We’re kicking off year 18 of the Strike Zone with the catcher breakdowns this week. As usual, I’ll be going position-by-position this spring, highlighting players I see as underrated and overrated, as judged from early draft results. These columns are designed to complement the Rotoworld Fantasy Baseball Draft Guide, which is now available for purchase. Included this year are projections for over 1,400 players and writeups of about 1,000, including 500 pitcher profiles written by yours truly. All of the projections and rankings, including the top 300 for mixed leagues and top 250s for AL- and NL-only leagues, will be updated right through Opening Day. It's the culmination of months of hard work, and I hope you'll consider buying it, if you haven't already.
Unlike last year, there aren’t really any position eligibility controversies at catcher this season. For that, I owe a debt of gratitude to Cubs manager Joe Maddon, who snuck Kyle Schwarber into two games at catcher during the final two weeks of the season to bring Schwarber’s games caught total up to 21 (20 is the cutoff for eligibility in traditional leagues). That makes things a lot easier on me, since I don’t have to issue any qualifications in naming Schwarber my No. 1 catcher this year…
Kyle Schwarber (Cubs): Schwarber does seem to be the consensus No. 2 at the position, so it’s not as if he’s wildly underrated following his stellar showing in the minors and majors last year. Still, I think his power will carry the day and allow him to outpace Buster Posey. Including the postseason, he hit 21 homers in just 259 at-bats following his callup last year. With that kind of output, he’s not going to need to hit for a remarkable average to justify the high pick. Also, as the presumed everyday left fielder in Chicago, he doesn’t come with the same kind of injury risk as each catcher below him. Schwarber does come with another kind of risk; the Cubs haven’t given up on him as a catcher, and if he gets off to a bad start offensively, there’s the chance he could be demoted to Triple-A to allow him to work on his receiving. That seems like quite a long shot, though. Schwarber offers more upside than anyone at the position, and he doesn’t even have to improve on his rookie performance in order to keep his spot at the top. He’s a legitimate third-round pick in one-catcher mixed leagues and a second-rounder in leagues that use two catchers.
Matt Wieters (Orioles): Brian McCann and Wieters are a tossup for me as the top catcher in AL-only leagues, and both look like good value picks from here, though I’m listing Wieters since he’s going later in early drafts. Wieters didn’t play as much as expected in his first year back from Tommy John surgery, but he hit right at his career averages in spite of the late start and the difficulties in finding a rhythm while often playing every other day. He should be ready to undertake his usual workload this year, and while he still probably won’t catch as much as he used to, he could DH once per week to allow the Orioles to find reps for Caleb Joseph. Wieters has never fulfilled the lofty expectations brought on by his terrific minor league numbers, but he totaled 67 homers from 2011-13 and he’s done a better job of hitting for average in his limited action these last two years (.279 in 362 AB). I’ve long given up on projecting him to put it all together, but he doesn’t need to in order to place as a top-five catcher. A .260 average and 20 homers should be sufficient.
Devin Mesoraco (Reds): Mesoraco entered last year as a top-five catcher after hitting .273 with 25 homers and 80 RBI in 384 at-bats the previous season. Now, after being limited to 45 pretty horrendous at-bats by a hip injury, he’s essentially being written off. Maybe Mesoraco will go down as a one-year wonder, but he says he’s been fully healthy for a couple of months and he’s still just 27 years old. Besides Schwarber and Posey, he’d seem to have the most fantasy upside of any catcher in the league. Last year, there were just three catchers to hit 20 homers and none of them did better than a .260 average. Now look at what Mesoraco did last time he was healthy. He’s the perfect choice for those in shallow one-catcher leagues. Draft him somewhere in the 15th-17th rounds (he’s going in the 19th so far in Yahoo leagues), and if he doesn’t seem healthy early on, give someone else a try.
J.T. Realmuto (Marlins): I’m not projecting a breakout sophomore season for the 25-year-old Realmuto, but if he just keeps doing what he did last year, he’s a borderline top-10 catcher. As a rookie, he amassed 38 extra-base hits in 441 at-bats, and now the Marlins are bringing in the fences a bit, giving him a chance to boost last season’s homer total from 10 to 12-15. He has a fine contact rate, and he should match or beat last year’s .259 average. Also, he has unusual speed for a catcher, which resulted in eight steals last year. That makes a real difference in separating him from the other catchers in the 10-20 range. He’s being drafted in just 13 percent of Yahoo leagues right now, but he makes a lot of sense as an end-game catcher there or a modestly priced No. 1 in NL-only leagues.
Salvador Perez (Royals): Perez was the one catcher in baseball to hit .260 with 20 homers last year. But, then, he hit exactly .260, and even though he started 139 games, he finished with uninspiring run (52) and RBI (70) numbers. I don’t think it’s farfetched to say that Perez is an old 26. Including the postseason, he’s started a remarkable 311 games behind the plate the last two years. In both seasons, he’s opened up strong and wilted offensively after the All-Star break. Perez would almost certainly have better rate stats if used more liberally, but it’s hard to argue that his current usage isn’t working out just fine for the Royals. Because of his durability, Perez is an unusually safe pick at catcher. He’s put up solid numbers every year since he’s debuted. Still, I think we’ve already seen the best he’s had to offer. He might hit .290 for the first few months of 2016 anyway, but it’s doubtful that it will last.
Russell Martin (Blue Jays): Get ready to see a few Blue Jays in the overrated lists over the next month and a half. Hitting in one of the decade’s greatest offenses boosted the numbers of everyone involved, but while the 2016 Blue Jays still project as a very strong offensive team, it’s really hard to imagine the group will be as good as it was last year. Martin’s career-high 23 homers in 2015 doubled his total from the previous season, and his 153 runs+RBI were 40 more than he amassed in any year since 2008. Martin figures to remain perfectly solid, and he should continue to hit more homers in Toronto than he did in Pittsburgh, but he’ll be a low-average guy and he probably won’t come close to scoring 76 runs again while hitting in the bottom half of the order. He’s the No. 3 catcher off the board in Yahoo leagues, but I place him ninth.
Travis d’Arnaud (Mets): D’Arnaud will be an awfully popular breakout choice this year, though in truth, he already broken out; he hit .268/.340/.485 with 12 homers in his 239 at-bats while healthy last season. If he does that for a full season, he’ll easily justify being the fourth catcher taken in Yahoo leagues. It’s just a big long shot that he’ll stay healthy. D’Arnaud’s injury issues date back to the minor leagues. Since his first full season in the Blue Jays system in 2008, he’s started 58, 98, 57, 97, 0, 59, 115 and 73 games at catcher. He has a case as the league’s biggest injury risk among position players, so while I do believe in his bat, I can’t recommend drafting him where he’s getting taken this year.
Yadier Molina (Cardinals): There was reason enough to avoid Molina this year even before he needed a followup surgery for a torn ligament in his left thumb in December. His production has declined three straight years, especially when it comes to power, and he has an incredible amount of mileage on his body at age 33. Molina is questionable for the start of the season because of the thumb, and even if he does make it back then, it’s hard to imagine him recovering any power while dealing with hand problems. At best, he might get enough singles and doubles with men on base to serve as a fringe mixed-league catcher. There are plenty of options with more upside, though.
Blake Swihart (Red Sox): Rushed to the majors last Opening Day because of Christian Vazquez’s injury, Swihart appeared overmatched at first and was still just treading water until mid-August, when he busted out by hitting .330/.395/.515 in his final 103 at-bats. That surge has kept him penciled in as the Red Sox’s starting catcher, even though Vazquez is on the way back. Swihart is just 24, and I’m not convinced he’s ready to hit for significant power yet. Vazquez’s presence as one of the game’s best young defensive catchers is also problematic. Still, Swihart offers the potential to hit for a really nice average towards the bottom of one of the AL’s best lineups. It’s a combination that should make him a mixed-league option if he’s a regular starter. It’s the concerns over playing time that have me cautious about ranking him higher than the 14th spot I have him at right now.
Yasmani Grandal (Dodgers): Maybe this year’s toughest call at catcher, Grandal carried a .900 OPS into August last year before suffering an incredible collapse. He went 6-for-94 with one extra-base hit the rest of the way, a consequence of shoulder problems that required offseason surgery. Grandal is expected to be ready for Opening Day, but there are still questions about whether he’ll be 100 percent. Also, while he offers plenty of power and walks, he’s just a career .241 hitter and he’s probably going to bat at the bottom of the Dodgers order, perhaps in the eighth spot initially. Perhaps he can be a top-10 catcher anyway, but I think he’s more of a No. 2 catcher in mixed leagues at the moment.
Gary Sanchez (Yankees): Long a top prospect, Sanchez is positioned to take over as the Yankees’ backup catcher, a scenario that seemed pretty unlikely a year ago. He’s still definitely an offense-first player, but he’s made enough progress with the glove to provide hope of a future behind the plate. He also reemerged as an offensive force last year after a couple of disappointing seasons. With the obvious caveat that he’s playing behind a productive and durable regular in McCann, Sanchez offers a higher ceiling than any other likely $1 catcher; he’d be a good bet for 20 homers if he were set to start. But what made him a lot more interesting was Greg Bird’s season-ending torn labrum; not only is Sanchez still McCann’s fallback, but he might be Alex Rodriguez’s as well. Of course, he still has to secure his backup gig, and he’s not quite a shoo-in at the moment.
Cameron Rupp (Phillies): While it certainly didn’t register nationally, Rupp was one of 2015’s biggest surprises. He went from hitting .165/.259/.299 in 194 at-bats in Triple-A in 2014 to batting .233/.301/.374 in 270 at-bats in the majors last season. Of course, that hardly makes him a star, and he doesn’t really possess that kind of potential. However, he’s in the process of overtaking Carlos Ruiz in Philadelphia, and he could be good for 10-15 homers as a possible $1 catcher in NL-only leagues.
Josmil Pinto (Brewers): Before the Brewers signed Chris Carter, I was holding out some slight hope that Pinto would get to compete for the starting job at first base this spring, which would have made him a big-time sleeper in my eyes. Now he’s not really looking at any clear path to playing time, and he’ll almost surely open the season in Triple-A. Pinto, though, can hit. He’s come in at .257/.339/.445 with 11 homers in 245 major league at-bats to date. His ability to catch is in doubt; he was never very good in the first place and he’s had concussion problems, which is why I was more intrigued by him at first. Pinto is really more of a second-half sleeper than anything else at this point. The Brewers could trade Jonathan Lucroy at any point, and Carter will also become available if he hits well enough to create demand for his services. If Pinto sneaks in and finds his niche, he’d be pretty interesting.