Nice catch? Hardly: Bizarre world of backstops

I don't like catchers.

Maybe part of the reason is because I was once caught price-enforcing Jason Kendall to $17 in LABR in 2004. The more likely reason: Of all the position scarcity arguments, the one about paying a premium for a catcher is, in my opinion, the flimsiest.

No one ever seems to address this, but catchers see fewer plate appearances and take more wear and tear, than players at other positions.

Consider this: The top 25 catchers in terms of plate appearances averaged 486 in 2007. By comparison, first basemen averaged 595, second basemen 603. That's a difference of more than 100 plate appearances, and if you account for the fact that the average player offered 3 home runs, 12 RBIs and 12 runs scored per 100 PAs in 2007, it's enough to notice. That might amount to a full rotisserie point per category over the course of a season.

As for the durability question, another fact: Only two current catchers -- Kendall and Jorge Posada -- have played in 130-plus games in each of the past three seasons as well as 100-plus in each of the past five. By comparison, eight current first basemen have done it. Posada, by the way, is now DL-bound, which can't be said for any of those eight first basemen. They're all healthy.

Look at how fluky the catcher position has been so far this season: Ryan Doumit, he of only 105 games and 886 1/3 innings behind the plate in his career, finds himself ranked first at the position on the Player Rater (through Sunday). That's not all; here are some other troubling catcher-related fantasy facts:

Eric Hinske has been more valuable than Doumit.

• At least eight second basemen (and potentially up to 10 depending on your source for player values) have been more valuable than any catcher.

• Thirteen closers have been more valuable than any catcher. So shouldn't the fantasy mantra be "don't pay for catchers"?

Anyway, point made, I don't like catchers.

But if you've been paying attention all season, you probably knew that already. Perhaps you've followed suit, ignored catchers, and are now scrounging together the scraps left on your league's free-agent list. Or, if you're a Posada owner -- my condolences -- you're now scrambling for a free-agent stand-in. Whatever your situation, if you're looking for catcher help, well, this is the column for you.

Part of my "avoid catchers" strategy, remember, requires close attention to the position all season, hunting bargains, avoiding risk, etc. No, it's not as easy as plopping in a Victor Martinez, Russell Martin or Brian McCann for 26 weeks, but you can make it work.

Bargain bin

Great story: In 2001, an out-of-nowhere breakout year by a catcher helped lead me to more than one league title. No, it wasn't Paul Lo Duca, though he certainly had a heck of a 2001. He was a little-known prospect, one who would bat .310 with 13 homers in 88 games. His name was Craig Wilson, and back then, he was a catcher.

If you're like me regarding catchers, it's getting guys like Wilson, so seemingly unknown yet so surprisingly productive, who can make or break your season. So who's 2008's Wilson? Here are some of my favorite candidates, in ranked order:

Jarrod Saltalamacchia, Rangers: A hot pickup upon news of his promotion on Friday, "Salty" should be up for good this time, following Adam Melhuse's release (he broke his hand). Gerald Laird might continue to get the bulk of the starts, but Saltalamacchia is widely considered one of the best offensive catcher prospects in baseball, and a huge power bat for the future. In that ballpark, and on a team playing more for the future than right now, there's a ton of upside in him, even for 2008.

Chris Iannetta, Rockies: Thanks to his disappointing rookie year, it's easy to forget about his .303 batting average and .915 OPS for his minor league career. But in his past 25 big league games, he has .325/.935 rates, and he's the Rockies' future behind the plate. If he keeps up his hot hitting, his playing time should increase soon.

Jeff Clement, Mariners: Kenji Johjima's contract extension effectively ends Clement's run as the team's catcher of the future, but why the Mariners haven't considered promoting him to replace the slow-starting Jose Vidro is anyone's guess. Clement is a .285/.851 hitter in his minor league career, and that's not bloated by lofty low-minors totals; of his 263 games, 214 have come in Triple-A, where he has .279/.839 rates. He'll be up soon, and as a DH he'd be less apt to wear down with time.

Chris Coste, Phillies: In his brief big league career he's a .314 hitter with an .850 OPS, and it's not the first time as a pro he's shown solid offense. As a Phillies minor leaguer from 2005-07, he had .267/.740 rates in 229 games, which isn't bad, especially since his current home ballpark plays a lot better to hitters than that. With starter Carlos Ruiz looking especially sluggish so far, Coste could continue to steal starts.

Jeff Mathis, Angels: He's known more for his defense than offense, but his offense also wasn't bad in his six full years in the minors, hitting .287 or better in three seasons, 73 RBIs in two and 21 homers once. Mathis' problem, really, is that he takes forever to get comfortable as a hitter in each new level of competition. Judging by the early returns, he's starting to figure it out. Plus, he's only 25.

Kelly Shoppach, Indians: Martinez affords him few starts, but if anything were to happen to V-Mart, Shoppach could easily stand in with above-average catcher numbers. Twice in the minors he belted 20-plus homers in a season, and between this and last year he's a .264 hitter with eight homers in 193 at-bats. Not bad!

Miguel Montero, Diamondbacks: I was pretty big on him as a sleeper a year ago, and who knows, perhaps I was a year off? I probably wouldn't have said that a month ago, not with Chris Snyder crushing the ball in the spring, but with Snyder now slumping, it's possible Montero will sneak into a platoon role with him. Montero is a much, much better hitter than his career .228/.684 big league rates would indicate.

Deep (late-season?) sleepers

They're like the names above, only bigger long shots to make a significant fantasy impact in 2008. Still, if Wilson could do it back in 2001, why can't one of these three?

Max Ramirez, Rangers: How good is his bat? There are actually Rangers fans clamoring for his promotion today, despite the fact that he has all of 21 games' experience above Class A ball. Ramirez has .305/.905 career rates in the minors, and his bat isn't far from being big league ready. With Saltalamacchia seemingly the Rangers' future behind the plate, perhaps Ramirez will get a look as the DH in September?

Matt Wieters, Orioles: Surely you know this name; Wieters was the No. 5 pick overall in the 2007 draft, and in 20 games for Class A Frederick, he has shown his bat is way too advanced for high Class A ball. The Orioles should continue to challenge him by granting him quick promotions for as long as he keeps this up, and if that continues, an appearance by season's end wouldn't at all surprise me.

Nick Hundley, Padres: General manager Kevin Towers is already taking a look at his prospects, and Hundley's name is one you'll hear him speak pretty often. Part of that is Josh Bard's complete inability to throw out opposing baserunners, but Hundley's 20 homers in Double-A last year helps, too. If he gets the call soon, he could offer sneaky double-digit power, so long as he gets the at-bats.

The strong finishers

Living with the "avoid catchers" strategy sometimes means admitting, after a long enough period of time, that what you've been plugging in behind the plate simply isn't working. There's a time when trading for a better option becomes necessary, and if you fall into that category, going for strong second-half players is imperative. After all, one of the biggest problems with catchers is their tendency to slow down as the year progresses.

These three, though, seem to heat up after the All-Star break:

Ronny Paulino, Pirates: Keep reading and you'll see the potentially big implications of this, but Paulino has played two full seasons in the bigs, and in each has hit for a higher batting average and driven in more runs after the break than before it. In 2007, in fact, he went from useless .234/.627 first-half rates to solid .296/.790 second-half numbers.

McCann: In each of the past two seasons, he did something more special after the break than before it. In 2006, he saved 18 of his 24 home runs for the second half, during which time his OPS was 1.002. In 2007, he managed as many hits (68), doubles (19) and homers (9) in the second half as in the first, despite playing in 11 fewer games, and his OPS was 42 points higher. He's one of the safest full-year bets among catchers.

Snyder: Though I do like Montero as a sleeper, it's possible that Snyder's 2007 splits demonstrate a player who tends to heat up as the temperatures rise. Remember, he finished last season a .292/.889 second-half hitter, and he's off to a comparably slow start to last year's, too. This might merely be a developing career trend.

Flee, flee before July!

A final thing I can promise you: I won't have a bad catcher on my roster once July 1 rolls around. So what qualifies as a "bad catcher"? Well, certainly one who wears down from all the standing, squatting and throwing a catcher must do over the course of 180 days (and that excludes spring training or the playoffs). These guys have dreadful second-half histories, so don't get caught with them on your roster after the All-Star break, at least not if you're expecting them to come close to their career norms:

Doumit: Going back to what I said about Paulino, the relevance here is that while Paulino tends to heat up after the All-Star break, Doumit typically struggles after it, and it's almost assuredly due to the fact that his body can't handle the wear and tear of catching for all that time. Last year alone, he went from .305/.890 first-half rates to .212/.656 in 25 second-half games. Not that I'm aiming to trash the game's top catcher to date -- I do like his offensive upside -- but I worry about his ability to hold up to his current paces of 104 games and 966 innings behind the plate. Keep riding the hot streak, but if you get an offer of anything close to top-five catcher value for him, you need to consider it.

Laird: Remember the first name on my "bargain bin" list? Saltalamacchia is the Rangers' future behind the plate -- at least they claim so -- and Laird's bland .225/.635 career second-half rates say Salty will get a long look after the All-Star break.

Lo Duca: He might be the most historically poor second-half player of this generation. In seven full seasons in the majors, he has registered a lower OPS after the break than before it five times. Four of those times, it was 100-plus points worse. And two of those times, it was 200-plus points worse. He's a must-deal come June.

Tristan H. Cockcroft covers fantasy sports for ESPN.com. You can e-mail him here.