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NL Catchers: Day One
by Tim Polko

Today's Fantasy Rx

National League Catchers with Positive Draft Value

Quick Key to the tables:
AB = At-bats.  H = Hits.  BA = Batting Average.  HR= Home Runs.
RBI = Runs Batted In.  SB = Stolen Bases.  R = Runs.  B = Bats.  T = Throws.
Pos = Position qualification based on 20 appearances or max. # of games in 2005.
Age = Player's Age as of October 2, 2005.
4x4 = BA, HR, RBI, and SB in 12-team, $260 leagues with 23-man rosters in 2005.
5x5 = BA, HR, RBI, SB, and R in 12-team, $260 leagues with 23-man rosters in 2005.
RAR = Runs Above Replacement in 2005; Adjusted RAR = RAR modified to
consider a player's 2005 defensive rating in Scoresheet fantasy baseball.

We ranked players in order from the highest draft value in a 4x4 league to the lowest. As the majority of fantasy leagues allow you to keep anyone traded to the other league, we listed each player in the league where he started the season.

Ramon Hernandez369107.2901258136C
SD Padres4x45x5RARAdj. RAR
Age: 29B:R    T:R111016.514.3

An injury-reduced workload over the past two years resulted in the best offensive performances of Hernandez's career when he appeared on the field. With his return to full health, Javy Lopez and Geronimo Gil providing plenty of protection in Baltimore, and a seven-season pattern of improving after every OPS drop, Hernandez appears primed for an outstanding season. Although decreased patience hurts his value to the Orioles, Hernandez's solid contact rate should push him to no less than a .290/20/80 and a great chance at exceeding $20. Letting him go below the mid teens looks like a definite mistake.

Paul Lo Duca445126.283657445C
FLO Marlins4x45x5RARAdj. RAR
Age: 33B:R    T:R111110.38.4

Ignoring whatever veteran savvy Lo Duca brings to a team leaves with an aging catcher possessing few overt offensive skills. The good news is that he should hold a high batting average thanks to a more forgiving hitting environment in Shea Stadium, as well as excellent plate discipline. Don't expect more than a smattering of home runs, but as long as you don't bid into double digits, Lo Duca shouldn't disappoint, especially if you deal him in July.

Michael Barrett424117.2761661048C
CH Cubs4x45x5RARAdj. RAR
Age: 28B:R    T:R101023.322

Perhaps the safest catching option left in the National League, Barrett rarely costs double-digit prices in most leagues yet appears comfortable and capable of echoing this performance over the next couple of years. He simply slaughters left-handed pitching, posting a .320/.415/.624 line this summer, and if he sustains his second-half improvement, he just might emerge as the most valuable NL catcher. Go the extra buck on Barrett if you want to secure solid production at the toughest position to the fill in the league, as well as the chance of netting his approaching .300/25/80 career year.

Javier Valentin22162.2811450036C
CIN Reds4x45x5RARAdj. RAR
Age: 30B:S    T:R7719.519.1

The switch-hitting journeyman emerged as part of the most potent offensive backstop duo in the game. Valentin finally carried his impressive minor league numbers into big league success, and his dominance of right-handed pitchers should keep him in Cincinnati despite the pending free agency of both Valentin and nominal starting Jason LaRue. Remember that Valentin bats at the back of perhaps the NL's best lineup, so feel free to bid a few bucks on this erstwhile reserve, potentially pushing closer to ten dollars in keeper leagues.

Jason LaRue36194.2601460038C
CIN Reds4x45x5RARAdj. RAR
Age: 31B:R    T:R6616.818.5

Steady progress at the plate over the past five seasons finally resulted in an OPS over .800, though given his age and the emergence of Javier Valentin as a viable alternative, LaRue needs a true power breakout to remain in Cincinnati. Of course, while he possesses the skill foundation necessary for such a leap, perennial contact problems limit both LaRue's batting average and overall offensive upside. Expect another similar season and bid accordingly.

Mike Piazza398100.2511962041C
NY Mets4x45x5RARAdj. RAR
Age: 37B:R    T:R6615.41.7

The best offensive catcher in history heads to a new club after a seven-season stretch in Los Angeles, and fortnight in Florida, and eight years spent helping the Mets blossom back into an NL force. Although his defensive problems virtually overwhelm his declining offense as a catcher, Piazza still will remain a useful player if absorbed into a DH/C/1B role on a club like the Athletics, Rangers, Angels, or even the Yankees. Landing in the American League should end his five-year OPS slide, yet the gradual erosion of his health and batting skill set essentially prevents a return to double-digit value. Remember Piazza's past dominance fondly even as you pass when the bidding heads towards $10.

Damian Miller385105.273943050C
MIL Brewers4x45x5RARAdj. RAR
Age: 35B:R    T:R6613.117.3

While I fully expected the Brewers to leverage Lyle Overbay into a catching prospect, Miller remains Milwaukee's property for two more years, giving the club plenty of time to find a long-term solution. He doesn't qualify as a serious offensive threat, but barring significant injury, Miller appears quite capable of handling the Brewers' young staff while adding a little bit of pop at the bottom of the lineup. Although Miller's advancing age means you can't risk more than a few bucks on him, he at least shouldn't hurt you for a minimal ante.

Brian Schneider36999.2681044138C
WAS Nationals4x45x5RARAdj. RAR
Age: 28B:L    T:R6610.320.4

Schneider weathered the move from Montreal as well as any Expo, but he packed all his production into the three months of summer, sticking his owners with negative value over the other four months of the season. Additional consistency easily could double Schneider's value, especially if heads to an actual hitters' park as he approaches free agency. While nothing in his skills portends a breakout, bidding more than a few bucks here makes decent sense given his power potential and long-term upside as he heads into his prime.

Mike Lieberthal392103.2631247048C
PHI Phillies4x45x5RARAdj. RAR
Age: 33B:R    T:R5611.95.1

Lieberthal avoided the DL despite a couple of minor injuries and post-season knee surgery, but given his perceived relative fragility, he appears set for another reduction in playing time next summer. The good news is that Lieberthal's .91 contact rate ranks as his best mark since debuting with the Phillies in 1994, so his improved production could force Charlie Manuel to play him regularly. I expect a notable rebound in his walk year, which should insure the Phillies retain their tenured starter to the end of his career.

Brad Ausmus387100.258347535C
HOU Astros4x45x5RARAdj. RAR
Age: 36B:R    T:R442.90.1

The veteran backstop unsurprisingly posted his best stats of the decade as he headed towards free agency, securing his plate in Astros' lore with his NLDS homer and earning a two-year deal from Houston that also provides incentive for Roger Clemens to return in May. Ausmus shockingly demonstrated the best plate discipline of his career, and although he lacks any overt power, his solid OBP at least insures he possesses some value to the Astros at the plate. Spending a buck or two in Ausmus for a few dozen RBI shouldn't hurt you in any league aside from the opportunity cost involved in rostering someone with essentially no fantasy upside.

Yadier Molina38597.252849236C
STL Cardinals4x45x5RARAdj. RAR
Age: 23B:R    T:R33-1.50.4

A fluke broken hand courtesy of a Claudio Vargas pitch cost Molina six weeks of action right as he seemed set to carry his late-spring success over the entire summer. Molina hit .299 with 5 HR and 25 RBI in May and June, numbers which suggest plenty of fantasy upside as he gains experience as a hitter. Slight skill erosion leaves me expecting no more than a mild upturn here in 2006, but if Molina holds a .92 contact rate, he soon will emerge as an excellent fantasy bargain, making him a good speculative buy in all spring drafts.

Brian McCann18050.278523120C
ATL Braves4x45x5RARAdj. RAR
Age: 21B:L    T:R225.95.3

The Braves' second best rookie shot to the majors on the strength of a .265/.359/.476 performance with 6 HR, 26 RBI, and an excellent 25:26 BB:K in 166 AB for AA Mississippi(SL), first securing a reserve job and then emerging as the starter when Johnny Estrada hit the DL. McCann's play forced the Braves to deal Estrada this fall, and now the youngster faces a clear path to regular duty in Atlanta for many years given he possesses the best overall combination of catching skills in the system. Consider McCann a solid pick-up anywhere in single digits. Even if he suffers a sophomore slump due to skipping AAA, I still expect him to justify his salary by the end of his contract in any keeper league.

Ryan Doumit23159.255635225C
PIT Pirates4x45x5RARAdj. RAR
Age: 24B:S    T:R221.91.2

Defensive questions should shift Doumit into the Craig Wilson role over the next two years, but with Ronny Paulino slated for a full AAA campaign to refine his bat, Doumit heads to camp as Pittsburgh's undisputed starting catcher. He excelled down the stretch after winning a full-time job, posting a .281/.347/.444 performance with 6 HR, 25 RBI, and a 7:29 BB:K in 160 AB in the second half, so I don't view a .275/15/80 line in 2006 as overly unreasonable given his minor league numbers. Downward BA creep could limit his value to the level of Jason LaRue initially, though excellent power potential will compensate for weak plate discipline, insuring Doumit will justify bids of several dollars.

Mike Matheny443107.2421359042C
SF Giants4x45x5RARAdj. RAR
Age: 35B:R    T:R1237.9

Matheny shockingly sustained his normal April hitting spree for four months, only tailing off as summer headed towards fall. He finished a year with an OPS over .700 for the first time, rewarding any fantasy owner who hoped to a half-dozen homers and a passable BA with career-best power numbers. Of course, he still only earned a buck in standard leagues, and given his age and questionable skills, expect no more than ten homers as his average drops to truly worrisome levels.

Johnny Estrada35793.261439031C
ATL Braves4x45x5RARAdj. RAR
Age: 29B:S    T:R121.7-2.1

A multitude of minor injuries early in the year built to more serious back problems by August, forcing Estrada to the DL for a few weeks and giving Brian McCann a chance to emerge as a viable alternate starter. Of course, McCann's emergence merely accelerated Estrada's inevitable move from Atlanta, although Arizona offers mixed opportunities for the journeyman backstop. I don't know if Estrada owns superior skills to incumbents Chris Snyder and Koyie Hill, but at least he possesses the power potential to take advantage of his new hitter-friendly home park. Only an awful start that cedes the job back to one of the youngsters should keep Estrada from pushing double-digit value as a Diamondback. Even a possible platoon with Snyder only should boost Estrada's roto value by driving up his batting average.

Ramon Castro20951.244841126C
NY Mets4x45x5RARAdj. RAR
Age: 29B:R    T:R117.37.1

Castro acquitted himself admirably in his first real chance at regular playing time. He demonstrated both plenty of patience and power potential, so I fail to understand why the Mets viewed Paul Lo Duca as such an obvious upgrade. Few catchers possess Castro's batting skills, and his quantitative upside alone warrants going to two bucks. Any extra playing time he finds simply should push his value higher, especially in leagues that discount batting average.

Rob Fick23061.265330025C1
SD Padres4x45x5RARAdj. RAR
Age: 31B:L    T:R113.6-1.8

His sizzling start quickly fizzled as Fick's OPS decreased in every month of the year. Although he maintained reasonably respectable skills and partially resuscitated his career after an awful 2004, Fick still just landed a bench job with the Nationals. With Larry Broadway nearly ready to absorb any extra at-bats lost by Nick Johnson, expect Fick to struggle to find regular playing time. That limited fantasy ceiling leaves him in the Dollar Days bin, barely a good endgame option as your second catcher.

Catcher Week continues tomorrow.

Today's Fantasy Rx: The somewhat limited AL options concerned me, but after the worst year for NL catchers in several seasons, I see few players not worth recommending here. Begin with established players ready to reach a higher level like Ramon Hernandez and Paul Lo Duca, drop to intriguing veterans Javier Valentin and Johnny Estrada, and finish with high-upside youths Yadier Molina, Brian McCann, and Ryan Doumit. Allocating no more than twelve bucks should net a couple of these guys, leaving you plenty of cap room to solidify the rest of your offense.

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