(Photo by Nick Wosika/Icon Sportswire)
With the Super Bowl in the rearview mirror, America can finally turn its attention to the superior sport of baseball. Today, we begin breaking down Pitcher List’s 2018 positional rankings with a look at the least glamorous position. At this point, catcher is arguably the only spot on the diamond that suffers from a scarcity of viable fantasy options. After the elites are off the board, there’s not much separation to be found.
Tier 1: The Studs
1. Gary Sanchez (New York Yankees) – Sanchez followed up his insane rookie year with a terrific performance in 2017. His 33 home runs easily led all players at the position, as only five other catchers even cracked 20. Sanchez also paced the field in runs and RBI and hit .278. He’s clearly the best offensive backstop in baseball, and it’s hard to find a more favorable team and park context than the Yankees enjoy.
2. Buster Posey (San Francisco Giants) – Don’t be too quick to overlook Posey, however. He’s been at the top of the heap for almost a decade for a reason. The veteran hit .320 last year, making him the only catcher to hit above .290. He also played in 140 games for the sixth straight season, trailing only J.T. Realmuto in that area in 2017. His home run total dropped for the fourth year in a row and the run production suffered from a nightmare season for the Giants as a whole, but Posey remains a cut above most other options at the position. The vast majority of catchers are liabilities in batting average, so a high-volume backstop who can hit .300 carries plenty of value.
3. Willson Contreras (Chicago Cubs) – Contreras clearly possesses more power upside than Buster Posey, but he also sits more often and won’t be as much of an asset in batting average. Not that the likely .275 mark he’ll provide is bad, of course, especially for a catcher. Contreras is going slightly ahead of Posey in drafts this year based on early ADP, and that’s fine. Either will ensure that you enjoy excellent production from a position where that’s difficult to come by. We just like Posey a bit better based on the aforementioned advantages, along with a longer track record of success.
Tier 2: Consolation Prizes
4. Salvador Perez (Kansas City Royals) – Not to put too fine a point on it, but playing time matters more at this position than any other. Due to the physical demands of the position and the impracticality of carrying an extra catcher on your fantasy bench, guys who suit up more often get a jump on the rest of the field. Perez is a textbook example. Only Posey has started more games over the last five years than Perez, whose home run total has risen each of those seasons. He finished second to Sanchez with 27 bombs a year ago, and third behind Sanchez and Yadier Molina with 80 RBI. That last mark might be tough to replicate with the Royals losing some of their best hitters, but Perez offers durability and steady power without killing your batting average.
5. Evan Gattis (Houston Astros) – Gattis bears a lot of similarities to Perez; in fact, they’re two of only three catchers to crack the 100 HR mark over the last five seasons. Gattis leads all catchers in that span with 114 homers, despite only playing in 82 games last year. He’s expected to be the primary DH in Houston this season, which should allow him to suit up more often than most catcher-eligible players. Don’t expect an average above .260, but 30 homers and solid run production are definitely on the table.
Tier 3: Cromulent Catchers
6. J.T. Realmuto (Miami Marlins) – As mentioned above, Realmuto led all catchers in games played a year ago. Over the past two seasons, he’s hit .290, scored 128 runs, and stolen 20 bases, putting him in the top-five at the position in all three categories. He’s also avoided being a complete zero in HR and RBI. However, the Marlins’ talent purge is likely to take a chunk out of his value assuming he’s not traded himself. He’d probably be in the tier above if Miami weren’t committed to giving their fanbase the finger yet again.
7. Wilson Ramos (Tampa Bay Rays) – Ramos’ 2016 breakout ended with an awful knee injury that kept him out of action for the first half of 2017. Unfortunately, an inability to stay healthy has been a common theme in his career. The rust was obvious and understandable early, but Ramos actually played pretty great in the final two months: .296/.324/.496 with eight homers and 35 R+RBI in 39 games. It’s not hard to imagine him turning in a full season on that level, but the injury history can’t be ignored.
8. Yadier Molina (St. Louis Cardinals) – Always known more for his work behind the plate than beside it, Molina continues to perform at an admirable level in his mid-thirties. He hasn’t hit below .270 this decade, and last season’s 18 home runs, 82 RBI, and nine (!) stolen bases were among the leaders at the position. It is, however, tough to bet on a repeat of this performance. After all, he’ll be 36 this year, and those homer and steal totals were both higher than his three previous seasons combined. Still, Molina plays a lot and doesn’t hurt you in any categories. That’s enough to make him one of the better fantasy catchers.
9. Welington Castillo (Chicago White Sox) – Despite playing in only 96 games last season, Castillo set career highs in home runs (20), runs scored (44), and batting average (.282). He should get the bulk of starts behind the plate for the Sox; while Castillo is a pretty terrible framer, backup Omar Narvaez is even worse and doesn’t have much offensive upside. Betting on another .280 average is probably a bad idea given his contact issues and lack of foot speed, but Castillo is among the better catchers available in the middle-to-late rounds.
10. Yasmani Grandal (Los Angeles Dodgers) – Arguably the most contentious debate among staff over catcher rankings came when we discussed Grandal. The presence of Austin Barnes was a major factor in that discussion. Barnes, of course, took the starting job and ran with it in the postseason after Grandal stumbled after the All-Star break for the second year in a row. Assuming Grandal is not traded, however, there’s still reason to think he will get the majority of starts behind the plate. He’s one of the best defensive catchers in baseball, for one thing. Barnes can also play second base, which gives him another path to playing time. I would anticipate a 65/35 catching split in favor of Grandal, who ranks in the top five among catchers in homers (49) and RBI (130) over the past two seasons.
Tier 4: Last Call
11. Mike Zunino (Seattle Mariners) – Zunino finally stuck at the major-league level for a full season, and finished third among catchers with 25 home runs. He also ranked in the top seven at the position in runs scored and RBI. That’s the good news. The bad news is that even with a .355 BABIP, he hit just .251 thanks to an absurd 36.8% strikeout rate. Only three hitters with at least 400 plate appearances made less contact than Zunino did. Despite that, he’s the eighth catcher off the board on average in early drafts. The power is enough to make him interesting, but you’d better have a few high-average hitters on the roster to absorb his negative impact in that category.
12. Brian McCann (Houston Astros) – McCann has been a steady contributor for over a decade, but he’s also entering his age-34 season with more question marks than usual. Last season was the first time he failed to play in 100 games since becoming a full-time player. He’s hit above .242 just once in the last six years, and his 18 homers in 2017 broke a streak of nine straight seasons with at least 20. McCann’s also likely to find himself batting eighth or ninth most of the year, which will keep his run production suppressed even in the Astros’ potent lineup.
13. Jorge Alfaro (Philadelphia Phillies) – One of the top catching prospects in baseball, Alfaro is out of minor-league options, which makes him a virtual lock for a roster spot. Whether he establishes himself as the starter and/or a fantasy asset will depend on how much contact he can make at the MLB level. Alfaro didn’t exactly light the world on fire at Triple-A last year, with just seven homers, a .649 OPS, and a strikeout rate north of 30 percent. Even as a Phillies fan, this ranking feels optimistic to me. The power is very real, I’m just not confident that he’ll get to it in games often enough to be a starter in standard mixed leagues.
14. Robinson Chirinos (Texas Rangers) – Barring a trade or free agent signing, it appears the Rangers will finally give Chirinos the starting job this year. The 33-year-old has been solid in a timeshare over the last few seasons, and last year he hit a career-high 17 homers and totaled 84 R+RBI in just 88 games while batting a passable .255. Over the last four seasons, Chirinos is a top-5 catcher by OPS (minimum 1,000 plate appearances). A full season as a starter could make him a bargain.
15. Jonathan Lucroy (Free Agent) – Even a deadline trade to Colorado couldn’t help Lucroy find his power, as he hit just six home runs in 123 games and contributed nothing in batting average or run production. The impulse to bet on a rebound is understandable; Lucroy was one of the best catchers in baseball from 2012 – 14 and again in 2016. But he’s also been a complete bust in two of the last three seasons, will be 32 this year, and doesn’t currently have a team.
16. Austin Barnes (Los Angeles Dodgers) – If Barnes ends up with the lion’s share of the playing time behind the plate in L.A., you can go ahead and bump him up this list substantially. Fantasy owners appear willing to bet on this, as he’s the 12th catcher off the board by NFBC ADP. The profile is great – essentially J.T. Realmuto with more walks – so that’s not surprising. As already stated, though, I’m not sure folks should be so quick to write off Yasmani Grandal.
Tier 5: Scrap Heap
17. Christian Vazquez (Boston Red Sox) – Vazquez was the only catcher besides Buster Posey to hit .290 last year, and he stole seven bases. Those two facts alone are enough to make him interesting, as there aren’t many catchers who possess both contact ability and speed. Like most catchers, though, he won’t give you great run production, and there’s not much reason to believe he has upside far beyond the five homers he hit a year ago. He’s a fine second catcher in 2C leagues or starter in AL-only, but you don’t want to rely on him in mixers.
18. Chris Iannetta (Colorado Rockies) – Iannetta had a sneaky-good season with Arizona last year, posting an .865 OPS and hitting 17 homers in just 89 games. He’s also returning to Colorado, where he (unsurprisingly) had the best seasons of his career. Assuming the 35-year-old has enough in the tank to hold off Tony Wolters and Tom Murphy, he should be a solid option in two-catcher and NL-only formats.
19. Travis d’Arnaud (New York Mets) – d’Arnaud would be much more interesting if he could stay healthy, but that’s been a major problem for him since his prospect days. As it is, catchers with some pop and not much else to offer are fairly common in today’s game, and most of them don’t have the checkered injury history that TDA brings to the table. But hey, he’s the only prospect from the Roy Halladay trade to amount to anything at all, so there’s that.
20. Austin Hedges (San Diego Padres) – Hedges got a bit of sleeper love heading into last season after lighting up Triple-A in 2016. While he did manage to hit 18 home runs and swipe four bases in five tries, he also hit only .214 and struck out nearly 30 percent of the time. Until those latter numbers improve, he’s not a viable primary catcher in standard leagues. For what it’s worth, projections have him trimming the strikeout rate enough to boost that average all the way up to…uh, .230. Yep.
21. Tyler Flowers and 22. Kurt Suzuki (Atlanta Braves) – The Braves’ catcher tandem combined to hit .282 with 31 home runs, 79 runs, and 99 RBI. In other words, they were Gary Sanchez. Of course, they only matched his output with the advantage of 40 extra games and, y’know, being two players as opposed to one. I’m more of a believer in Flowers than Suzuki, but the platoon and the juiced ball should keep both of them useful in certain formats.
23. Russell Martin (Toronto Blue Jays) – Martin will be 35 this season, and while he still draws enough walks to be an average offensive catcher in real baseball, he’s rapidly losing fantasy relevance in non-OBP formats. His numbers in all the standard categories have steadily dropped over the last three seasons, and there’s no reason not to expect that trend to continue.
Honorable (?) Mentions
24. Chance Sisco (Baltimore Orioles) – Sisco will need to prove he can hack it defensively, and that he can hack less often as a hitter. It’s sort of baffling how little attention he’s getting in comparison to Jorge Alfaro, given that they have similar profiles and Sisco is a couple years younger.
25. James McCann (Detroit Tigers) – McCann has reached double digits in home runs in each of the last two seasons, and managed to trim several points off his strikeout rate last year. There’s not much in his profile to recommend him, though, particularly not with how ugly things might get in Detroit this year.