OpinionMay 12, 2007

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Behind the Plate

By Aaron West

Now that the season has begun, we can jettison our stat projections, forget about the Spring Training position battles, and stop worrying about playing time. Now, even though only a few dozen games have been played, we have some actual data to measure player performance. During the next few weeks, I will be doing exactly that. I will evaluate all the players, one position at a time, forecasting which are over-performing, under-performing, have some potential sleeper ability, and which players will be serviceable replacements if a starter finds himself on the disabled list.

It is only fitting that we start with the position that far too many fantasy managers seem to focus on the least – the catcher. Picking the right catcher can dramatically increase the odds of contending for a fantasy championship. For example, take a look at the guy in your league who managed to pick up Joe Mauer in the middle rounds last year, or better yet, Brian McCann in the later rounds. On the other hand, if a manager waits too late to draft their catcher, they’ll find themselves juggling the hottest option on the waiver wire. Given the propensity for injury and the impact the position can have on hitting, it can be frustrating trying to find some production. You do not want to be the guy waiting for Mike Napoli to hit above the Mendoza Line again.

Let’s begin with some up-to-the-moment rankings:

1. Russell Martin: This may be my most surprising pick, but Martin has the most upside of all catchers and is coming into his own in 2007. With Mauer’s early injury problems, Martin has situated himself as the most valuable fantasy catcher, mostly because of his well-rounded offensive ability and consistency. He has one quality that cannot be found anywhere else – speed; the kind of speed not seen at catcher since the early days of Craig Biggio (yes, he used to play catcher) and Jason Kendall. He had ten steals last year and already has half that amount early in 2007. He has the potential to be a 20-25 steals guy, which is a gift horse at catcher.

2. Joe Mauer: Unmistakably the top fantasy catcher in baseball, but he drops down a peg this year, partially due to his current injury concerns, but also because of Martin’s strong early play. Mauer’s batting average and run production last year was uncanny for the position; he was third overall at his position in steals, and showed the occasional power streak. Right now he finds himself nursing a bleeding quad injury, which could linger for a little while. While it is a serious concern, he should be back to form before the second half. Remember, he has one major advantage over most catchers – he gets DH time during catching off-days. He will be productive for fantasy leagues before he is healthy enough to play behind the plate.

3. Victor Martinez: Despite an early quad injury, Martinez is raking again. He should hit around .300 with 20-25 homeruns. He bats mostly at cleanup, so there should be plenty of opportunities to drive in runs. He isn’t afraid to take a walk and tends to hit for extra bases, so he should help more in OBP and OPS leagues.

4. Brian McCann: The steal of last year’s draft is here to stay. He was more of a doubles hitter in the minor leagues, but those are the guys that can develop power in the big leagues. He is hitting the ball hard again this year and conveniently batting between sluggers Andruw Jones and Jeff Francouer. Like Mauer, he has struggled to stay healthy in the early going, but he seems to have recovered from an ugly hand injury and his numbers should improve if he can stay healthy.

5. Michael Barrett: He may still be remembered more for his fist than his bat, but that should change this year. He is batting fifth or sixth in the new and improved Cubs lineup. So far he has five dingers, and there should be plenty more flying out of Wrigley on those windy summer days. He has already fought through an early slump and should put up the best numbers of his career this year.

6. Kenji Johjima: He came out of the gates slowly, but a lot of that can be attributed to all of the weather cancellations early this year. The entire Mariners lineup took awhile to warm up. The power is just now starting to show up and should continue throughout the year. I expect Johjima to slightly improve on all of last year’s numbers.

7. Ramon Hernandez: He has the upside to be a top five catcher, but a nasty oblique injury slowed down his bat for awhile. Assuming he manages to get and stay healthy, he could be a bargain second half buy-low catcher.

8. Ivan Rodriguez: Everyone keeps waiting for the decline due to age, but even after a slight power dip since coming to Detroit, Pudge has been the model of consistency at the position. He isn’t going to carry a team, but he has never been an injury risk and always finds a way to get involved in the offense.

9. Jorge Posada: Just about everyone starting in New York has value this year. Just like with Pudge, you know what you get with the Yankee veteran. Just like most years, he should hit around .270 with 20+ long balls.

10. Miguel Olivo: Olivo finds himself on this list thanks to Mike Piazza’s injury. He has a lot of flaws, including a high strikeout rate and low average, all of which can hurt fantasy value. He is streaky, but puts up the occasional monster game. Instead of a long-term solution, I see Olivo more as a temporary injury replacement, and normally would gamble on a high-upside sleeper before investing in him.

Possible Sleepers to keep an eye on:

Ryan Doumit has already won some more playing time with his scorching hot bat. Thanks to playing somewhere everyday, he already has eligibility at first base and in the outfield. If he is able to keep it up, he could become a top five catcher this year.

Chris Iannetta was the trendy sleeper pick at catcher during this year’s drafts, however he has found himself on a lot of waiver wires after a slow start and irregular playing time. He might win some respect as the year progresses. You just have to look at his minor league stats to know that the talent is there.

Johnny Estrada always seems to fly under the fantasy radar, but he had a scorching bat towards the end of last year and would be a great choice to fill in for injury.

Mike Piazza: I’m not sold on the converted catcher to DH theory, in that said catcher’s hitting will improve. It was only last year that the same experiment was tried and abysmally failed with Javy Lopez, who now finds himself out of the Majors. Piazza has been in decline for awhile and now finds himself injured, but he could still have second-half value as long as he hits cleanup in the young Oakland A’s lineup.

As noted above, there are already several options for considerate fantasy production behind the plate. But, as is always the case with catchers, fantasy managers should be on the lookout for possible replacements if and when the injury bug hits.

Next I will look at the sluggers playing first base and designated hitter.

Aaron is a man of many addictions. When he's not perusing box scores, player stats, and fantasy lineups, he's usually obsessing about upcoming movies and the recent CD releases - the more obscure, the better. You can catch up with Aaron in the Cafe Forums where he posts as dissent.
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