Dave Engle, Lance Parrish, Jim Sundberg.
I loved to vote for the All-Star Game as a youngster, but like most young fans my voting was limited by two things: 1) I loved offensive players -- the behemoth hitters, the high-average types; and 2) I knew only about those players who provided it (and Ozzie Smith, of course). Eventually I would come to respect and enjoy all elements of the game, but that offense-first philosophy made the game mighty fun to watch ... until it came to voting for All-Star catchers. Oy.
See how they all stack up:
Listen, if you think we fantasy owners have it tough because of a lack of offensive talent at catcher, I take you back to the three 1984 American League catchers above. No lyin'; that was apparently the best the AL could muster. Minnesota's Engel finished with a .266-4-38 line, Detroit's Parrish slugged homers but batted .237, and the strong-armed Milwaukee's Sundberg went .261-7-43 in his only year with the (then-A.L.) Brewers.
So it could be worse, ya know. The buildup has been slow and without publicity, but the catcher position has some nice young offensive (and, to a degree, defensive) talent stocking it right now. The big three (below) are in their prime, guys such as Geovany Soto, Ryan Doumit, Mike Napoli, Kelly Shoppach and Chris Iannetta emerged as offensive forces last season, and potential All-Stars such as Matt Wieters, Jeff Clement and Taylor Teagarden might actually make an impact this season.
Go back to five years ago, and you'd see only eight catcher-eligible players had 50-plus RBIs; last year there were 15. Only nine players had double-digit homers in 2003; last year there were 15. Among the top guys, even steals are up.
Just a mention of the word "catcher" in fantasy draws a "do I smell sulfur?" look on owners' faces -- but as you can see, it's not so bad. There are at least 10 to 12 catchers with decent upside for 2009, so you folks in one-active-catcher leagues need not worry about being stuck with a bum. That also means that unless you have your heart set on one of the top guys -- and it's understandable if you do -- you need not reach for a catcher in the early rounds. Remember, there's an inherent risk involved with playing catcher -- foul tips, heat exhaustion, a sore hand from catching fastballs, wear on the knees from the constant up and down, up and down -- that you must be aware of before you take a backstop early. I don't condemn taking one of the big three in the first 5 or 6 rounds like I would have last season, but I don't condone it either.
Lemme make this more concise: If it's about Round 6 or so in your 10-team mixed-league draft, and one of those top three guys are still there, you give 'em a look. If they aren't, then you wait. Circle (preferably in your draft prep) a guy or two in the next seven to nine guys that you could see starting for you, and then wait 'til right before you think he'll be taken. Considering catchers play fewer games than most top position players and often bat lower in the lineup, it's not like the high-end horses are going to chuck in so many hits and cumulative statistics that there's a huge difference between them and the tiers below them.
Meanwhile, in two-catcher leagues, you can be a little more vigilant. In a 10-team mixed league, the difference between, say, your third-ranked catcher and your 11th-ranked catcher isn't immense. But the difference between that third-ranked catcher and the 23rd-ranked catcher is monstrous. In fact, from about No. 17 on, just about every player is either a shot in the dark or coming off a mediocre, at best, offensive season.
In this setup, there's no need to focus on catcher and bulk it up at the expense of other positions ... but you also don't want to end up with a Jim Sundberg-type as your catcher. Ugh.
Three elite catchers, three completely different reasons for them to be considered as such.
But they do have one thing in common: durability (at least as of last season).
Hmm, how to describe these three ... how about the three elements of a good ol'-fashioned thunderstorm. Brian McCann would definitely be the thunder. He broke out with a monster 2006 season, then took a step back in 2007. So what would 2008 bring? As expected, his production in 2008 was something in between, but we're delighted to report it was closer to the 2006 version. McCann will be 25 to begin the 2009 season and still durable as can be for a catcher. With the occasional interleague start at DH to help, there are plenty of reasons to believe he'll keep up the pace. The one concern we have for him is a lack of lineup support with Mark Teixeira gone. McCann's power numbers dropped once Teixeira was traded last season (McCann hit just three homers in August and September), but that also could be a little due to fatigue. Either way, the numbers will be there in the end.
In our thunderstorm, Russell Martin would be the high winds. As in, for a catcher, Martin can run like the wind. Eighteen steals? For a catcher? And 155 games played? Last January, we sat and debated about Martin, and a good half of the room (myself included) pretty much dismissed his 2007 steals count, calling it a fluke. And we worried about his durability, considering how much of the load the Dodgers put on his young shoulders. So what'd he do? He nearly matched his 2007 steals total (with a higher success rate) and played in even more games. Obviously, the same caveats apply; there's a reason catchers don't steal bases and play in 155 games. In the meantime, enjoy Martin. If you find yourself a little light in steals after your early-round picks, isn't it nice to know you can make up for some of that with your catcher?
And finally, there's the lightning, which best describes Joe Mauer's wrists or the line drives that spray off of his bat. Mauer is a .317 career hitter, and hit .328 last season. The kid is huge now (6-foot-5, 215 pounds), and he's young (25), but it's about time to let go of the notion that he has 20-homer power. He just doesn't have that type of swing. It's short, compact and level ... when he homers, it's either a screamer that just happened to clear the fence or he was out in front and hooked one down the line. But a .320 average, 90-plus runs, 85 RBIs and plenty of hits added to your aggregate pool are nothing to complain about. Now, there's still some concern he'll eventually have trouble with his surgically repaired knee or that he'll have lingering effects from the kidney obstruction surgery he had Dec. 22. But that's just "offseason overthinking," as I like to call it; he'll be there and healthy on Opening Day.
The next tier
One could make a case for including Geovany Soto with the elite. Considering his numbers last season, it'd be a good argument. Soto tore up major league pitching on his way to the 2008 National League Rookie of the Year award. But we at ESPN Fantasy have seen enough sophomore slumps that we need to see Soto repeat his success, just as the three players above have done, before we're sold on him as an elite catcher. Young catchers have two trademarks: 1) extended slumps; and 2) a tendency to wear down late in the season. Soto displayed both last season, slumping in June and July (before heating up in August), and then hitting .241 in September and .182 in three postseason games. We'll project him to put up numbers similar to last season's, but until he does it, we have to doubt at least a little.
Last season, Ryan Doumit was one of those guys owners were itchin' to sell high on at the first sign of an extended slump. Heck, even the Pirates seemed ready to do that but Doumit never gave them that reason. He stayed healthy and never batted below .290 in a given month, and quietly emerged as a second-tier catcher. In his prime and with relatively low mileage at age 28, that should continue. Don't expect many runs or RBIs in that Pirates lineup, but he should be good for a .300 average and 12-plus homers.
Who was our top-ranked catcher in last season's draft kit? Victor Martinez. How'd that work out for us? To everyone's shock and dismay, V-Mart completely lost his power stroke; he didn't hit his first homer 'til Sept. 2, and hit just two for the season. The guy had torn up the minors and majors, clearly was an offensive-minded catcher (his arm is subpar), was in the middle of a good Tribe lineup, and then this. Well, as is often the case when this happens, rumors have surfaced now that injuries were at least somewhat to blame. Of course, there was the hamstring injury and elbow surgery that sidelined him for two and a half months midway through the season, but there are also reports of neck and hand injuries (insert "life of a catcher" phrase here). Either way, we're projecting a bounce-back season. He has early-round upside, and he'll be available with a mid-round pick.
If the stars align ...
Mid-round sleeper: Jeff Clement
Late-round sleeper: Taylor Teagarden
Prospect: Matt Wieters
Top-10 player I wouldn't draft: Joe Mauer
Player to trade at the All-Star break: Russell Martin
Player to trade for at the ASB: Ramon Hernandez
Biggest risk: Jorge Posada
Home hero: Ryan Doumit
Road warrior: Rod Barajas
Player I like but can't explain why: Miguel Montero
Player(s) I don't like but can't explain why:
Kurt Suzuki, Dioner Navarro
Here's the part of the column in which we talk about upside, the catchers with offensive talent but not necessarily a big name -- yet. They come from all levels of prospect status to offensive specialties (some have power, some have high-average capabilities), but they all fall into that draft-as-a-lower-level-No. 1-or-high-No. 2-catcher status with the potential for better.
First up is Mike Napoli. Do you realize this guy homered about every 11th at-bat in '08? That was the best in the majors, folks, and it's not a fluke. The guy swings the bat hard and doesn't seem to care whether he makes contact or not (he also struck out every 3.2 at-bats). His Rob Deer-like tendencies likely prevent any chance of him hitting above .260, but if he could just get more than 227 at-bats ... What the heck, we're calling for it. He had shoulder troubles in 2008, but October surgery should alleviate that concern. So how about 350 at-bats with the same power rate. How's that sound?
Chris Iannetta did for the Rockies what he was expected to do two years ago, thus differentiating himself from Ben Petrick. But he still wasn't that .300-20-80 player we thought he could be. Even Coors Field couldn't help his batting average -- he hit .250 at home -- and he probably will be little more than a .265 hitter. But let's remember, he's still only 25, and he's a starting catcher with a favorable home ballpark. That has upside written all over it.
Next let's get this Jeff Clement argument out of the way. He was one of the hot-button arguments in our rankings discussion. One side of the room saw him as a .237 hitter with just seven homers in 219 major league at-bats, hardly prospect numbers. And the other side saw him as a strong 25-year-old catcher who was thrown into a bad situation on a bad team in 2008 but had a .335 average and 14 homers in 173 Triple-A at-bats before that. OK, so if you're reading between the lines, I think he's the latter. It sounds as if the M's are committed to getting him plenty of at-bats (at catcher or DH) this season, and I expect him to do something with 'em.
Other mid-level players with upper-level upside: Matt Wieters (discussed below), Jorge Posada (if fully healthy), Kelly Shoppach (if he continues to catch regularly), Kurt Suzuki (if he takes all five category numbers up just a tick), Ramon Hernandez (if he takes full advantage of the Great American Ballpark).
Nope, no Eddie Perez or Eddie Guardado discussion here. These are the guys you need not mark anything on when it comes to preparing your rankings. You pretty much know what you're going to get, neither numbers that will carry your team nor numbers that will hurt it.
Who had more RBIs in 2008, Bengie Molina or any other catcher? Obviously, the answer is Molina. Can you believe this guy had 95 RBIs on a team that finished 29th in runs scored? And that shouldn't completely surprise you; he's had 15-plus homers in each of the past four seasons, and hit .276 or better in each of the past six. And yet he always falls into the middle rounds or later. Tsk. He might not be relied on so much with the new crop of Giants prospects close by, but he's a sure-fire No. 1 catcher.
Other "Steady Eddies:" A.J. Pierzynski irritates fellow opponents, but he doesn't irritate his owners, thanks to his steady annual production and durability. ... Dioner Navarro doesn't have enough power to wow anybody, but he'll be good for a .285 average and a decent number of RBIs. ... It doesn't get more "Steady Eddie" than Ivan Rodriguez. He's getting up there in age, but he's still a .301 career hitter. ... This Yadier Molina "developing power" talk is nonsense; he just doesn't have the type of swing to hit 15-plus homers. But a .290 average with durability and decent RBIs numbers? Sure. ... "He is who we thought he'd be," describes Miguel Olivo, and that's a low-average hitter with 15-homer power. Olivo won't hit for much higher than his career .241 average. ... Rod Barajas profiles much the same way, and should get plenty of at-bats again in Toronto. ... The man he shared time with in 2008, Gregg Zaun, will have value when the week is right. ... Brandon Inge moves back to third base this year, which does about nothing to his value. He'll play more games, most likely, but his numbers won't improve much (if past seasons are any indication), and he'll still have catcher eligibility from last season. ... Jason Vari- -- aw, who am I kidding? I know he'll be good for double-digit homers, but I'll never own Jason Varitek again thanks to what he did to me last season.
Now, about that Matt Wieters. I saw the kid play in the AFL, and I can assure you he's as billed offensively. Great hands, gap power (or better), high-average capability, super-quick bat speed, which allows him to wait on pitches ... but I didn't feel he was ready for the big leagues defensively. He seems too laid-back to jump on to the Orioles' roster and make immediate waves. I saw some mechanical problems on D, too. Unfortunately, the latter skills are more important at his position, so I don't see him starting with the big-league team. That said, he's on a crazy-quick ascent to the bigs, and I wouldn't be surprised if we saw him earlier (like June) than later (September or next year). You shouldn't count on him as a No. 1 or even No. 2 catcher in standard mixed leagues, but if you have a bench that's five players or more, he should be on it. He will hit in the bigs immediately.
It'd be nice to think John Baker could hit .299 again in the bigs, but if he could, he probably wouldn't have been a 27-year-old rookie last season. ... Hmm, if Chris Snyder can hit 16 homers in 334 at-bats, how good could he be if he got more at-bats. Then again, it took a fractured finger for Miguel Montero to get Snyder even that much work, and I happen to like Montero's power upside even more. ... J.R. Towles hit .137 last season, and that's reason enough to jump to the next guy. But if you're still reading, I'll note he did hit .304 when back in Triple-A and will get another shot this season. ... The Rangers have three start-worthy catchers in Jarrod Saltalamacchia, Taylor Teagarden and Max Ramirez. The reports are that Ramirez is headed back to Triple-A if Teagarden can nail down a platoon job with Salty. Considering I don't think Salty has game, I think Teagarden is an intriguing late-round pick just based on playing-time default. ... Nick Hundley is not related to Todd Hundley, but he does have similar skills. He has power but will hit for a low average. He might start at catcher for the Padres, but don't expect much. He's not ready, and the team knows it. ... And finally, Ramon Castro had nice power upside, but the Mets are in bad shape if he's getting more than 200 at-bats.
We got next
Those of you in AL-/NL-only leagues should keep an eye on this quintet:
1. Buster Posey, Giants
2. Angel Salome, Brewers
3. Tyler Flowers, White Sox
4. Carlos Santana, Indians
5. Kyle Skipworth, Marlins
All right, so you probably have the gist of it by now: Paying a decent amount for a top catcher is acceptable, but don't overpay for the guys below the top 4-5 because they're valued pretty much the same. In one-catcher leagues, you can wait 'til the "bargain stages" to get your guy, whereas in two-catcher leagues it wouldn't hurt to have at least one decent guy nailed down (i.e. not going cheap with both guys). Because if you love a good-hitting catcher, he'll love ya back.
Brendan Roberts is a contributing writer/editor for ESPN.com Fantasy.