Buster Posey enters the season as the unquestioned top backstop
In baseball we chronicle seasons according to memorable storylines that unfold during that time. 1998 was the year of the home run, as Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa and Ken Griffey Jr. put on a show for the ages. Sadly, that entire decade, and parts of the 2000's, have now be re-branded as the steroid era. Almost on cue, 2001 was the year of BALCo and Barry Bonds, so there's that. When Sid Bream crossed home plate in the NLCS, 1992 became the year Sid slid. 1994 was the year of the strike. 2004 will always be the year of the glove slap and the bloody sock. 2011 was the year of tainted urine, and last season—despite Miguel Cabrera's Triple Crown—was the year of Mike Trout. And so on and so forth.
For fantasy purposes, 2013 is officially the year of the catcher.
There was a time—not very long ago—when there was no discernible difference between, say, the 10th rated catcher and the 20th best option. But now there are more quality options at the position than at any point since the height of the steroid era. Typically the weakest position in all of fantasy baseball, catcher is in fact the deepest position this season. Gone are the days when a .230 hitter with modest power and little-to-no run production could crack the Top 10 simply by virtue of getting at bats.
You can no longer, as I often would, ignore the position entirely during your fantasy draft and weasel yourself a starter on waivers. That's not to say there won't be quality catchers who materialize during the season, after all, if things didn't evolve during the course of the season, we would crown league champions on draft day. But with so many more quality players at the position than in years past, you would really be putting your team in a hole by waiting to strike free agent gold instead of investing in a worthwhile backstop during your draft.
Reigning NL MVP Buster Posey and former AL MVP Joe Mauer are still head and shoulders (pun very much intended) above the pack as far as draft day is concerned.
Admittedly, I still have Mauer slightly behind Posey due to some lingering doubts about Mauer's ability to stay healthy as he's never played more than 147 games in any professional season. He has only fallen short of 130 games played twice, however, and is spending fewer games than ever behind the plate. The Twins' willingness to DH him and play him at first base (he had 72 games played at those positions last season compared to 74 at catcher) should mitigate the injury risk and help keep the career .323 hitter on the field and in your fantasy lineup.
While not the 30-homer threat he appeared to be during his 2009 MVP season, Mauer is still reliable for 12-15 bombs with a puncher's chance at approaching 20. Combine that with his ability to annually contend for a batting title and career .404 on base percentage, the 29-year-old is still every bit the elite fantasy option he's been for his entire career. Owners in head-to-head leagues will also benefit from his exceptional plate discipline (555 walks compared to just 475 strikeouts in his career) and excellent doubles power.
Posey, on the other hand, is almost universally accepted as the top catcher this coming season. Last season's .336 average, 24 home run and 103 RBI NL MVP campaign pretty much speaks for itself. Like Mauer, he plays some first base to keep his legs fresh, which should only help the 25-year-old reach greater offensive heights as he enters his prime years.
He did have an abnormally high .368 BABIP (batting average on balls in play), which means his batting average from last season is probably unsustainable due the amount of good luck that came with it. Still, even anticipating a regression to his career .314 average, it's hard not to envision him finishing atop the catching leader board thanks to his outstanding power. Perhaps even more importantly, after winning two World Series titles and an MVP in what amounts to just two full seasons of major league experience, Posey appears to just be scratching the surface of his potential.
Because Posey and Mauer are so far ahead of the rest of their position, owners hoping to land them will need to invest a very high pick. Depending on the size of your league, look for them to come off the board between picks 15-25 overall.
If you miss out on the top two, but still want the proverbial next best thing, look no farther than Carlos Santana from the Cleveland Indians.
After an injury-shortened rookie season, Santana has finished at or near the top of the catcher rankings every season since. He offers premium power potential and although his career batting average sits at a lowly .247, he draws a ton of walks to keep his on base percentage at a respectable .363, which helps him score runs even if he's slumping.
He won't get much help from the lineup around him in Cleveland, which somewhat limits his upside in runs and RBI and should keep him firmly behind Posey and Mauer.
If you're willing to forego the "safe" pick in Santana and take a gamble on tantalizing upside, Baltimore's Matt Wieters is the catcher for you.
Not as highly touted this season as Posey, Mauer or even Santana, Wieters might be the catcher with the best chance to leapfrog his way to the top of the position. The biggest catching prospect since Mauer, Wieters underwhelmed in his first two big league seasons causing many owners to discard him as another bust.
Catchers take notoriously long to develop though, and in 2011, something clicked as he won his first of back-to-back Gold Gloves. Having mastered the intricacies of playing catcher and all the defensive responsibilities that accompany that at the big league level, Wieters' bat finally showed signs of life.
His home run and RBI totals have increased every season of his career, culminating in 23 homers and 83 RBI last season. Entering his age 27 season—widely considered to be the start of a players' prime—there's no reason to think a player with his pedigree won't take the next step towards superstardom. Projecting even a modest uptick in his numbers would place him on the cusp of the elite backstops, and given his tremendous upside, a full-fledged breakout season isn't out of the question.
Wieters will likely come off the draft board two or three rounds after Santana, making him a potential bargain if things break his way in 2013.
Despite his recent downward slide, Braves catcher Brian McCann should still be a worthwhile option
The players already mentioned are the only four catchers I personally would consider with an early round pick, but that isn't to say there aren't other quality options available once those guys are off the board. The middle rounds are littered with great value, and if you miss out on the top backstops, don't sweat it.
Players like Brian McCann and Mike Napoli might not be the studs they were a couple years ago, but they still hold value if you can get them at the right spot.
Those two—along with Yadier Molina, Salvador Perez, Miguel Montero and Wilin Rosario, in no particular order—will likely round out the top 10 catchers drafted in most standard seasonal mixed leagues.
Of that group, Salvador Perez stands to see his draft position rise the most between now and opening day.
He's already generating widespread sleeper buzz after winning Rookie of the Year honors in the Venezuelan Winter League. He hit .371 and boasted eight home runs and 10 doubles, along with 39 RBI and 23 runs in only 32 games. Over the course of a full 162 game season those numbers would extrapolate to 40 homers, 197 RBI and 116 runs scored.
Granted, the Venezuelan League is a far cry from Major League Baseball, but those numbers should at least give you an idea of how high the 22-year old's (he turns 23 in May) upside is.
As a major leaguer, Perez has shown enough power that 25 or even 30 home runs aren't out of the question. He won't hit anywhere near .370 like he did in Venezuela, but he makes contact as well as any player at any position in baseball (only 47 strikeouts in parts of two seasons) so his career .311 batting average is easily sustainable and could climb closer to .330 if he has better luck on balls in play.
A 23-year-old with his contact skills and 162 game averages of 20 home runs and 85 RBI would typically be one of the first catchers drafted. But with the position being so deep, you may be able to land him after the big names are off the board.
My only concern with Perez is that the preseason hype will reach a fever pitch and drive his draft position up to the point where he may actually become overvalued on draft day. Still, I confidently rate him as a Top Five catcher. If he falls to the middle rounds don't let him slip past you.
Molina, McCann and Montero are all pretty much interchangeable and I wouldn't argue with rating any of them ahead of each other. They can all be relied upon for steady but unspectacular production. Napoli offers the most intriguing upside of the three, albeit with some risk.
On one hand, Napoli is just two years removed from hitting .320 with 30 home runs and 75 RBI. On the other, he crashed back to earth last season with a .227 batting average.
He still mashed 24 home runs in only 108 games, so if nothing else he's a virtual lock to approach 30 bombs over a full season. Given the fact the Red Sox plan to use him as their primary first baseman, he could be in for a career year in terms of run production.
He'll never hit .320 again, but a return to his career .259 average is feasible, and when coupled with his power, Napoli could once again land just behind the elite catchers in fantasy.
Rosario is a different story. A relative unknown in seasonal leagues as a rookie coming into 2012, he began the year splitting time behind the plate before eventually taking over as the primary catcher in Colorado.
In 117 games with the Rockies he hit 28 home runs and drove in 71 runs. His .270 batting average might be a bit optimistic given his 4-to-1 strikeout to walk ratio, but considering he crushed 40 home runs in 175 games across two seasons at Double-A Tulsa. He may offer the most power upside of anyone at the position.
With young players there is always the danger they focus too much on home runs and fall into bad habits like trying to pull the ball too often or hitting too many fly balls, but if Rosario can keep his batting average above .250, he should have no problem showcasing his outstanding power in the thin air at Coors Field.
Personally, I rate him just behind Napoli and ahead of McCann, Molina and Montero.
The other Montero, Jesus, is a better option for owners who like to chase upside.
The centerpiece of the trade that brought Michael Pineda to the Yankees, Montero underwhelmed in his first full season with the Mariners, hitting just .260 with 15 home runs and 62 RBI. I'm not anticipating a full-fledged breakout for the former top prospect, but with a season of major league experience under his belt and Seattle moving their outfield fences in, it would be a shock not to see at least some improvement.
He does have otherworldly talent at the dish so there is always a chance he explodes offensively and vaults into elite status. But given how long most catchers take to develop that part of their game, I envision modest gains across the board. Something to the tune of a .270 average with 20 homers and 70 RBI seems about right.
Given his upside, I would rate him as the better of the two Montero's, but understand there is always risk when you draft on expectations rather than a proven track record.
Detroit's Alex Avila is an excellent fallback option if you miss out on the bigger names and don't see another catcher you like in the later rounds.
He suffered a down year in 2012, but was rock solid from start to finish in 2011. So at least a moderate bounce back seems likely.
I see him posting very similar numbers to Montero, and given the Diamonbacks' roster turnover this offseason, if I was choosing between the two of them, I'd just wait and take whichever fell the farthest.
This brings me, finally, to my favorite catcher sleeper of the 2013 season, Jonathan Lucroy. I don't understand why this guy doesn't get more love from the pundits, but the further he flies under the radar the happier I'll be on draft day.
He'll turn that magical age of 27 during the season, although he really broke out last season and if it wasn't for injuries limiting him to 96 games he may already be considered a Top Five option.
He struggled a bit in parts of two major league seasons before blowing up at the plate in 2012 to the tune of a .320 batting average with 12 home runs and 58 RBI in the aforementioned 96 games. That's a pace of 20 homers and 98 RBI over a full season. His OPS (on-base + slugging) of .881 trailed only Posey and Mauer at the position, and while hitting .320 is probably unrealistic, his .299 average over six minor league seasons shows he's no slouch with the bat either.
In a 12-team league, he'll likely be one of the last catchers drafted, but I have him firmly entrenched in my top 10. If I was drafting tomorrow, I would take him ahead of Avila, Molina, both Montero’s and maybe even McCann.
Considering he figures to go later than all of them—except maybe Avila—he's shaping up to be one of the best draft day values in 2013.
One final name to consider in the later rounds is Minnesota's Ryan Doumit.
The former Pirate has fallen by the wayside in fantasy circles the past few seasons thanks to injuries and generally underwhelming performance, but his move to Minnesota paid immediate dividends last season.
The Twins bounced him around the diamond, giving him time in the outfield and at designated hitter to keep his legs fresh. He rewarded them with a career year in the form of a .275 average 18 home runs and 75 RBI. If he can stay healthy again, expect another season of similar production, making him someone to keep an eye on if you need a catcher as the draft winds down.