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The Wheelhouse: Catcher Tiers

Derek VanRiper

Derek is the Director of Media for RotoWire.com, where he's been a two-time finalist for the FSWA's Baseball Writer of the Year award, and winner of the Best Football Article on the Web (2009) and Best Baseball Article on the Web (2010) awards. Derek also co-hosts RotoWire's shows on SiriusXM Fantasy Sports Radio (XM 87, Sirius 210).

Catcher Tiers. Or maybe, Catcher Tears?

Increasingly, major league teams have put a premium on the defensive ability of catchers -- specifically, pitch framing. With that shift, there are fewer quality hitters behind the plate because many bat-first catchers end up getting stuck in part-time roles, or having to shift to another position to find playing time.

If nothing else, the current state of the catcher position should generate some conversation as to whether the second catcher spot should be replaced by another utility spot, or if it should be removed altogether.
Fortunately, owners in leagues that require the use of one catcher donít have to venture beyond the third tier, assuming itís a 12-team mixed league or something smaller.

Iíve put this yearís group of catchers into five tiers. Why five?

(Blutarsky Voice) Why not?

  • Gary Sanchez (Tier 1)
  • Willson Contreras and Buster Posey (Tier 2)
  • Nine Solid Players (Tier 3)
  • Five More with Power, but Slight PT Concerns (Tier 4)
  • Everybody Else (Tier 5)

    (Note: the full list is available at the bottom of this article.)

    Gary Sanchez

    No catcher has hit more home runs than Sanchezís 53 over the past two seasons -- his first two as a big-league starter. His counterparts with better RBI and run totals during that time have racked up approximately 300-400 more plate appearances, and that gap in playing time makes his power production even more impressive. While the extra pop may be accompanied by a slightly lower average, itís an easy trade off since Sanchez is a positive contributor on that front as well (career. 284 AVG). Playing half of his games in one of the most hitter-friendly parks in the league, and surrounded by an elite supporting cast, Sanchez is in a tier by himself and is a top-25 overall player as heís posted a higher wRC+ (142) than Paul Goldschmidt, Giancarlo Stanton, Anthony Rizzo, Charlie Blackmon and Carlos Correa over the past two seasons.

    Willson Contreras and Buster Posey

    Your preference between Contreras and Posey may hinge entirely on what youíve done with your roster foundation to that point in your draft.

    In a vacuum, I prefer Contreras, because Iíd like to have two pitchers in tow by this point in a draft, and any effort to get a lot of stolen bases in the early rounds will likely leave me chasing power. Plus, I still expect more from the Cubsí offense than from the improved Giantsí offense. Keep in mind, however, that Contrerasí second-half power surge was fueled by a 37.0% HR/FB, rather than an increase in total flyballs. Through two seasons, heís hitting a lot of balls on the ground (53.7% GB%), and while that can definitely turn around quickly with a swing adjustment, it isnít necessary for Contreras to be a top-three catcher in 2018. Heíll turn 26 in May, which makes me less concerned about durability than many of the players below, and slightly more confident in the possibility of a mechanical change that would allow him to generate loft more consistently.

    Posey is the only regular catcher with an average above .300 over the past two seasons, and he continues to show an excellent hit tool and eye at the plate. Last season, Posey hit .320 and got on base at a .400 clip, but he finished with 62 runs scored and 67 RBI thanks to the lack of quality bats around him in San Francisco. The addition of Andrew McCutchen and Evan Longoria will undoubtedly help Poseyís run production, and the uncertain health of Brandon Belt could continue to steer Posey toward the top of the plate appearance leaderboard at the position.

    Tier 3

    My tiers begin to stray from the NFBC ADP breaks at the position from this point on. While the market has established a preference for Salvador Perez and J.T. Realmuto as the two catchers who round out the top five, I think there is very little that separates them from the options available 50-75 picks later. In fact, I would consider it a small victory if someone else in my league pays sticker price (~Pick 100) for either one of them on draft day.

    Over the last five seasons, no player has caught more games than Perez, and at 6-foot-3, 240 pounds, heís a huge target for the bevy of foul tips and other hazards that catchers have to deal with. The heavy volume of playing time is unlikely to change as long as he avoids a major injury, and heís hit 20-plus homers in three straight seasons, so the floor is stable, but the RBI count will almost certainly come down with the potential of Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas and Lorenzo Cain signing elsewhere this winter. Even if one of those three returns to Kansas City, the drop-off at two of those three lineup spots will hurt Perez, and itís easy to see a scenario in which the Royalsí offense of 2018 closely resembles the Giantsí offense of 2017.

    Realmutoís supporting cast has also been decimated, thanks to the handiwork of Derek Jeter in Miami. A 20-homer, 10-steal season is within reach, and Realmuto can flirt with a .300 average, but the runs and RBI will suffer now that Giancarlo Stanton, Marcell Ozuna and Dee Gordon are gone. Still, the expected playing time and a prominent place in a bad lineup keeps Realmuto slightly ahead of the alternatives in this tier.

    Evan Gattis, HOU -- With Carlos Beltranís retirement, Gattis will have an opportunity to serve as the Astrosí primary DH this season. A career-low .457 SLG last season was accompanied by a career-best 15.4% K%, and fortunately, the reduced power output wasnít the byproduct of fewer flyballs. With more young talent (specifically, Kyle Tucker) on the brink of joining the big-league roster, Gattis isnít entrenched in his new role as overcrowding in the outfield could lead Houston to float the DH spot, but heís got a great chance to approach 400-450 plate appearances again, making him a threat for 25-plus homers and steady (at least for catcher-eligible players) RBI production.

    Wilson Ramos, TAM -- The Rays signed Ramos to a two-year deal last offseason while he was recovering from a torn ACL, with the hope of getting more value in Year 2 of the deal. His per-plate appearance output in 2016 and 2017 is on the same level as Willson Contreras during that span. The second-half return in 2017 left something to be desired (.260/.290/.447, 92 wRC+), but Ramos wonít have much competition for starts behind the plate in Tampa Bay this season.

    Austin Barnes, LAD -- On talent alone, Barnes could be a top-five catcher in 2018. The Dodgers leaned on him very heavily in September and October, perhaps tipping their hand for the upcoming season if Yasmani Grandal remains in the picture. Both Barnes and Grandal are good enough to be starters, and theyíre both good defenders. Even if theyíre forced to share time, Barnes can play second base on occasion, since Chris Taylor settled in as the primary center fielder at the end of the season. With very good plate discipline, double-digit homer pop, and the ability to chip in as a basestealer, heís already shaping up to be ďeverybodyís guyĒ at catcher, however, and this placement is banking on Grandal playing elsewhere at some point during the upcoming season.

    Jonathan Lucroy, FA -- This time last year, I thought he was the best catcher on the board. What happened? Lucroy looked like a great fit in Texas after he was traded to the Rangers in the second half of 2016, and it appeared as though he might sign a long-term contract to lock down the position for the next few years. Instead, Lucroy struggled, yielded more playing time than expected to Robinson Chirinos, and was eventually traded to Colorado, where he played at a higher level, but still didnít benefit from the typical power spike that comes with a move to Coors Field. Lucroy is a good pitch framer, which should help him find a new home as a starter in short order, and he still showed a good eye at the plate in his disappointing 2017 (46:51 BB:K). The bounce-back potential is interesting enough to take the chance on him at this point (.280, 13-15 HR, 55-60 R, 60-70 RBI), and his downside, which we saw last season, isnít nearly as bad as the Tier 4 and Tier 5 considerations.

    Yadier Molina, STL -- If youíre expecting a repeat, he has to rank higher than where I have him. Molina nearly matched the home-run total from his previous three seasons combined in 2017, and he almost made it to a double-digit steals total. I would rather be a year too early on a potential drop-off than a year too late, as heíll turn 36 in July.

    Mike Zunino, SEA -- If I havenít already taken on a batting average anchor or two, Zunino can be taken ahead of Molina and Lucroy. A two-year K% of 35.9% is the major concern, as heís pretty much in a league of his own in this tier with that particular flaw. Zunino draws a healthy number of walks, however, nudging up his floor in OBP formats, and enabling him to pile up a few more runs than you might expect. He helps his case for playing time by grading out as a very good defender as well. This is not a skill set to bank on in keeper/dynasty scenarios, but the power is legit and the role is safe enough right now to invest at this price in one-year formats.

    Tyler Flowers, ATL -- As long as Kurt Suzuki is his backup, Flowers will likely play less than the rest of the players in this group. Iím hesitant to stack both Atlanta catchers on the same team, mostly because Iím skeptical of the magnitude of Suzukiís resurgence, and the possibility that Suzuki regression leaves the door open for Flowers to take on a larger share of the starts for the Braves. Iím also expecting a step forward from the Atlanta offense with the arrival of Ronald Acuna, a full season of Ozzie Albies, and the possibility of a short-term upgrade at third base for 2018 before Austin Riley takes over the position in 2019.

    Tier 4

    Welington Castillo, CHW -- Leaving Camden Yards usually puts a player in a less favorable home park, and that is the case for Castillo, but it could be much worse. The three-year park index for right-handed homers at Camden Yards is 121, while The Cell checks in at 110. Runs scored also drop by a similar amount at 106 and 95, respectively. Itís possible that a slightly higher placement in the lineup will wash out the different between parks for Castillo, but Omar Narvaez is a useful enough backup to take at least one-quarter of the playing time behind the plate for the White Sox.

    Robinson Chirinos, TEX -- The Steamer projection system really likes Chirinos, and I think itís for good reason. The Rangers seem unlikely to bring back Jonathan Lucroy after trading him last summer, and short of a trade for Yasmani Grandal, things are pretty thin on the free-agent market right now behind the plate. Maybe Alex Avila comes in and tries to play his way into the large side of a platoon, but Avilaís injury history alone would prevent me from panicking about the loss of significant plate appearances for Chirinos. There isnít much batting average upside, but the power appears to be legitimate, and the Rangersí lineup should once again be productive, offering up plenty of RBI chances.

    Brian McCann, HOU -- Much like my position on Molina, I would rather be a year too early getting away from McCann than a year too late. The Astrosí supporting cast can stabilize his floor, and he cut his K% under 15 percent last season, but Iím not expecting a significant jump in playing time from the 399 plate appearances he racked up last season. There is no doubt you can do worse, but Iím intrigued by Max Stassi as a backup capable of keeping McCann fresh with frequent days off.

    Russell Martin, TOR -- Martin is even more risky than McCann, thanks to a higher strikeout rate (25.7% over the last two seasons). There isnít a proven backup pushing him for playing time, which is also similar to McCann, but whether itís Danny Jansen or someone else heíll end up sitting twice per week. Can the Jays really expect more than 105-110 games from a soon-to-be 35-year-old Martin?

    Yasmani Grandal, LAD -- If heís traded into a starting role, Grandal moves to the top of this tier, if not into Tier 3. Last seasonís .247 average was his best full-season mark as a big-league player, and his plate discipline eroded with career-worst strikeout (27.0%) and walk (8.3%) rates. Imagine Grandal as a starter ahead of Jeff Mathis in Arizona, or in Baltimore with Caleb Joseph. The Angels could also be a good fit, despite a nice 2017 from Martin Maldonado.

    Tier 5

    The rest of the pool features high volume players with mostly empty bats, younger players with upside if everything clicks, and more even timeshares. Here are a few names of interest...

    Chris Iannetta, COL -- He would have been an easy fade if he had signed anywhere else, given his age and surprising turnaround with the D-backs last season. Coors Field should mask plenty of flaws and a lot of regression.

    Jorge Alfaro, PHI -- Alfaro is out of minor-league options, so heíll stick on the big club all season. Itís a very scary approach, but the power payoff could be huge, and the Philliesí lineup is much better with Rhys Hoskins and Carlos Santana in the heart of the order than it was this time last year. The contact issues at Triple-A last season (32.3% K%) should serve as a harsh reminder of his potential for prolonged growing pains. It will be interesting to see if the Phillies want to turn over the position to Alfaro and Andrew Knapp, or if Cameron Rupp will stick around to work in tandem with Alfaro this season. A willingness to draft Alfaro for the second catcher spot comes with the prerequisite of rostering a third catcher to swap in when the inevitable slumps send him to the bench.

    Matt Wieters, WAS -- Lofty expectations for Wieters were the norm dating back to his time as a prospect in the Oriolesí system. The more you examine his 2017 season, the uglier it gets (.225/.288/.344, 62 wRC+). Fortunately, he handled the Natsí pitching staff well, which affords him a lot of playing time in a very good lineup, but I am not getting excited about him unless he starts hanging out with Daniel Murphy and Ryan Zimmerman around the cage every day this spring. (Donít worry, plenty of people are disappointed in me too. My parents probably thought I would be a doctor.)

    Victor Caratini, CHC -- The interest here spikes if Willson Contreras gets hurt, or if Caratini gets traded at some point. Caratini is a bat-first option behind the plate, which could always be a limiting factor as he tries to establish himself as a starter down the road. He can produce at the level of a Tier 3 option for any prolonged stretch in which heís used as the primary option.

    Francisco Mejia, CLE -- He may not qualify at catcher in your league since he played most as a DH in the few chances he received in Cleveland. Beyond that, Mejia seems destined to open the year at Triple-A, as the Indians donít seem sold on him as a good receiver behind the plate yet.

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