KEEPERS: 2017 Dynasty Reload—Catcher

This is the first installment of our annual off-season series aimed at helping keeper league (KL) and dynasty owners address needs over the next 3-5 years. Each week we will examine a position, and note players and prospects who 1) are likely available in your league; and 2) we think have a good shot at earning double-digit R$ sometime between 2017 and 2019.

Stable, established contributors are more difficult than ever to acquire, be it by trade or off your league's free agent list. This is even more valid for rebuilders with little excess talent to barter, and particularly relevant with respect to position players in deeper leagues.

We'll attempt to identify the best and most MLB-ready of both marginal producers and legit prospects with upside, some with little to no MLB track record. And of course context matters—in terms of opportunity, risk, health, age, price and productivity time-line. Our filter uses the following criterion:

  • Player must be growth-age—27 years old—or younger as of April 1, 2017
  • Player must have earned less than $10 in a 5x5 format during 2016
  • Player must have 100+ AB above A+, AFL experience, or 5 years in professional foreign ball

Catcher

Even in the best of years, finding solid offense from this defense-first spot is a daunting task—and currently, identifying on-the-cusp talent is even tougher. Of the eight catchers that earned $10 or more in 2016, four were repeats, one (Welington Castillo) exceeded our age filter, and another (Evan Gattis) wasn't a catcher to begin the season. Of the two remaining, we were able to call the bounce (though obviously not that ​big a bounce) from Wilson Ramos and note surprising Gary Sanchez on last year's list. Obviously injuries are an issue behind the plate, and per usual they took down three of last year's entries, Kyle Schwarber, Travis D'Arnaud and Devin Mesoraco. 

But if you're looking for a dynasty advantage from this spot at this point in time, some names are obviously better than others, both next year and beyond. With the caveat that you'll need to shoulder some risk and limit your expectations, the following are our current favorites.   

Willson Contreras (C, CHC) was a first-time favorite from last year's list, and he justified our faith by earning $8 in just 252 AB after being called up in mid-June. The outstanding plate skills he'd shown in the high minors over the previous year and a half weren't immediately evident—73% ct% and 9% bb%—but good enough for a .282/.266 BA/xBA in his MLB debut. And he showed surprising pop with 12 HR (130 PX), and a career-high 21 HR in combined AAA and MLB play. For now, the ceiling is a tough call for this late-bloomer. But he's young (24), in an outstanding lineup, and should get most of the AB behind the plate over the foreseeable future. If he stays healthy, he's a good bet to exceed $10 this season.

Teammate Kyle Schwarber (OF, CHC) may or may not qualify in your fantasy league, since his 20 games at catcher occurred in 2014—and because his future there is dubious. But if he does, Schwarber obviously makes for a good short-term play given that he should be at full health again and seeing plenty of OF time after tearing his ACL in 2016's opening week. The left-handed-hitting Schwarber mauled RHPs for a .973 OPS (14 HR) in 176 AB in his rookie year. Sub-par contact and struggles vL attach some risk, which the upside at this position more than justifies.  

Salvador Perez (C, KC) fell below $10 for the first time in four years, by just a buck. The decline was fueled by a drop in his once-outstanding ct% from 85% to 77%—and his BA dive, from .260 in 2015 to .247. The good news is that Perez reached career-highs in FB% (47%) and HR (22). Healthy at age 26, Perez still looks like a good bet for value over the immediate future. 

A repeat from last year's list, Tom Murphy (C, COL) played the entire Triple-A season, posting a .327/.361/.647 line with 19 HR in 303 AB before having another impressive September in COL. Now with 8 HR in just 79 MLB AB, Murphy's plus power and bat speed should play in Coors Field, which may be forgiving of his poor pitch selection and contact. The departure of free agent Nick Hundley suggests that the right-handed-hitting Murphy will now battle left-handed-hitting holdover Tony Wolters (C, COL) for catcher AB. With at best average power and plate skills, Wolters earned $4 in just 205 AB in his 2016 rookie debut. If either of these names can reach 400 AB, $10 is within reach. Coors Field is like that.

Austin Hedges (C, SD) gets a bump up from his spot below the cut last year, courtesy of a breakout .326/.353/.597, 21 HR performance in 313 AB at AAA-El Paso. The hitter-friendly PCL and this venue certainly played a role, but scouts and observers have long suspected Hedges had untapped power. Pitch selection is still a problem, as seen in just 13 walks, none in a 3-for-24 September performance in SD—and he's now just a .161 hitter over 161 MLB AB. But the Padres are rebuilding, and Hedges' terrific defense projects to plenty of opportunity over the next few seasons. PETCO is no longer where HR go to die, particularly for RHBs, and Hedges could take advantage of this. That said, expect streakiness and growing pains in 2017.

We wrote up Chance Sisco's (C, BAL) outlook this past September in this space, and nothing has changed. Outstanding contact and patience give him a chance to take the Willson Contreras route to a productive mid-season promotion in 2017, and if Matt Wieters departs via free agency, the Orioles may have a catching opening soon than that. These are skills that can play quickly at the MLB level, and obviously hitting in Camden Yards is a plus.

Mike Zunino (C, SEA) was unable to keep his BA above water again following his 2H call-up, thanks to a 60% ct%. But though he finished with just a .207 BA over 164 AB, Zunino blasted 12 HR, power that was supported by an eye-opening 189/155 PX/xPX. He also upped his patience to 11% from just 6% in 2015, which in turn produced a career-high .318 OBP. All of this and his age (25) suggests there may be more growth to come—and he doesn't have to hit .250 with this kind of power. A reasonable flyer for the next few seasons in OBP leagues.

 

Missed our cut, but worth watching:

Jorge Alfaro (C, PHI): Still has the big arm and big power; still struggles with pitch selection and contact. Now with almost 700 Double-A AB and a late-season MLB debut (2-for-16, 1/8 BB/K) behind him, he'll step up to Triple-A to begin 2017. 

Jett Bandy (C, LAA): Improving defender flashed pop (8 HR in 209 AB) and contact (82% ct%) in extended MLB debut before fading badly down the stretch. Low ceiling with some work to do, but offensive edge over Carlos Perez could net 350 AB. 

Austin Barnes (C, LA): Has yet to do anything in limited MLB exposure (61 AB). Still, a .299 career minor league hitter with solid plate skills, positional versatility, and a base-running game (18/3 SB/CS in 2015) bears watching. Needs an injury or trade.

Zack Collins (C, CHW): One of the best all-round college bats in the 2016 draft, questions remain as to whether he can stay behind the plate. This issue may determine how fast he rises; could be a couple of years away.

Carson Kelly (C, STL): Strong defender whose bat suddenly showed life (.289 BA) in the high minors, followed up by strong AFL performance hinting at latent pop. Behind 33-year-old Yadier Molina now, but could be entrenched as backup by year-end.

Francisco Mejia (C, CLE): Didn't pass our high-minors experience filter above the cut, and won't likely make his MLB debut until 2018. Still, that .342 BA for a 21-year-old catcher in A-ball is pretty interesting.

Hector Sanchez (C, SD): Destroyed AAA-El Paso launching pad (1.028 OPS, 11 HR in 176 AB) with solid peripherals, performed credibly at PETCO (.803 OPS, 3 HR) afterward. A long-shot, but the catching ranks are thin, and he's flashed power in the past.

Andrew Susac (C, MIL): One-time prospect with good plate skills and hints of power has struggled with injuries over the last couple of years. Now in an offense-friendly park on a rebuilder with plenty of opportunity. Something to watch. 

Christian Vazquez (C, BOS): Defense-first catcher with improving plate skills looked like he was progressing before TJS. Behind Sandy Leon now, but that might not last long. Another long-shot, but worth watching in hitter-friendly Fenway and in that lineup.


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  For more information about the terms used in this article, see our Glossary Primer.