The Strike Zone is back for another year, starting with the position breakdowns leading up to Opening Day. 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. I’ll also be adding mixed-league auction values soon.
As always, the breakdowns start with the catchers. And, unfortunately, we have one major eligibility issue this year after escaping without any last spring. Kyle Schwarber won’t open the season qualifying at catcher in traditional leagues, but Yahoo is giving him initial eligibility. Complicating matters is that it’s hard to say when he might get eligibility in traditional leagues. The Cubs are planning on having him do some work behind the plate this spring, but it’s unclear whether he’ll be more than an emergency option back there once the season starts. It’s possible that Joe Maddon will be comfortable enough with him at catcher to switch him there during games and get him five-game eligibility before April is done. It’s also possible that it could take months for him to see that much action. The picture should come more into focus as the spring progresses, but for now, I’m treating Schwarber as though he’ll be limited to outfield eligibility for a big chunk of the season. In leagues in which he qualifies as catcher initially, I’d rank him second behind…
Gary Sanchez (Yankees): Considering that Sanchez hit 20 homers in one-third of a season as a rookie, I didn’t think it’d fall to me to hype him this spring. Sanchez, though, currently has an ADP of 56 on Yahoo, a far cry from the No. 19 spot he occupies in my top 300. Maybe he was just too good last year; perhaps people would buy in more if he hit .280 and maintained a 40-homer pace instead of .299 with a 60-homer pace. We have a tendency to write off the truly outlandish as a fluke instead of accepting it as the datapoint that it is. Sanchez shouldn’t ever again hit like he did in 2016, but he has a whole lot of room to decline and still remain the No. 1 or 2 fantasy catcher. He also has a bunch of things working in his favor. Sanchez demonstrated elite exit velocity last year. He bats third for a team that plays half of its games in a fine park for homers, and he has the DH spot available to him when he needs a rest. My projection basically calls for Hanley Ramirez numbers, and I’d have him right around 56th if he were just a first baseman. As a catcher, he blows away the field. There’s no need to use a second-round pick on him in shallow mixed leagues, but he’s fine in the third and a potential steal anytime later.
J.T. Realmuto (Marlins): Even as he was held back by baseball’s worst ballpark for offense, Realmuto finished as a top-five catcher last year, thanks to a .303 average and 12 steals. He hit .250 with three homers at home and .352 with eight homers on the road. Realmuto can’t be counted on to match last year’s average, but the steals help lift him above the field, even if he seems more likely to fall back to the 8-10 range this year. He’s been very durable dating back to his days in the minors, and since the Marlins could use him at first base against some lefties, he seems like a good bet to rack up an extra 50-80 AB over the typical starting catcher. The lack of power takes away some from his upside, but I still have him about 40 spots higher than his current Yahoo ADP of 143.
Evan Gattis (Astros): If we’re talking about one-catcher mixed leagues, Gattis is the sixth and final catcher (seventh if we’re including Schwarber), that I’d view as more than an end-game pick (the others being Sanchez, Buster Posey, Jonathan Lucroy, Realmuto and Willson Contreras). The danger with Gattis is that he could lose a lot of playing time to Nori Aoki initially, and he probably should, given that the Astros are better off defensively with Aoki in left and Carlos Beltran at DH. Still, I think we’ll see a lot of Gattis early on anyway, and he’ll be a full-timer the first time anyone gets hurt. Then it’s bombs away. Gattis hit 32 homers in 447 at-bats last year. I don’t expect he’ll play quite that much this year, but it can hardly be ruled out. On a per-at-bat basis, he’s not far off from Posey.
Yasmani Grandal (Dodgers): I’m quite fond of Grandal the player, but he’s the biggest durability concern among top-10 catchers, he doesn’t hit for average, he plays in a tough ballpark and he’s likely to hit fairly low in the order. Last year, Grandal was driven in a total of 22 times in his 126 games, limiting his usefulness to two categories. He’s been on the DL in four of his five big-league seasons (plus his only full minor league season). I expect that he’ll be a solid enough No. 1 fantasy catcher when he’s in the lineup, but he’s Gattis with less upside and he’s going off the board a little earlier than Gattis in drafts.
Salvador Perez (Royals): I agree with ADP in Perez’s ranking among catchers; I have him 7th and he’s going 8th in Yahoo (which includes Schwarber). It’s just that I have the huge gap after my top six, and ADP has him in the same glut as Realmuto, Grandal and Gattis. Perez hit a career-high 22 homers last year, but half of the league had a new career high in homers last years. More important is that Perez hit just .247 and his strikeout rate skyrocketed, jumping nearly 50 percent. He’s hit .256 over the last three years after coming in at .301 in his first three (one full year, two parts of seasons). As hard as he’s been worked, the chances of an offensive renaissance would seem to get lower every year. He’ll play a ton and get enough homers and RBI to contribute, but he doesn’t look like much of a value pick at this point.
Welington Castillo (Orioles): Castillo hit 31 homers in his year and two-thirds (690 at-bats, 193 games) as a member of the Diamondbacks, and he finished among the top dozen catchers for fantasy purposes last season. The league switch, though, should do him no favors, as learning Orioles pitchers this spring is going to take precedence over figuring out who he’s going to be facing once the regular season starts. Castillo strikes out plenty anyway, and the bottom of the Orioles lineup isn’t a very good place for RBI opportunities, given the OBP and speed issues the team possesses. I think he’ll come in closer to his .237 averages from 2014 and 2015 than last year’s .264 mark.
Tom Murphy (Rockies): It’s going to be largely about playing time for Murphy, who has hit .266/.341/.608 with eight homers in 79 major league at-bats the last two years. He came in at .327/.361/.647 with 19 homers in 303 at-bats in Triple-A last season. Murphy, though, is a below average defender. His counterpart in Colorado, Tony Wolters, is left-handed and clearly superior with the glove. As much as I’d like to see what Murphy could do playing regularly, I think the Rockies are better off having Wolters start against right-handers, with Murphy playing primarily against lefties initially. I have Murphy as my No. 9 catcher anyway -- on a per at-bat basis, he’s No. 3 in between Posey and Gattis -- but those drafting him in one-catcher leagues will need to use two roster spots on catchers and mix and match.
Devin Mesoraco (Reds): I’m not nearly as into Mesoraco as I was last year, when he looked like a fine gamble after one lost year due to hip surgery. Now it’s two lost years, and he’s a longer shot to return to 2014 form (he hit .273/.359/.534 with 25 HR in 384 AB that season). Still, as a second catcher in two-catcher mixed leagues, he’s worth a roll of the dice. Mesoraco has been working out and is supposed to be fine to catch this spring. The Reds will go easy on him initially, and I wouldn’t expect a whole lot from him in April. Still, as far as ceilings go, there aren’t more than a handful of catchers with more upside, and he should be able to be had at the end of drafts.
Travis d’Arnaud (Mets): D’Arnaud was the fourth catcher off the board in many leagues last year, and I recommended shying away, mostly because he was the worst bet of any regular in the league to remain healthy. 75 unproductive games later, it seems he’s been completely written off; he’s getting drafted in just three percent of Yahoo leagues. The durability concerns will always be there, but I believe d’Arnaud can bounce back offensively. He failed to hit the ball with authority last year, but he did contribute 25 homers in 624 at-bats the previous two seasons. He makes plenty of sense as a last-round catcher in one-catcher mixed leagues, and his price tag has fallen so far that he’s worth trying in NL-only leagues at this point.
Austin Barnes (Dodgers): Especially now that the Dodgers have loaded up their bench, the only way that Barnes is going to be useful this year is if Grandal gets hurt. Grandal, though, does have the extensive injury history, and Barnes has a really nice offensive profile; he hit .304/.384/.460 with 15 homers and 30 steals in 628 at-bats for Triple-A Oklahoma City the last two years. Barnes can play second and third, but what chance he had at infield time probably disappeared with the move to bring back Chase Utley. He’s strictly a $1 player in NL-only leagues on draft day, but if Grandal lands on the DL at any point, he’ll be worth grabbing right away in mixed leagues.
Geovany Soto (White Sox): Soto has been oft-injured in his 30s and he’s had to compete for playing time when healthy, but it doesn’t seem like he’s lost his ability; he’s hit .240/.313/.431 with 23 homers in 508 at-bats the last four seasons. The rebuilding White Sox have their starting job wide open for him, and while it’s unlikely that he’ll end up lasting six months, he should be more productive than most when healthy. He’s my bargain AL-only catcher of choice.