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Thursday, February 25, 2010

Fantastic Thoughts: Breeding Backstops

One of the much-publicized trends in contemporary baseball is the growing tendency of organizations towards grooming starting pitchers from within.  Teams like San Francisco, Colorado, Minnesota, and Toronto have dedicated themselves to building rotations out of pitchers who've never worked for another franchise.  Less observed, however, it the parallel trend: the homegrown starting catcher.

The poster-boy for this trend is Joe Mauer, who was born and bred in Minnesota, has won three batting titles for the Twins, and is now looking to spend the next decade or more as their field general.  Many pitcher's on the Twins staff have been throwing to Mauer regularly since they were in the minor leagues, and will continue to throw to him, tens of thousands of pitches, for as long as they remain with the organization.

Mauer is the best, but he's hardly the only.  Brian McCann has spent his whole career thusfar in Atlanta.  Yadier Molina has never worked for anybody but Tony LaRussa.  Russell Martin is the heart and soul of the Dodgers.  And, of course, there's Jorge Posada, who's spent a dozen seasons behind the plate in the Bronx.

All told, nearly two thirds of major-league organizations will open the 2010 season with a catcher they drafted, developed, and brought to the big leagues.  Compare that to other positions in the free agent era and you'll see it's a remarkably high percentage.  And, it's not likely to go down anytime soon.  Some of the most highly regarded prospects in the game are catchers.  Matt Wieters reached the bigs midway through 2009 and looks to be the O's backstop for most of the twenty-teens.  This season he's likely to be followed by Buster Posey in San Francisco, Carlos Santana in Cleveland, and Jason Castro in Houston, each of whom is widely considered their organization's #1 prospect.  Not far behind them are Max Ramirez (Rangers), Jesus Montero (Yankees), Angel Salome (Brewers), and Tyler Flowers (White Sox).

The rationale is quite straightforward.  The catcher has more leadership responsibilities than any player on the diamond.  He needs to have a intimate relationship with his pitching staff and, to a slightly lesser extent, his infielders.  His competency is greatly assisted by having a long track record with most of his teammates, in a way that a slugging first-baseman's isn't.

How is this relevant in fantasy baseball?  Well, the best way to groom a catcher who you anticipate counting on for years to come is to give him big-league experience, preferably in slightly lower intensity scenarios.  As such, many of these rookie backstops may break camp as backups or even get sent to AAA, but as their teams drop out of contention, more and more will become regulars.  In deeper leagues which require two catchers or in keeper leagues, all of the players mentioned above are relevant even on Draft Day, and those who don't get drafted should be watched closely, because your league could come down to whether you get your August production from Jason Castro or Jason Kendall.


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