It’s a little later than usual, but here’s the first Strike Zone of the year. As per usual, I’m starting things off by breaking down the catcher spot. I’m hoping to squeeze in all eight breakdown columns prior to the start of the year, so check back frequently before the regular weekly column kicks off just before Opening Day.
In these breakdown columns, I’ll be highlighting players I believe are underrated and overrated as judged against early ADPs (average draft positions) and also highlighting sleepers. For my complete rankings and projections, a subscription to the online Draft Guide is required. Of course, I heartily recommend anteing up; included are dozens of articles from fantastic writers, new mock drafts weekly, rankings of almost every sort and daily updated projections through the opener.
Fortunately, there are no big eligibility issues at catcher this year. It’s probably time to give up on Kyle Schwarber behind the plate; he’s still an emergency option for the Cubs, but it seems highly unlikely that he’ll make five appearances at the position this year. It will be fun if Pablo Sandoval qualifies at catcher at some point, but he’s probably not going to get enough playing time at any position to make much of an impact. Indians prospect Fernando Mejia will be limited to DH eligibility in traditional leagues initially. More on him in a minute.
Willson Contreras (Cubs): Gary Sanchez is going off the board a little later than I’d prefer in most leagues, but I can’t say the No. 1 catcher quite qualifies as underrated. The No. 2 catcher, on the other hand… Contreras has an ADP of 71 in Yahoo leagues while occupying the 54th spot in my top 300. The 25-year-old was on pace for 30 homers and 100 RBI last season when he injured his hamstring on Aug. 9. There are a couple of other catchers who might be able to match him homer for homer, but, Sanchez aside, they aren’t career .278 hitters and they’re not as good of bets when it comes to RBI.
Austin Barnes (Dodgers): The Dodgers say they want to go back to Yasmani Grandal against right-handers this year after picking Barnes as their starting catcher in the postseason. It is a nice problem that they have; Barnes and Grandal both rank among the game’s top 10 catchers. Because playing time will be an issue early on, Barnes’ price tag has been falling in drafts; he’s now sporting an ADP of just 222 in Yahoo. Still, I’ll gladly suffer some one- and two-RBI weeks early on to go forward with Barnes this year. He can hit for average (.289 with a .408 OBP last year), he possesses substantial pop (.489 slugging) and he has the most steal potential of any catcher-eligible player (18-for-21 stealing bases in 85 games in Triple-A in 2016). Barnes should be more consistent than the injury-prone Grandal, and the Dodgers can play him at second base on occasion if they like. I think it’ll all work out in the end, even if April is pretty lean.
Wilson Ramos (Rays): Because he was coming off a .307-22-80 season in Washington, fantasy leaguers were willing to wait out Ramos’s recovery from a torn ACL last year. This year, there’s been no buzz, even though Ramos is healthy this time around. If he disappointed in hitting .260-11-35 in 64 games last year, it’s only because expectations were inflated. Double that production in a full season this year, and he’s most likely a top-10 fantasy catcher. Sure, the lineup around him in Tampa Bay looks pretty bad, but that could be in Ramos’s favor; he’ll likely hit in the middle of the order and he should get to spend some time at DH when he’s not catching. He’s my No. 7 catcher and 131st-ranked player overall. In Yahoo leagues, he’s the ninth catcher selected, with an ADP of 190.
Buster Posey (Giants): Posey remains a wonderful player, but he’s totaled 26 homers in 286 games the last two years combined, and the Giants offense was so bad last season that he averaged fewer runs+RBI per plate appearance than Travis d’Arnaud or Yan Gomes. Of course, the Giants will be better this year after adding Andrew McCutchen and Evan Longoria, but playing in one of the game’s worst park for offenses will continue to take a toll. He’s still getting drafted earlier than Contreras in most leagues, but I’d rather have the Cubs catcher.
Yadier Molina (Cardinals): Seemingly in a steady decline a couple of years ago, Molina bounced back with an excellent season in 2016 and even better campaign from a fantasy perspective last season, when he finished with 18 homers (his second-highest total ever) and a career-best 82 RBI. He even stole nine bases after totaling 10 steals the previous four years combined. All that has driven Molina’s price tag higher this spring -- he’s the sixth catcher off the board in Yahoo leagues -- but the fact remains that he’s a 35-year-old with a ton of mileage on him. He sacrificed some contact ability to pull off the power spike last year, and it’s unclear if it will remain worth the trade off going forward. It’d be asking a whole lot for him to come close to those power numbers again.
Brian McCann (Astros): McCann gave the Astros exactly what they hoped for after they acquired him from the Yankees, though that didn’t stop the team from taking a hard look at J.T. Realmuto over the winter. While McCann has been a very steady player the last four years, he’s a minus in batting average, he plays in an extreme pitcher’s park, he hits at the bottom of the order and he needs more time off now than he used to. He’ll get his 20 homers or so, but he shouldn’t help much elsewhere. He’s my No. 18 catcher this year.
Jorge Alfaro (Phillies): Alfaro is getting some hype this spring after a surprisingly strong offensive showing following his callup last year; he hit .318/.360/.514 with five homers in 107 at-bats for the Phillies. What made it such a surprise was that he batted just .241 with seven homers in 324 at-bats in Triple-A. His success in the majors came with an atrocious whiff rate of 21.5%. To put that in perspective, only two batting-title qualifiers (Joey Gallo at 19.3% and Javier Baez at 19.2%) were within even five percentage points of the mark. Alfaro also worked a total of two unintentional walks in his 114 plate appearances. Furthermore, he’s an erratic defensive catcher with the necessary tools behind the plate but plenty of frustrating moments. Alfaro is out of options, so he’s certain to make the Phillies and he’ll probably be the Opening Day catcher. I’m skeptical that it will last, though.
Chris Iannetta (Rockies): A return to Coors Field after six years away is enough to drown out some of my concerns about Iannetta repeating a 2017 season that came with an OPS 200 points higher than his marks from 2015 and 2016. Iannetta hit 17 homers in just 272 at-bats as a member of the Diamondbacks, matching his total from 567 at-bats the previous two seasons combined. There’s no telling if the good Iannetta will show up again, but the Rockies signed him to play pretty regularly and that makes him an option as a last-round No. 1 catcher in mixed leagues or the perfect second catcher in two-catcher mixed leagues.
Travis d’Arnaud (Mets): It wasn’t the breakout campaign one might have hoped for in d’Arnaud’s healthiest season to date, but he overcame an early season wrist injury to play in 112 games and finished with 16 homers. In September, he batted .297 with six homers and 19 RBI. D’Arnaud possesses the exit velocity and strikeout rates of a quality hitter. Last year’s .244/.293/.443 line would have looked a lot better if he had matched his .289 or .293 BABIPs from the previous two years instead of coming in at .250. I’d be higher on him if he weren’t as big of an injury risk as any position player in the game. Still, I think he’s a great No. 2 catcher in mixed leagues and a worthy roll of the dice in NL-only leagues.
Francisco Mejia (Indians): Because five of his eight appearances for the Indians last September came at DH, Mejia lacks catcher eligibility in traditional leagues going into the season. Still, if he gets a shot later on, he should quickly gain eligibility. The 22-year-old is a future top-five fantasy catcher if he can stay behind the plate. The Indians gave him a look at third base last fall in an effort to perhaps speed his arrival to the majors, but that didn’t go particularly well. It’s quite possible Mejia won’t be a factor in 2018, but he has too much upside to go unlisted here; Mejia hit .297/.346/.490 as a 21-year-old in Double-A last year and .342/.382/.514 in A-ball in 2016. Besides being in line for catcher at-bats if someone goes down, he could also be the Indians’ best option at DH in the event of an Edwin Encarnacion injury.
Blake Swihart (Red Sox): Swihart ceased being much of a sleeper for the Red Sox when the team signed Eduardo Nunez and J.D. Martinez and cut off any real path to non-catcher at-bats for the long-time prospect. Now Swihart, who is out of options, is a sleeper for the rest of the league, since it looks like the Red Sox might trade him and continue to go with Christian Vazquez and Sandy Leon behind the plate. Swihart has been injured for big chunks of the last two years and mostly unproductive in Triple-A when healthy, but he’s still a talent, one with the potential to be a fine long-term regular for some team. While he’d probably take some lumps this year, he’d be a smart pickup for a non-contender with at-bats available, and if he gets the opportunity to start elsewhere, he’d be worth a try in two-catcher mixed leagues.