Today I’m introducing a new series for fantasy baseball enthusiasts. Over the next few weeks, I will be going through each position and identifying two players I predict will take a step forward and improve in the 2014 season; and, three players I anticipate will take a step back and regress. Let’s start behind the dish with catchers.
Two Steps Forward:
The Indians C/1B goes into his age 27 season with some major upside, given the fact he will no longer be expected to perform the majority of catching duties. Last season’s breakout of Yan Gomes allows Santana to slide into the 1B/DH spot; while still most likely receiving enough time behind the plate as a backup to retain his eligibility for 2015 (if you happen to be in a keeper/dynasty format). The key to Santana’s value this season is that he’s going to be playing more than other full time catchers. Even last year, the Indians were starting Santana at 1B or DH on his off days from catching. This provided a clear advantage over other catchers that were resting once or twice a week. For a player who survived a devastating knee injury at the age of 24 that looked like it could jeopardize his entire career, Santana has been remarkably durable. In the last three seasons Santana has averaged 150 games played while improving his BA and OBP each year. 2014 gives Santana a greater chance to focus on offense while not having to worry about calling a game and the wear and tear associated with the position. Santana had 642 plate appearances last season. Now compare that to a player like Matt Wieters who had 579. Both catchers stayed healthy the entire year, but Santana played 1B on his off days, while Weiters rested on the bench. The difference of 63 plate appearances could be a game-changer over the course of a fantasy season. I would especially target Santana in points leagues where his 2013 totals of 93 walks and 39 doubles will provide greater value over other formats.
In the final two months of last season the Kansas City catcher erupted with a .318/.346/.526 triple slash line, 9 HR, and only 21 strikeouts in 185 plate appearances. Perez goes into the 2014 season at the ripe age of 24, which coincidentally is the same age Carlton Fisk, Sandy Alomar Jr., and Mike Piazza all experienced their offensive breakouts as catchers. With the struggles of Mike Moustakas and the trade rumors swirling around Billy Butler, Perez is shaping up for a premium spot in the re-vamped Kansas City lineup. New additions like Norichika Aoki and Omar Infante should improve the top of the KC order and help Perez expand on last season’s total of 79 RBI. I anticipate a significant bump in power from Perez, as this year I have penned him in for 20 HR and 85-90 RBI. Beware of over-valuing him in OBP leagues. Perez holds a career OBP of .331, which leaves a lot to be desired for a lifetime .301 hitter.
Three Steps Back:
2013 was another career year for Molina. Great defense and the ability to hit for a high average kept the Cardinal’s backstop in the MVP discussion for most of the season. The 22 HR and 13 SB Molina posted in 2012 now appear to be outliers, as his 2013 HR/SB totals fell more in line with Molina’s career averages. Despite this dip in value, Molina’s fantasy stock has risen. Many in the fantasy community (including ESPN’s Tristan H. Cockroft) have ranked Molina the #2 fantasy catcher behind Buster Posey. Without the power and steals, I just don’t see the value. Molina has the reputation of wanting to play every inning of every game; but, after last season’s knee and wrist injuries, I expect the cardinals to rest him more often. Molina’s 2013 .338 BABIP was 42 points above his career average. When a player without speed posts an extremely high BABIP, it’s safe to expect regression. Molina also saw his walk rate decrease and his strikeout rate increase while cutting his HR total nearly in half from the previous season. I still expect Molina to have an all-star caliber year, but he appears to be in a slow decline from his 2012 peak. Don’t let Molina’s defensive reputation skew your fantasy judgment. There are no categories for calling a great game. If you want a .300 hitting catcher with low HR totals, wait a few rounds and draft Joe Mauer (with the move to 1B, he’ll get more at-bats anyway).
Pierzynski has experienced a late career resurgence to the delight of many fantasy owners. At the age of 37 the bat could certainly fall off, but my main concern for Pierzynski in 2014 is playing time. The Sox catcher has made it clear in an interview with WEEI this winter that he is willing to accept a reduced role with Boston. Pierzynski will go from a full time catcher in Texas to more of a 60/40 split as he will most likely be in a platoon with David Ross. The Sox also have Blake Swihart, Ryan Lavarnway, and Christian Vazquez waiting in the wings to steal away late season at-bats. Pierzynski is on a one year deal, so if the Sox aren’t in contention, you can guarantee they’re going to want to break in their catching prospects. There are other reasons to proceed with caution when drafting Pierzynski. His 2013 6.91 K/BB ratio was the worst of his career, as was his 2.1% walk rate. For a catcher that hasn’t played less than 128 games since 2000, durability is no longer an asset.
Take away the first two months of the 2013 season and Gattis’ .219/.262./.391 triple slash line looks abysmal. The Braves lost McCann to free agency and are now putting a lot of faith in a the catcher. One could argue Gattis’ value will rise now that he is a full time catcher, but I beg to differ. I think regular playing time will expose Gattis’ horrible platoon splits as he will be asked to face right-handed pitching on a regular basis. Gattis hit .236 against righties in his rookie year as opposed to .260 versus lefties. The Braves no longer have the luxury of platooning Gattis which is why fantasy owners should beware.