but the somewhat iffy cast of characters surrounding him in the lineup did nothing to help him.
This season, Joe Mauer's knee should be 100% and teammates such as Shannon Stewart, Torri Hunter, and Luis Castillo can't help but to be better and will afford him solid protection. Jot Joe down for .310/16/80 with 12 SB.

3. NY Yankees; Jorge Posada: A strong 2004 campaign saw Posada post elite numbers (for a Catcher) of .272/.481/.400 (avg/slg/obp) with 21 Homers', 81 RBIs, and 31 Doubles. Last season, however, was a disappointing encore. The veteran Yankee's offensive production took a decided dip; .262/.430/.252, with 19 Home Runs, 71 RBIs, and 23 Doubles. Jorge's best season came in '03, when he put up numbers many 3rd Baseman would envy; .281/30/101, with a SLG % of .518. Since then, however, Posada's offensive output has been heading steadily downhill, and last season's RBI total was his worst since '99. In addition, Posada hit an utterly anemic .111 with the bases loaded and an even feebler .100 with 2-outs and RISP.
Never known for calling a good game, Posada's received criticisism from several Yankee arms over the years for throwing down a single finger; that is, having his pitchers lean heavily upon the fastball. Last year the Yanks' key off-season acquisition, Randy Johnson, refused to allow Posada to catch him and relied almost exclusively upon backup John Flaherty. Even so, Posada caught 133 games in '05 and served as a DH in 3 others. Posada is now 34 and while he won't catch "Big Unit," that job will fall to newcomer Kelly Stinnett who offers a much better bat than the departed Flaherty, he will still be expected to squat for another 130 games or so. Given the knee-weakening presences of A-Rod, Sheffield, Matsui, Johnny Damon and the other Yankee All-Stars, Posada amounts to the least of an opposing hurler's worries. While his body will be able to withstand only so much more abuse, Posada should remain a top op' at the position for another year or 2. With Damon batting leadoff, Jason Giambi having re-discovered his seat-reaching stroke, and New York overflowing with talent, Posada will again bat towards the end of the lineup. Nevertheless, the loaded Yankees lineup should afford Posada more RBI chances than he had last season, and .273/22/86 could even be on the conservative side.

4. Baltimore Orioles; Javy Lopez: The Atlanta Braves have a feel for talent that borders on the spooky. Sensing that the longtime Brave backstop was on the brink of a slide, Atlanta allowed him to bolt for Balty' as a free agent. As if on cue, "J-Lo's" numbers dropped faster than leaves in Fall. In 2003, his last year in a Brave Uni', Lopez swatted a herculean .328/43/109, with 150 hits and a SLG % of .687 In '04, his first year as an Oriole, Lopez hit .316/23/86, with a SLG % of .503. While Javy's average remained excellent, his HR production was nearly halved, his RBI total fell by more than 20, and his Slugging % fell by a precipitous 180+ points. Had Javy's production levelled off even there, the Orioles would've left him as the starting Catcher. But, alas, the diggies' continued their downward spiral, and last year Lopez hit .278/15/49, with 110 hits and a SLG % of .458. I should be noted that a tipped ball caused Lopez to miss 2 months with a broken hand.
Within the brief span of 2 seasons the aging Catcher's average took a 50 point cliff dive, his Home Run total fell by 2/3, his RBI output was cut by more than 50%, and his SLG % careened downward by 230 points. Unwilling to endure additional carnage, Baltimore brought Catcher Ramon Hernandez over from San Diego, and has plans to slot Javy Lopez as the semi-permanent DH.
Naturally, the 35 year old receiver is ...umm, "agitated" by Balty's stance, but stated that he'd be willing to play 1st Base if the team would simply grant him a contract extension. Should the Oriole management accede to such a demand then it will become apparent that they're ill-fit to run even a Sandbox.com fantasy ball club.
Operating under the assumption that a disgruntled Javy Lopez doesn't force a trade and remains in Baltimore, he'll actually retain nice value as he won't be subjected to 140-odd games behind the plate, he'll most likely have the meat of the order batting in front of him, and there aren't many Catchers who possess his power potential.
So what does this mean from a fantasy perspective? I'd say something resembling .278/24/88.

5. Boston Red Sox; Jason Varitek: Although the BoSox lineup remains awfully imposing, a 33 year old Varitek is starting to look like a... a... a Catcher on the wrong side of 30, frankly. His .281/22/70, 30 Double, .856 OPS line neatly camouflaged a few flaws. For instance; 'Tek hit 50+ points better against lefty's (.320 Vs. .267), Fenway Park and the "Green Monster" exacted a mighty toll on his average (Home was .247/.417/.337 and Away was .312/.555/.393), and his average dropped almost 50 points while his SLG % took an 80 point dive over the season's 2nd half.
But again, like Jorge Posada, we have a fantasy Catcher who will benefit from the beef around him, and 'Tek should still be an above-average fantasy Catcher. Look for a dip in average and power, but most owners would be delighted with a season approaching .275/21/80.

6. Detroit Tigers; Ivan Rodriguez: Pudge suffered through the single-worst season of his Major League career last year, batting .276/.290/.444, with 14 HR and 50 RBI. Making matters worse for a player who is looked upon as a prime run producer, I-Rod whiffed a career-high 93 times, walked just 11 times (and 3 of those were intentional), and in 122 ABS with RISP, he hit a mere .213. That goes a long, long way to explaining a meager 50 Ribs'. With 15 years of big league service, Pudge set the bar for the modern day "power hitting" backstop and is zeroing in on 300 Home Runs, 2,200 hits and 1,100 RBI. However, he's also going on 35, he's taken a great deal of punishment over the course of his career, and should he again struggle at the plate and post anything approaching last year's ghastly .290 OBP, manager Jim Leyland won't hesitate to move him to the bottom 1/3 of the order.
The Detroit Tigers DO have some talent such as Magglio Ordonez, Dmitri Young, and Carlos Guillen. While many mags' and Baseball insiders are calling for a rebound season, I'm more inclined to believe that I-Rod's off-season is indicative of diminished bat speed and advancing age. Due in part to the improved talent in front of him. I'm calling for .278/15/70.

7. Baltimore Orioles; Ramon Hernandez: With Javy Lopez playing a total of 103 games last year, coupled with his rapidly declining offensive numbers, the Orioles decided to pursue a starting caliber Catcher.
On the opposite coast, the San Diego Padres were not impressed with Ramon Hernandez's agents' demands for a contract extension last spring, and were furious when the Catcher opted to undergo wrist surgery during the season as opposed to after it. In actuality, Hernandez felt that there was no way he would be back in San-D' in '06, so he underwent surgery in late July and returned in September to hit .359/5/20, with a SLG % of .615 and an OBP of .398. The in-season surgery had a very noticeable impact on the former Pads' numbers; prior to the break and operation he was hitting .277/.419/.307, after the break .319/.517/.355. Although the smack outta' Balty' is that the 2 backstops will platoon, it's far more likely that Ramon Hernandez will bear the lion's share of the Catching duties while Javy Lopez will serve as the semi-permanent DH.
A mid-rounder in "AL-Only" formats, Ramon Hernandez is an attractive "mixed-leaguer" as well. With Hernandez acclimated to hitting in "State Park-esque" Petco, Camden Yards will seem a hitter's park by comparison.
Look for .280/21/80.

8. NY Mets; Paul Lo Duca: Born in Brooklyn, NY, much like another former ball player who hails from Brooklyn, Lee Mazzilli, Paul Lo Duca carries himself with a confidence and self-assurance that fellow Brooklynites know so well. As a matter of fact, denizens of the "fuhgetaboutit" borough will have ample opportunity to see Lo Duca play as he will now be suiting up for "Willie and the Mets!"
Lo Duca, an excellent offensive Catcher over the course of his 8 big league seasons, struggled to get it going last year, his second season as a Marlin. All of Lo Duca's offensive numbers took a hit last year, but things are looking up now that "Paully," as he's now known to certain New York Baseball fans, will play at Shea. The Mets will quite arguably field the fastest team in club history, and in Carlos Beltran, Cliff Floyd, David Wright Carlos Delgado, and Lo Duca, there should also be no shortage of power. Manager Willie intends to slot his new receiver in the 2-hole, but given the team speed and talent Lo Duca might eventually be moved lower in the lineup. But no matter where he bats Lo Duca should be productive, and surrounded by "Flushing's finest" he should be considered a solid "Mixed-League" and excellent "NL-Only" backstop option.
Look for a .283/11/65 campaign, with the prospect of even more RBIs if Randolph opts out of batting him 2nd.

9. San Diego Padres; Mike Piazza: Having had his eye on NY Met Catcher Mike Piazza since last season's Winter meetings, Padre GM Kevin Towers kept his interest quiet, sat tight, and waited for his chance to pounce. Prior to the Pad' deal, there'd been a great deal of speculation that the former Met would remain in NY; he'd just... slide 'cross town. Although the 37 year old Catcher would've filled a number of glaring holes for the NY Yankees, GM Brian Cashman and deep-pocketed owner George Steinbrenner opted to pass on the Cooperstown-bound back-stop. Why... therein lies a good question. Last season in 113 games, Piazza hung some very respectable numbers; .251/19/62. For the Bronx Bombers, Piazza could've spelled an aging and defensively deficient Jorge Posada behind the dish 15 or so times over the course of the season, and would've given the Yanks' a VERY competent DH... something former Centerfielder Bernie Williams is not. All this is, however, just a pipe-dream. It's also something that could come back to bite the Bomber brass on their arrogant ass.
For a mere (and I DO use the term loosely) 2 Mill' (and possibly another 750K if certain incentives are met), the Pads' get themselves a very credible stick, a 70-80 game Catcher, a 1st Bagger against some tuff' as leather Lefty's, and a DH for the 9 Inter-League games the team has scheduled. And should Mikey P' enjoy a renaissance season- San D' inked him to an $8 Milly' '07 option. The aging Catcher will split the backstop duties with incumbent Doug Mirabelli. All in all, for the money being paid, I'd say the Padres pulled-off a tremendous deal... a deal that as of today, makes them a much stronger ball club.
Assuming he gets his cuts in 125 or so games, Piazza could well surprise and a season of .285/22/85 is not beyond his reach.

10. Chicago White Sox; A.J Pierzynski: An excellent defensive Catcher A.J "Pier-hate-to-spell-his-name" was also expected to help boost the Chicag-O', yet he posted the lowest batting average of his 8 year career last year (.257), his first as a White Sock, and also struck-out a career worst 68 times. In conjunction, he hit an anemic .236 with RISP, hung equally feeble OBP and OPS percentages of .308 and .728 respectively, and continued to flounder against Lefty's. Pierzynski hit .230 against left-handers and .263 against right-handers. That, my fantasy friends, would be the downside. The upside? Pierzynski clubbed a career-high 18 Homers, recorded a second-best Run total of 61, and this season should be better for one of GQ Magazines' "10 Most Hated Athletes." Still under 30 (29), the former .300 hitter reportedly applied himself over the off-season, working to strengthen his core muscles and improve his "muscle memory," and enjoys a home park (U.S Cellular Field) that's a "hitter's park." While I wouldn't look for any significant jump in his Home Run production, Pierzynski's batting average should buoy a bit as should his RBI total.
According to my "Fantasy Magic-8," Pier-hate-his-name could be as good as .285/16/75.


"On the Way Up!"

1. Minnesota Twins; Joe Mauer: Mauer is one of baseball's brightest young Catchers, possessing ample power and a sharp eye at the plate. Barely old enough to buy a lottery ticket, Mauer has completely recovered from the devastating knee injury suffered early in his rookie year and projects to be the linchpin of a young Twin offense. In a position that lacks great depth, Joe Mauer could go as low as the 3rd round in deep mixed leagues.

2. Florida Marlins; Josh Willingham: After bidding Paul Lo Duca a fond Bon Voyage as he sailed away to the NY Metropolitans, the Marlins had a void to fill. Enter minor league masher Josh Willingham. In '05 dude "crushed alot" in just 219 Triple A Alburquerque ABs, absolutely punishing the ball to the tune of .324/.676/.455, with 19 round-trippers', 54 RBI, and 36 extra-base hits out of 71 total hits. Willingham recorded OPS totals of 1.000 or greater at every minor league stop, and while he may yet end up an Outfielder Florida's gonna' want, and needs, his bat in the everyday lineup. At 27, Willingham's days as a top prospect are evaporating like a puddle on a hot afternoon. Look for him to beat-out incumbent Miguel Olivo for the starting Catching job and hang numbers worthy of a top fantasy back-up; .275/18/60.

"Top Sleepers"

1. Pittsburgh Pirates; Ryan Doumit: Doumit, a '99 2nd round draft pick, has struggled with injuries but was finally able to stay healthy last season. A 25 AB spring in which he deposited 5 pitches into the stands forced the Pitt' brass to take notice of the 24 year old prospect, however he was still sent down to the minors to begin the '05 season. Called up in early June Doumit was made the regular Catcher by July, and things really started to click after the All-Star break when he hit .281/6/25. Yo-Yo'ed through the lineup, he seems best suited to the 6 spot and hit impressively with RISP, .333/.470/.423, and the bases juiced, .375/.375/.444.
The Pirates may have more talent in the lineup than some believe, as young LF'er Jason Bay is a stud-in-the-making, 25 year old CF'er Chris Duffy hit a scorching .341 in 126 plate appearances, and veterans Jeremy Burnitz (30 HR power), 3B Joe Randa (43 Doubles and a .452 SLG % last season) and 1B Sean Casey (hit .312 and whiffed just 48 times in almost 530 ABs) are each capable batsmen.
A candidate for a breakthrough campaign, Doumit's a sneaky-good gamble and should be available through most leagues' 'Wires as he's still an unknown quantity. Jot the young Bucc' down for a solid .263/12/50. If Doumit does that much, he'll be an excellent backup or #2 Catcher in leagues that require 2 starting C's.

2. LA Angels; Jeff Mathis: The favorite to replace Bengie Molina behind the dish for Anaheim, some Baseball observers believe Mathis would benefit from another year of Trip' A seasoning. Irregardless, it seems as if manager Mike Scioscia has his hands clapped over his ears and will go with the 22 year old prospect. Look, if anyone has an eye for Catchers it's Scioscia, and thus far the early spring returns on Mathis have been favorable.
With a mentor in Molina and a strong contingent of Angel position players supporting him, Mathis looks to be a bright prospect. That does not mean, though, that he's a bright fantasy prospect. Yet. Those of you who are Catcher-poor still might wish to wait before jumping on the Jeff Mathis bandwagon as his bat was lukewarm .276/.340/.499 at Triple A Salt Lake last season.
Assuming Mathis sticks as a starter he's still going to need at least one full season of big league pitching to adjust; .255/8/45 would be a successful year for the up and comer.


"Deeper Sleeper"

Seattle Mariners; Kenji Johjima A 30 year old Japanese import, Johjima was awarded a virtual king's ransom (3 years, 16.5 Mill') to leave Japan and come to Seattle. An excellent defensive Catcher, Johjima seems to be hitting this spring... but spring means little. The big dogs come out to play in April.
A middle of the road fantasy prospect, Johjima could stick on a fantasy roster as a suitable #2 man. I will carefully forecast .273/16/70. And again, should the Mariner backstop be that good- owners can pat themselves on the back for a savvy grab.

2. Atlanta Braves; Brian McCann: McCann wasn't expected to be promoted to the show until... oh, 2007 or so. But, when both Johnny Estrada AND Eddie Perez landed on the DL the 22 year old was forced into a starter's role. And, 180 ABs and .278/5/23 "later," Estrada was awarded his walking papers and the Braves have high hopes for the 6-3/210 "kid." That, my friends, is a VERY big kid!
A top power prospect, with all the lumber Atlanta can bring to bear... McCann could turn in a very good, .279/15/75 kinda' season.


"On the Way Down!"

1. Detroit Tigers; Ivan Rodriguez: Pudge hung a horrifying .290 OBP with 14 HRs last year, his smallest Homer' total in 11 seasons, his 11 Walks were 1/4 of last season's total, and 50 RBI... the last season that saw him drive in fewer men was '92. Last season's dramatic decrease in offensive productivity would indicate diminished skills. An "old" 34, Pudge could really see his diggies' take a dive.

2. NY Yankees Jorge Posada: In a recent interview with the NY Post, Posada conceded that last season was a "bad season offensively" but continued to say that he didn't feel as if it was a "trend." All of his numbers over the last 2 seasons would indicate otherwise. His average, SLG %, OBP, Home Run totals, Ribbies' and Runs scored have all fallen since his .281/30/101 '03. While Jorge's average may buoy a bit, overall his numbers will likely continue their downward trend.

3. San Diego Padres: Mike Piazza: Had Mikey-P founds himself on an AL roster as the full-time DH, his fortunes might've been even brighter. However, the guy's been a defensive liability for years, and playing in the heat of San Diego will surely sap his strength over the dog days of mid-July through late August. Although I have him listed amongst the top 10, some owner will overpay for his services... don't be that owner! Piazza retains enough pop to help a fantasy team and should be productive enough to rank be a #1 fantasy receiver. That being said, Piazza's no longer playing in Shea, and Petco Park WILL impact his power numbers.

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