Everyone loves rankings. Creating and analyzing them allows for a brief and albeit fleeting ability to arrange a small aspect of life in a quantifiable way. I personally love to rank things. Everything ranging from my favorite bands to my favorite types of lettuce (yup) – if it can be ordered and numbered, I’ve probably ranked it.
One especially fun aspect about baseball and fantasy baseball is the endless slew of rankings available in the late off-season. Team power rankings, fantasy positional rankings and overall draft rankings inundate our computer screens every February and March.
This post kicks off FbR’s ‘Top 25’ series for fantasy rankings, where we rank the top 25 fantasy players at each position and sort them into tiers. At the end of the series we’ll debut a Top 300 draft board. The rankings will be done in a conversational style among the site writers that will, hopefully, be equal parts entertaining and informative.
(Note that the rankings are done on the basis of a standard 5×5 fantasy league, with runs, home runs, RBIs, stolen bases and average as the hitting stats and wins, ERA, WHIP, strikeouts and saves as the pitcher stats.)
Nick: So this is the year! 2018 has the deepest collection of fantasy backstops we’ve seen in a long, long time. -Tucker Barnhart
Dave: Get out of here Tucker! No one is going to draft you. Unfortunately 2018 is the same as any other year for fantasy catchers – like Trump’s hair, thin at the top and an unsightly monstrosity everywhere else.
Nick: At the top of the catcher heap is by no doubt Gary Sanchez. The rubenesque New York backstop showed everyone that his two month home run bonanza in 2016 was no joke, following with 33 long balls and 90 RBIs in 122 games in 2017. Sanchez missed a month due to a biceps strain in 2017, so it’s not inconceivable that he could be in line for a 40 HR, 100 RBI performance in a full complement of games this season, especially hitting behind the likes of newly acquired Giancarlo Stanton. At a position where the average player puts up a line of 50 / 15/ 60 /.265, Sanchez’s overall value in fantasy is immense and he projects as the best fantasy catcher since Mike Piazza.
Dave: This will be unorthodox, but I’ve got Posey as my top dawg behind the dish this year. A catcher who bats .300, OBP’s north of .370, doesn’t stike out, and gets over 550 plate appearances is…rare. The Giants were the worst offense in baseball in 2017 by a fair amount of metrics (wOBA, wRC+), so the offseason influx of talent to the Bay Area should be a Buster boon as well. I see a career year from the 30 year-old.
Nick: I’m more bearish on Posey. The guy had a sky-high BABIP last season and those knees probably feel more like 40 than 30 at this point. The only catcher that will challenge Sanchez for primacy at points this season is Wilson Contreras, who had a white hot 314 / 409 / 590 batting line after July 1st. While Contreras’ HR/FB rate was an obscene 35.3% in the second half and over half of his batted balls were grounders, he showed great plate discipline and strong batted ball authority. Willy should be good for 25 home runs and solid runs and RBI production, with some tantalizing upside given his age and prospect pedigree. Not a bad consolation if you miss out on Sanchez.
Dave: Holy Moses, after Sanchez, Posey and Contreras, there is quite a drop-off, isn’t there?
Nick: I’ll say. If you miss out on one of the big three, you can probably ignore grabbing a catcher for a bunch of rounds. I don’t see much of a difference between JT Realmuto, Salvador Perez and Mike Zunino in overall value. One guy who used to be a top dog but is now relegated to mediocrity is Jonathan Lucroy. The guy went from being a robust fantasy option to sporting a slugging percentage lower than Dee Gordon (wish I was joking about that). Is there any chance he returns to the player who accumulated a .455 slugging percentage and .808 OPS from 2014 to 2016?
Dave: There are some major negatives to his batting profile in 2017: ground ball rate and contact quality. Between 2012 and 2016, his hard hit percentage never fell below 35%; in 2017, it was 22%. His average exit velocity of 85.1 was good for 307th in baseball among players with at least 100 batted ball events, two spots below our boy Tucker Barnhart. Weaving this with a career high 53% ground ball rate resulted in a player who was not fantasy relevant even in a weak catcher field. Was he dealing with an undisclosed injury or is he simply a 31 year-old catcher in decline? The fact that he has yet to sign a contract may be a sign that front offices don’t think 2017 was an outlier. I’ll agree. There are some positives though: plate discipline and strikeout percentage. 2017 saw career bests in both surprisingly (25% O-swing% and 11% k-rate). Will I invest a high pick in Lucroy? Nope. But I’ll be monitoring his exit velocity and ground ball rate early in 2018.
Nick: Lucroy could be a solid option for those who are looking to completely punt on catcher. According to FantasyPros he’s the 12th catcher off the board. Much of his potential value depends on where he ends up. If he signs with a team where 400 ABs comes easy, then I like his chances at being worth more than the 200th pick. Draft him late, and maybe hold onto an upside guy like Mejia for the first month and see what happens.
Another player that’s intriguing is Evan Gattis. He didn’t get the playing time last year, due to lineup congestion and injuries, to be fantasy relevant. But his .457 slugging percentage and 105 wRC+ in 325 plate appearances were serviceable from the catcher spot. Now that Carlos Beltran has been put out to pasture, Gattis has a clear path to a full slate of at bats as DH for Houston, with some limited time at catcher mixed in. Depth Charts projected Gattis for 580 PA, with 30 HR, 94 RBI and a 255 / 309 / 482 slash. That’s basically a poor man’s Gary Sanchez! However, things aren’t that simple. Gattis has swatted to the tune of a .936 OPS in 406 PA as a catcher since 2015. But as a DH? A measly .710 OPS in 957 plate appearances. While it’s well-documented that performance at the plate suffers when players DH, that type of split is extreme and makes me cautious regarding Gattis.
Dave: Currently busy setting up my Hinge dates for this weekend. Want to keep going?
Nick: Sure. There are a handful of young guys worth talking about as we head into spring training. Jorge Alfaro is favored to win the Phillies’ starting catcher gig over incumbent Cameron Rupp and Andrew Knapp. Alfaro, a former top prospect, burst onto the MLB scene last season with a macho .514 slugging percentage and 127 wRC+ in 114 plate appearances after an August call-up. Much of that performance was fueled by a .420 BABIP, and his 0.09 BB/K ratio portends issues this season if he can’t channel more discipline at the plate. Additionally, Alfaro’s AAA performance last season was pretty bad, with a bloated 32% strikeout rate and unimpressive .649 OPS. Remember that Alfaro’s AAA teammates last year included players like Rhys Hoskins, Nick Williams JP Crawford and Scott Kingery, all of whom posted OPS’ north of .780 at AAA, so it’s not as if Alfaro was held back by his ballpark or a weak surrounding lineup. Another reason I’m skeptical on Alfaro is playing time. While it seems like he’ll be given every chance to win the starting catcher’s position, Cameron Rupp will inevitably steal time due to his veteran presence and defensive ability. Andrew Knapp is also underrated – he put up a .368 OBP in 204 PA’s last season and has a performed better than Alfaro in the minors (albeit at an older age).
If you’re going to target a young catcher, let it be the aforementioned Francisco Mejia of the Cleveland Indians. Mejia, MLB.com’s 11th best prospect, has rifled up the Indians minor league system, posting sterling offensive marks along the way (wRC+’s of 165, 140 and 127 at A, A+ and AA respectively). Cleveland skipper Terry Francona expects Mejia to start the 2018 season at AAA Columbus, which creates an obvious drag on his fantasy value. But Cleveland’s existing platoon of Roberto Perez and Yann Gomes leaves much to be desired, as they combined for woeful 83 wRC+ last season. The Indians are a team that is going to be competitive – maybe too competitive, as they should lap the AL Central – so if Mejia hits well in AAA and shows good defensive hands I don’t think he’ll be held back for long. We could see a situation very reminiscent of the 2016 Yankees when Gary Sanchez came up in July and stole the job outright from veteran Brian McCann. Mejia currently is going undrafted in almost all formats. If you have a deep bench, or you’re in some type of keeper league, draft Mejia in the last round and stash him for a month. Monitor his AAA performance – if he’s treading water over the first month, drop him. But if he’s hitting well, which he should, be happy you took the chance and expect a mid-season call-up.
Dave: I’m back! Guys like Alfaro and Mejia will be on a lot of people’s radars. How about some catchers who are a bit off the beaten path? My sleeper pick is Robinson Chirinos. Chirinos has mashed while in a timeshare over the past few years, and now finally looks to have Texas’ starting catcher role all to himself. Depth Charts projects him for 501 plate appearances; across 470 plate appearance between 2016 and 2017, he hit 26 homeruns and ISO’d over .250. For reference, Sanchez ISO’d .253 in 2017; Wilson Contreras ISO’d .223. The catcher field is obviously very thin and grabbing this kind of upside in the later rounds of the draft (ADP: 294) if you don’t land a Sanchez or a Posey could be a shrewd play.
Nick: I like Chirinos too – but he’s a case where we should beware of platoon splits. His overall production might suffer with more at bats against righties.
In terms of sleeper candidates at catcher one that sticks out to me is Wilson Ramos. He’s not a deep sleeper, but he’s a player that has a strong probability of significantly outperforming his draft position. The pudgy, right-handed hitter put up an impressive .496 slugging rate and 124 wRC+ with Washington in his walk year in 2016. But instead of getting a lucrative extension or big free agent deal at winter meetings, Ramos spent the offseason rehabbing from a torn ACL that he suffered in the final week of the 2016 season (bad luck, huh?). Tampa took a chance on him with a two-year deal, with Ramos eventually making his way back to the field in late June 2017. Unsurprisingly he was slow out of the gate, but after August 1st he batted to a 293 / 324 / 496 triple slash and clubbed eight home runs.
While Tampa has gutted its team, with the likes of Souza, Longoria, Dickerson and Morrison all not returning in 2018, Ramos remains. And while some might view the departure of so much talent as a bad thing for Ramos’ fantasy stock, I think it’s a good thing. Now one of Tampa’s best hitters, he’s sure to hit somewhere in the three through five spot. He’ll also be a strong candidate to DH when he needs a break from catching. All of that equates to the opportunity for a lot of at bats, which is paramount for finding value in a fantasy catcher. If things shake the right way, I can see a 25 HR / 80 RBI season with a .265 average out of Ramos, which would put him in Wilson Contreras territory. ESPN currently has him rated as the 230th overall player and ninth catcher off the board.