The fantasy baseball draft season is nearly in full swing and it’s as good a time as any to begin previewing each position on the baseball field from a fantasy perspective. Here, we preview the best backstops heading into 2022:
|Point Rankings||Roto Rankings|
|Tier 1||Tier 1|
|1. Will Smith||1. Will Smith|
|2. Salvador Perez||2. Salvador Perez|
|3. J.T. Realmuto||3. J.T. Realmuto|
|Tier 2||Tier 2|
|4. Yasmani Grandal||4. Willson Contreras|
|5. Tyler Stephenson||5. Yasmani Grandal|
|6. Willson Contreras||6. Daulton Varsho|
|7. Keibert Ruiz||7. Tyler Stephenson|
|8. Daulton Varsho||Tier 3|
|Tier 3||8. Keibert Ruiz|
|9. Elias Díaz||9. Mitch Garver|
|10. Mitch Garver||10. Elias Díaz|
|11. Alejandro Kirk||11. Alejandro Kirk|
|12. Gary Sánchez||12. Gary Sánchez|
|13. Omar Narváez||Tier 4|
|14. Carson Kelly||13. Adley Rutschman|
|Tier 4||14. Omar Narváez|
|15. Adley Rutschman||15. Mike Zunino|
|16. Travis d’Arnaud||16. Travis d’Arnaud|
|17. Sean Murphy||17. Carson Kelly|
|18. Austin Nola||18. Sean Murphy|
|19. Christian Vázquez||19. Christian Vázquez|
|20. Yadier Molina||20. Max Stassi|
Breakout: Tyler Stephenson, Cincinnati Reds
In his first full season, Stephenson’s contributions may have gone under the radar as a backup catcher who made 30 appearances off the bench. At just 24-years old, the right-handed hitter batted .286/.366/.431 with 10 homers; good for a 111 wRC+ and an eighth-place finish in my rankings of the top offensive catchers from last season. What stands out most about Stephenson’s profile at the plate is his plate discipline, which should help him avoid slumps next season. A very solid 18.7% strikeout rate and a double-digit walk rate reveal Stephenson’s elite selectiveness at his young age. Those patience metrics make him incredibly efficient in points/OBP leagues and will keep him relevant in roto as well. His power should also be a positive next year, as his .146 ISO from 2021 seems low for a player with his frame (6’4”, 225 lbs). The biggest factor to consider when drafting him is the fact that the Cincinnati Reds traded away their starter from last season in Tucker Barnhart. Not only does that open up a whole bunch of playing time for Stephenson, but it also shows how much the Reds believe in his talent. That gives me the confidence to anoint him the breakout catcher of 2022.
Bust: Travis d’Arnaud, Atlanta Braves
The right-handed hitting catcher has always maintained the potential that made him a top prospect during his time in the minors, but he has failed in almost every year to reach that ceiling. The only exception was the COVID-shortened 2020 season in which d’Arnaud batted .321 with nine home runs and a 144 wRC+ (184 PA). In 2021, he was unable to continue hitting at the level he set in ‘20, notching seven home runs and batting just .220 with a well-below average 78 wRC+ (229 PA), struggling to stay on the field once again. Since his debut in 2013, d’Arnaud has had just three seasons in which he made at least 300 trips to the plate (’14, ‘17,‘19). His knack for getting banged up, his lack of a clean bill of health, and his placement at the most demanding position on the field make it very difficult to buy into the idea that d’Arnaud can reach the heights he hit in 2020. On top of that, his 2022 projections (ATC: .251 AVG, 16 HR) look awfully similar to those of Omar Narváez (ATC: .252 AVG, 12 HR) who is going, on average, more than 50 picks later than d’Arnaud in NFBC drafts since January 1st. I would much rather bank on the safe and solid production that Narváez provides rather than risk getting nothing out of d’Arnaud when he inevitably gets injured again.
Sleeper: Elias Díaz, Colorado Rockies
The first aspect of Díaz’s game that makes him appealing in fantasy is his home ballpark. A spacious field located in the thin air of the Rocky Mountains, Coors Field has long been known to boost BABIP and increase power, despite MLB’s utmost efforts to suppress those factors with humidified balls. While Díaz had a power breakout last season with more homers than he had in his entire career combined entering the season, his average didn’t follow suit, as he didn’t get the common Coors benefit of a high BABIP. His career mark prior to last season was .287, but in 2021, it sat at just .249, suppressing his average to a .246 mark. Projection systems see Díaz’s BABIP regressing towards his career average, leaving him in the range of .280-.290, which should help him see a significant jump in his batting average, similar to the one he saw in the second half of last season. After an underwhelming first half (177 PA) in which he batted just .214 (.221 BABIP) with seven home runs and a 68 wRC+, Díaz turned it on in the second half (194 PA), batting .274 (.273 BABIP) with 11 homers and a much better 115 wRC+. That level of production over a full season would easily make Díaz a top-10 catcher in all fantasy formats. Considering his performance seems to be heavily driven by BABIP, I’m willing to draft him because of his situation in the best BABIP-boosting ballpark in the majors. With an ADP of roughly 250 in NFBC drafts since January 1st, managers don’t have to pay much to get a player that could be a game-changer.
Best Value: Mitch Garver, Minnesota Twins
The appeal of Garver resides in his power ceiling. He has already proven that he can hit the ball with the best of them. In 2019, Garver batted .273 with 31 homers and a 155 wRC+ in just 359 plate appearances. That incredible production was supported by a 15% barrel rate and a 50% hard-hit rate, further legitimizing his offensive breakout. In the two seasons since then, Garver has struggled to remain in the lineup. He couldn’t hit a beach ball in 2020, notching a horrid .167 AVG and an unsightly 45.7% strikeout rate. Garver then missed a lot of time in 2021 after taking a foul ball to the groin area, later requiring surgery. On the positive side, he got his bat going again last season, when he was available, and still boasted elite batted ball metrics (17.4% barrel%, 53.6% hard-hit%). Most projection systems have him banging out around 20 bombs with a ~.235 AVG. We have already caught a glimpse of what he is capable of at the dish when he’s hot, and I think he can significantly outperform those projections (.250+ AVG/25+ HR) by continuing to hit the ball hard and maintaining his above-average contact profile (career 84.6% zone contact%). Remain wary of his strikeout issues (career 26.4% K%) in points leagues, but keep in mind that the 0.47 BB/K ratio he posted in 2019 (0.44 in ‘21) was eighth among catchers with at least 350 plate appearances that season.
Tier to Target: Three
I have long been the type of fantasy manager to punt catching, only taking one with my final pick because I have to. It has usually been as a result of my understanding of how little catchers provide on the offensive side compared to almost every other position. While I was missing out on points by posting zeroes in that roster spot, I usually felt like the roster flexibility and the better position players on my bench made up for that empty slot. That has led me to draft the likes of Austin Nola (2021) and Carson Kelly (‘20) in the recent past; picks that didn’t end up providing any sort of value. This draft season, I’m changing my strategy just a little bit.
Instead of kicking the position all the way to the 25th round or later, I’m going to look for catchers around picks 200-250 in the hopes of either getting someone more stable than what I’ve gotten recently or securing a player with an incredibly high upside. The third tier seems to be the sweet spot for that strategy. With young and upcoming catchers like Ruiz and Kirk and upside plays like Garver and Díaz, there are plenty of exciting players to target in this area that may be able to outperform their projections and their draft day price. I’m usually not willing to pay up for top tier catchers because of the disparity in value that other position players provide in comparison inside the top 100, and obviously if one of them falls drastically I’ll switch up my plan, but for now, I’m targeting the third tier of catchers in single catcher leagues in both roto and points formats.