Over the past few years, we have seen a shift in the way teams employ their bullpens. In years past there was a clear pecking order with a 7th and 8th inning guy followed by a defined closer. Recently, though, some teams have taken a somewhat committee approach with multiple players receiving save chances. This has caused a headache for fantasy owners in their obsessive chase for saves forcing a chance in roster construction.
What does this have to do with catchers? Well, it seems the catcher position may be on the verge of a similar transition. Whether it is by design or sheer coincidence, approximately one-third of the league could go into the season without a defined starting catcher, instead going with a tandem similar to what we saw last year in Atlanta. In 2017, Tyler Flowers and Kurt Suzuki started 78 and 71 games, respectively, combining for 31 home runs, 99 RBI, and a .282 batting average. Those type of numbers are deserving of Buster Posey status if they were produced by a single catcher.
What makes the Flowers/Suzuki situation interesting is the fact that both men were readily available on waivers, even towards the end of the season. Some owners rostered one or the other, but very few owned both and employed them on a nightly basis depending on who drew the start. Granted, that would mean you would need to burn a bench spot on a second catcher, but the end result was combined numbers better than any catcher out there. Is this the future of the catcher position? If so, fantasy owners may need to rethink not only how they evaluate the position, but also how they attack it on draft day.
Below are the teams that could employ a catcher platoon to start the season. Most, if not all, of the catchers should be ranked outside the top-15 and could be available on waivers to start the season. If you decide not to chase a top name catcher early in the draft, one of these combinations could be your savior.
Atlanta Braves (Tyler Flowers & Kurt Suzuki)
We obviously need to start off with the poster boys for today’s article. As mentioned above, a .282 average with 31 homers and 99 RBI are sick numbers from the catcher position. Nobody could have seen this coming. Suzuki was never a power guy but could hit for average, while Flowers had the power but wasn’t much for batting average. The stars aligned in 2017, and the dynamic duo will reunite in 2018 to see if lighting can strike twice.
- While it is nice to be optimistic, we all know the chances of lightning striking twice are slim. Monitor them both, but do not get your hopes up — and let someone else roll the dice on them come draft day.
Los Angeles Dodgers (Yasmani Grandal & Austin Barnes)
The casual player probably didn’t notice the emergence of Barnes in 2017. The third year backup batted .287 with eight home runs over 218 at bats – with a BB/K ratio of almost 1/1. He even snuck in enough games to qualify at second base in some leagues (bonus). Meanwhile, Grandal showed off his customary power, launching 22 home runs while batting .247 (his highest average to date). For those who pay attention to the rumblings out of Los Angeles, the Dodgers plan on getting Barnes more time on the field. With a healthy team, the odds are slim we see Barnes in the infield, so those extra appearances will come at the expense of Grandal.
- With both players fighting for time, could their friendly competition produce improved numbers by both? If so, this combo has the best chance of being the 2018 version of Flowers and Suzuki. Unlike Suzuki and Flowers, though, one or both of these men will be drafted, so the odds of them being waiver wire darlings are slim.
Milwaukee Brewers (Stephen Vogt & Manny Pina)
If you are looking for early free agents to monitor, it’s the duo from Milwaukee. Many have written off Vogt as he struggles with average and has dealt with injuries, but he showed signs of rebounding in August, still managed 12 home runs, and averaged 16 homers and a .261 average the previous two seasons. It’s intriguing what Vogt might do, but don’t forget what Pina did do. He was one of the guys responsible for holding down the fort all season, totaling nine home runs with a .279 average over 330 at bats.
- Although Vogt has the upper hand as the starter, Pina should easily get two to three starts a week. The two could combine for an average in the .270 range with 22 plus home runs and RBI totals dependent on their places in the lineup. The power numbers may not make them elite, but the batting average and RBI potential put them in the top-15 easily.
Boston Red Sox (Christian Vazquez & Sandy Leon)
Vazquez did a fine job defensively behind the dish, but his offensive numbers where nothing to write home about. The .290 average was nice, but five home runs over 324 at bats leaves a lot to be desired. Sandy Leon didn’t live up to his 2016 hype when he batted .310 over 252 at bats, but he did match his power output with seven long balls. Except for two-catcher leagues, I would not expect either to be drafted.
- Can Leon recover some of that lost batting average while adding some power? Can the 27-year-old Vazquez maintain his average and also build some power? I’m not holding out hope for either, but they play in a strong lineup in a great home park and division, so keep your eyes on both in April and May.
Philadelphia Phillies (Cameron Rupp & Jorge Alfaro)
I had Rupp pegged as a sleeper in 2017 with Brian McCann type upside. He failed to deliver, batting .217, but he did maintain his power output, smacking 14 home runs with just under 100 fewer at bats. Alfaro was the youngster everyone was clamoring for, and unlike Rupp he did deliver with a .318 average and five home runs in just over 100 at bats. However, you may want to keep your expectations in check given his career .262 minor league average and still developing power and plate skills.
- It is assumed, given the team’s feelings toward Rupp, that Alfaro will be the starter. But Rupp, who batted .262 in 2016, could rebound and complicate matters. Rupp also has the experience as far as handling the starting rotation, so he will still draft two to three starts a week. If you are high on Alfaro, then draft him, but keep your eye on Rupp because he could make a nice complement with a batting average north of .250.
Cleveland Indians (Francisco Mejia & Yan Gomes)
Just like Philly — different city but similar situation. Mejia was the top rated catching prospect last season, batting .297 with 14 home runs in Double-A and building off a terrific year in 2016. He only got a taste of the majors in 2017, but a strong spring could land him in Cleveland to start the year; at the very least, it’d earn him an early call. Gomes showed he still had power (14 homers), but his .232 average was the best we’ve seen since his breakout .278 performance in 2014. He has had some injuries, which can take some of the blame, but not all of it.
- There are several factors in play here. Mejia isn’t guaranteed to start the year in the majors. Gomes has power, but health issues and a poor average make him an extreme risk. However, if the stars align healthwise for Gomes and Mejia gets the call, we’re looking at solid counting stats given their surrounding cast. Do not draft either one; just monitor them on waivers.
Cincinnati Reds (Tucker Barnhart & Devin Mesoraco)
One of the less exciting combos so far, but the power upside makes them players to monitor. Like Gomes, Mesoraco broke out in 2014, but since then he has dealt with numerous injuries limiting his production. Barnhart showed an improved batting average in 2017, but he didn’t show a power increase from the previous season, hitting just seven homers. Catchers develop later than most hitters, so a slight increase could come (or not) at any time.
- A $13 million salary guarantees the Reds will give Mesoraco every chance to play, but his injury history also dictates that Barnhart could get half the starts early on. The bandbox home park and potential for a healthy Mesoraco could make this a dangerous 25-plus home run combination. I would list their ceiling right below the Milwaukee combination, but their floor is much lower.
Oakland Athletics (Josh Phegley & Bruce Maxwell)
It’s hard to take this combination seriously given the team’s quick hook with struggling players and free-trading ways. Even so, both should start the year in Oakland, but neither has a clear advantage over the other. Phegley, a career backup, failed to come close to the .250 average he showed the previous two season, and he displayed little power. Maxwell also failed to come close to his 2016 debut, batting just .237. Combined, they hit 6 home runs, and I don’t see this improving much in 2018.
- Of all the combinations, this is the one I would ignore. There is little hope for power, little hope for a strong (or even solid) batting average, and little chance for counting stats batting towards the bottom of the lineup.
Arizona Diamondbacks (Chris Herrmann & Jeff Mathis)
Like the Oakland duo, this is just an obligatory mention. As Officer Barbrady would say, “Move along, people. Nothing to see here.” Mathis is a soon to be 35-year-old career backup with no fantasy upside or potential. He is a decent catcher, though, so the D’Backs will roll him out a few times a week, stealing numbers from Herrmann. Herrmann looked like a potential breakout player for 2017 after hitting .284 with six home runs over 148 at bats in 2017. That fame was short-lived, though, as he failed to reach .200 last season.
- The team always seems to produce offensively, and the home park is nice, so don’t be surprised if Herrmann is fantasy relevant at some point. That being said, short of a full-fledged breakout, he will not see enough at bats to matter much.
Maybe this is just a bad year for catcher. Or, maybe this is a sign of things to come. Only time will tell. For 2018, though, the catcher class is very top-heavy, followed by a dozen question marks that could go either way.
Come draft day, if you decide not to chase one of the top-six catchers, you may want to punt the position, take whatever is available at the end of the draft, and then play the waiver wire early. You may end up with a top-10 catcher combo, or perhaps one that produces numbers better than anything you might have drafted.
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