Fantasy baseball preview: American League catchers

Editor’s Note: Fantasy Baseball Focus is a breakdown of each league, position by position. Each team receives a fantasy analysis on the starter, backup, and future prospect if there is one. In case you’re wondering, is there a schedule? Why, Yes! Thanks for asking. On the right hand side of the page (your other right), look for the Fantasy Baseball Focus headline. I’m sure you can get it from there. Jamie Shoemaker will be doing the National League and Dan Kirby will be conducting the American League. Good luck on your Fantasy Leagues!

Mike Napoli's bat is a valuable commodity for fantasy owners. (AP photo)

Back in 2000, I decided to join my older brother in his NL-only fantasy keeper league. He had been a part of the league for a couple of years, which was made up of some neighborhood guys and some of their friends. At the time, the league consisted of 12 teams with a total of 26 roster spots. That is 312 total roster spots for an NL-only league, including two catcher spots. Needless to say, you had to know your stuff.

We had the number-one pick overall heading into the 2001 season. Now, with each team able to keep eight players from the previous year, nine if you wanted to give up your first-round pick, about 100 players were already off the board. That’s an average of over six players from each National League team gone from the start of the draft. Yeah, fun stuff.

Charles Johnson hit .304 with 31 home runs and 91 RBI in 2000 with the White Sox and Orioles. He also scored 76 runs, but the league didn’t count runs because it sucked. Johnson signed with the Marlins in the offseason and he was all ours. We sat there confidently waiting for the draft to start so we could walk up and write “Charles Johnson” on the makeshift board as the top pick of the 2001 draft. People laughed, one may have said “good pick” out of good sportsmanship, and we sat back down and watched as Juan Pierre, a rookie for the Rockies, went number two.

Johnson hit .259 in 2001 with 18 home runs and 75 RBI. Then hit .217 with six home runs and 36 RBI in 2002 and was off our team. Pierre hit .327 in 2001 with a league leading 46 stolen bases and still remains a viable option for stolen bases. Lesson learned.

I still don’t like catchers to this day. But you might, so here is the rundown of American League catchers along with this guide to help you escape the mistake I made.

For sure pick – It means you’ll get consistency, nothing less, nothing more.
Sleeper – Underrated in drafts; can get in later rounds but might produce above-average stats.
Overrated – Might not produce at the hype he’s supposed to produce at.
Long-term value – Might not be the best bet for this year but excellent for keeper leagues.

Top five American League catchers

1. Mike Napoli, Rangers — 2011: 72 R, 30 HR, 75 RBI, .320/.414/.631

2. Carlos Santana, Indians — 2011: 84 R, 27 HR, 79 RBI, .239/.351/.457

3. Joe Mauer, Twins — 2011: 38 R, 3 HR, 30 RBI, .287/.360/.368

4. Alex Avila, Tigers — 2011: 63 R, 19 HR, 82 RBI, .295/.389/.506

5. Matt Wieters, Orioles –2011: 72 R/ 22 HR/ 68 RBI .262/.328/.450

Baltimore OriolesMatt Wieters Matt Wieters, Taylor Teagarden

Starter: Wieters had a breakout season in 2011, putting up numbers many have expected out of him since being the fifth player taken overall in the 2007 draft. He hit .262 with 22 home runs and 68 RBI, both career highs. He also scored 72 runs, which is gravy from the catching spot. He will hit in the middle of the O’s lineup, and I believe he will only continue to get better in 2012. This is a guy I am looking to have on my roster as I expect the switch hitter to up the average to about .280, with about 25-30 home runs and 80-90 RBI. A sleeper pick in my eyes, he gets overlooked playing in Baltimore and will be selected in the later rounds, while giving you mid-round production.

Backup: Over four seasons, and 118 career games, Teagarden is a .220 hitter with 16 home runs and 49 RBI. He has also struck out 142 times to only 29 walks. It is Wieters or bust with the Orioles on offense.

Boston Red SoxKelly Shoppach, Jarrod Saltalamacchia, Ryan Lavarnway, Luis Exposito

Starter: Saltalamacchia had a career year for the Red Sox in 2011. He hit .235 with 16 home runs and 56 RBI. He has been a huge disappointment since being taken in the first round of the 2003 draft by the Braves, but at still just 26 years of age, could put it all together at any given moment. Don’t bet on it, however, as he struck out 119 times to only 24 walks over 103 games last season. Those type of contact numbers are never a good sign of long-term success. Salty should give you decent power numbers in 2012 but the average won’t be north of .250. Wait until the late rounds to snatch him up.

Backup: Shoppach can provide some pop but should only be considered in deep leagues, like the horrible one I was in. He hit 11 home runs in 2011 for the Tampa Bay Rays but also hit just .176. As for Lavarnway, look the other way. Hey-O!

Prospect: Exposito is an interesting prospect but might not contribute much this season. The 25-year-old has some power potential and a very good approach at the plate. He also has a strong arm behind the plate, and at 6’-3” and 210 lbs, is a very big target. Still needs some refining on both sides of the plate but could be one to keep an eye on down the line.

Chicago White SoxA.J. Pierzynski, Tyler Flowers

Starter: Pierzynski is a solid option as he isn’t going to hurt you in any category. His power numbers have dipped over the past couple of seasons as he has failed to reach double-digit home runs the last two seasons. Still, he hit .287 with eight home runs and 48 RBI and remains one of the hardest players to strike out in baseball. Over 500 plate appearances in 2011, he struck out just 33 times. He has recorded at least 500 plate appearances in nine straight seasons so you can count on his durability, even at the age of 35. Catchers can be headaches with their consistency, but A.J. is as safe a bet as they come at the position. Take him in the later rounds and feel good about the pick. Not elite, but I still put a for sure pick on him for those reasons.

Backup/prospect: Flowers has been talked up as Pierzynski’s heir for years now. The 6’-4”, 245 lb backstop is a monster target behind the plate but has had his struggles offensively. He hit just .209 over 129 plate appearances in 2011 but did show some pop with five home runs. At 26 years of age, his prospect tag is nearing its end, as is his potential. Waiver wire pick up in the deepest of leagues.

Cleveland Indians — Carlos Santana, Lou Marson

Starter: Santana’s rookie season, in which he hit .260 with six home runs, 22 RBI and a .401 OBP over 46 games left fans eagerly awaiting his sophomore campaign. He didn’t disappoint as he smashed 27 home runs, knocked in 79 runs and even stole five bases. He only hit .239 but he drew 97 walks, good for a .351 OBP and he also scored 84 runs. He is built like a brick at 5’-11” 200 lbs, and the switch-hitter has incredible power to all fields. At 25, he is only going to get better and the power numbers, along with the average, should spike in 2012. Definitely a for sure pick.

Backup: Marson provides very little fantasy impact as both his power numbers and average are not worth a roster spot. I would actually rather have a blank at the catcher position than Marson’s name there. Harsh, but true.

Detroit Tigers — Victor Martinez, Alex Avila, Gerald Laird

Starter: Avila will get the bulk of the workload at catcher as Martinez is likely out for all of 2012 with a torn ACL. Avila broke out last season, earning his first All-Star appearance by hitting .295 with 19 home runs, 82 RBI and 63 runs scored with a slash line of .389/.506/.895. He hits left-handed and crushed righties to the tune of 16 home runs, 65 RBI and a .935 OPS last season. As great as he was, I like to see a guy do it twice before I invest in him. People who grab him too early may regret it at the end of the season. He may duplicate his 2011 season, but I am placing an overrated tag on him because of where many people will draft him.

Martinez hit .330 with twelve home runs, 103 RBI and a .850 OPS over 145 games in 2011. His loss is a huge blow to fantasy owners in keeper leagues as they face a decision to either DL him the entire year or drop him altogether.

Backup: Laird’s role gets bigger with Martinez being out but still doesn’t provide enough power or average to be counted on unless you are in a very deep league.

Kansas City RoyalsBrayan Pena, Salvador Perez, Manny Pina

Starter: Pena, Pina, Perez. Be careful come draft time as to not confuse these three. Pena got most of the playing time last season, hitting .248 with three home runs, 24 RBI and a .625 OPS over 72 games. Perez, however, may be the starter when the season starts. The 21-year-old hit .331 with three home runs, 21 RBI and a .834 OPS over 39 games for the Royals. Over 1,344 minor-league plate appearances, he hit .285 with only 134 strikeouts. He has 10-15 home run potential and should hit for a high average due to his plate discipline. He is a sleeper pick for 2012 but shouldn’t be picked until the way later rounds.

Backup: Pina played in just four games for the Royals in 2011, going 3-14 (.214). The 24-year-old is a .250 hitter over 1,776 minor-league plate appearances with a .675 OPS. Not much value here.

Los Angeles AngelsHank Conger, Chris Iannetta, Bobby Wilson

Starter: Iannetta hit .238 with 14 home runs and 55 RBI for the Rockies last season. His home/road splits suggest the power numbers may take a hit with his new team as he hit .301, with 10 HR and 39 RBI over 57 games at Coors Field and just .172 with four HR and 16 RBI away from the thin air. He did draw 70 walks over 112 games for a .370 OBP and should still provide decent value but shouldn’t be taken until the last rounds of the draft.

Backup/prospect: Conger was the team’s first round pick in 2006 and is a high-average hitter with power to all fields. Over 1,819 minor-league plate appearances, he hit .298 with 55 home runs and a .827 OPS. The 23-year-old struggled with big-league pitching in 2011, hitting just .209 over 59 games but did hit six home runs with 19 RBI. Conger has long-term value.

Wilson hit .189 with one homer and eight RBI over 127 plate appearances in 2011, and if you have him on your team, your team is in trouble.

Minnesota Twins — Joe Mauer, Ryan Doumit, Drew Butera

Starter: When healthy, Mauer is one of the best hitters in the game. The three-time batting champ is a .323 lifetime hitter with a .874 OPS. Having said that, he is a risky pick due to his recent injuries and inconsistent power numbers. He hit 28 home runs in 2009, then followed that up with just nine in 2010. Over 82 games last season, he only hit three home runs and his average dipped to .287. He is a high-risk/high-reward pick and I give him an overrated tag simply because he will get drafted high with fans hoping for his 2009 numbers, and being very disappointed with the outcome. If he drops to the middle rounds, however, snatch him up.

Backup: Doumit is one of the better backups in the game and a nice handcuff if you have Mauer on your team. He hit .303 with eight home runs and 30 RBI over 77 games for the Pirates last season and is a lifetime .271 hitter with 162 game averages of 18 HR and 71 RBI over his seven-year career. Butera should be avoided at all costs.

New York YankeesRussell Martin, Francisco Cervelli, Austin Romine

Starter: Martin had a bounce-back year for the Yankees in 2011 hitting 18 home runs, 65 RBI and eight stolen bases. He only hit .237, but hitting in that lineup should yield good RBI and home-run totals again in 2012. His best days may be behind him, but he remains one of the better options at catcher due to his ability to steal bases along with the whole being a Yankee thing. Grab him late and have no worries about his production.

Backup: Cervelli hit .266 with four home runs, 22 RBI and even added four stolen bases over 43 games last season. He is a good option in deeper formats as the Yankees could use him or Martin at DH this year. He also can play second and third base and could fill in for injuries and rest. Could put up decent power numbers with sneaky speed as a late-round flier.

Prospect: Romine is a very good defensive catcher with some nice offensive potential as well. He hit .279 with six home runs and 48 RBI over 89 games split between double-A/triple-A last season before getting a September call-up. Won’t be much of a fantasy contributor this year but one to watch in a couple years.

Oakland AthleticsKurt Suzuki, Josh Donaldson, Anthony Recker, Derek Norris

Starter: Suzuki gets the bulk of the workload for the A’s and hit .237 with 18 home runs, 44 RBI and a .686 OPS over 515 plate appearances in 2011. The home runs are nice, but the .237 average over that many plate appearances can really hurt your team average in ROTO leagues. Pick your poison with Suzuki.

Backup: Donaldson was a first-round draft pick by the Cubs in 2007 and could have some fantasy value. Over 115 games at triple-A last season, the 26-year-old hit .261 with 17 home runs, 70 RBI and stole 13 bases. If Suzuki gets injured, or slumps, Donaldson should get a long look in deep formats, especially considering the cheap stolen base potential. Recker played alongside Donaldson at triple-A Sacramento last season and hit .287 with 16 home runs, 48 RBI and added seven stolen bases of his own. Both players put up those numbers in the PCL, which is a notorious hitter-friendly league. Donaldson looks like the better option of the two, however.

Prospect: Norris saw his stock soar in 2009 after hitting .286 with 23 home runs, 84 RBI and a .926 OPS for class-A Hagerstown, a Washington Nationals affiliate. He has since struggled as the competition as gotten better. He hit .235 in 2010 at class-A advanced, then .210 last season at double-A. He has a great eye at the plate, drawing a ton of walks, and still has big-time power potential. Now with the A’s, he may spend all of this season in the minors as he is still just 22 years old, but is one of the top catching prospects in the game and could be ready to contribute next season.

Jesus Montero make get a lot of play on draft day, but he may fall short of the hype in his first full season. (Leon Halip/Getty Images)

Seattle MarinersJesus Montero, Miguel Olivo, John Jaso

Starter: Olivo should remain the starter as Montero will most likely get the bulk of his time at DH. Olivo provides nice power and speed numbers from the catcher’s spot as he hit 19 home runs, 62 RBI and stole six bases last season. His .224 average over 507 plate appearances hurts, however. Montero is the top catching prospect in baseball, and one of the top prospects regardless of position. He has crazy power to all fields and should hit for a high average. He posted a .996 OPS over 18 games in 2011 with four home runs and 12 RBI, with a couple of his home runs launched into the upper decks of Yankee Stadium. I am going to place an overrated tag and a long-term potential tag on him as people are going to draft him way too high as the hype around him is not fair to the 22-year-old who will be playing half his games at Safeco Field. I could see a .270 average with about 20 home runs and 70 RBI with a much better 2013. Let others fall into the hype this year, then grab him for the following season.

Backup: Jaso can provide some cheap power in deeper leagues as he hit five home runs with 27 RBI over 273 plate appearances for the Rays in 2011. Other than that, stay away.

Tampa Bay RaysJose Lobaton, Jose Molina, Robinson Chirinos

Starter: Lobaton wins this race by default as the Rays catching core is not fantasy-worthy this season. Neither Lobaton, Molina or Chirinos will offer power or good averages, so my advice is to stay away from this group unless you are in an AL-only deep league in which case I would grab Molina as his average won’t hurt you as much as the others.

Backup: See above.

Texas Rangers — Mike Napoli, Yorvit Torrealba, Luis Martinez

Starter: Napoli has emerged as the best fantasy catcher in the AL now that he gets to hit at Arlington with an insane lineup around him. He hit .320 with 30 home runs, 75 RBI, four stolen bases and a 1.046 OPS over 432 plate appearances in 2011, all career highs except for the stolen bases. He should post similar power numbers, with a very possible increase in RBIs, but don’t expect another .320 average from him. He should be the first AL catcher taken off the board and you can get him in the middle rounds. A for sure pick.

Backup: Torrealba was suspended 66 games in Venezuela for striking an umpire in December. How this will effect his playing time with the Rangers remains to be seen, but he does offer value as a backup with power. He hit .273 with seven home runs and 37 RBI over 419 plate appearances for the Rangers last season and is a good option in deeper leagues. He does come with question marks, however, about his playing time. Martinez could see his playing time increase if Torrealba gets suspended by the team, but other than a decent average, he doesn’t offer anything of value.

Toronto Blue JaysJ.P. Arencibia, Jeff Mathis, Travis d’Arnaud

Starter: Arencibia will get you 20+ home runs and knock in around 75 runs every year but will kill your team’s average. He hit .219 with 23 home runs and 78 RBI over 486 plate appearances last season. He struck out 133 times over that span while only taking 36 walks, a sign that the average will stay sub-.240. If your team is in need of power, grab him, but be forewarned about his batting average.

Backup: Mathis isn’t worth a roster spot unless you are in a very deep league. A .174 average with three home runs and 22 RBI over 281 plate appearances is all you need to know about his value.

Prospect: d’Arnaud will make Arencibia owners worry, maybe as early as this season. A terrific defender behind the plate, something that Arencibia lacks, his bat is starting to catch up fast. He hit .311 with 21 home runs, 78 RBI, four stolen bases and a .914 OPS at double-A last season and will be knocking on the door of the major league club very soon.

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