Pop quiz - name the best catcher in the National League. If you said Mike Piazza, you need a new calendar - it's 2006, dawg. If you said Mike Barrett, you cheated. Where catchers are concerned, it's slim pickings in the NL, which serves up a mixed bag of unproven youngsters and unsatisfying platoons. That's of little concern to those in mixed and AL leagues, who have an embarrassment of riches from which to choose. You could make a case that the AL's 12th-rated catcher (Rod Barajas) is every bit as good as the best the Senior Circuit has to offer. The Orioles are particularly blessed, with two of the top seven backstops in all of fantasy baseball.
With pitchers and catchers set to report next week, here's a first-look fantasy report on catchers:
1. Victor Martinez, Indians 2005 stats: .305, 20 HRs, 80 RBIs, 0 SBs Outlook: After a disastrous start to '05 that saw him hit .209 through the first two months of the season, Martinez rewarded patient owners by batting .380 with 11 HRs in the second half. At 27, he figures to be near the top of this list for years to come.
2. Jason Varitek, Red Sox 2005 stats: .281, 22 HRs, 70 HRs, 2 SBs
3. Joe Mauer, Twins 2005 stats: .294, 9 HRs, 55 RBIs, 13 SBs Outlook: At 22, Mauer has the makeup to be the best at his position in the near future. The former No. 1 overall pick is capable of hitting well above .300 in 2006, and his power numbers will improve as he matures. He can always swipe a bag every now and then, too, a real bonus at this position.
4. Ivan Rodriguez, Tigers 2005 stats: .276, 14 HRs, 50 RBIs, 7 SBs
5. Javy Lopez, Orioles 2005 stats: .278, 15 HRs, 49 RBIs, 0 SBs Outlook: The last time Javy was playing for a contract (2003), he responded with a career year - .328, 43 HRs, 109 RBIs. It's tempting to predict another monster season, though it's just as likely Lopez will struggle if the O's follow through with plans to play him at first base and DH. A midseason trade is possible.
7. Ramon Hernandez, Orioles 2005 stats: .290, 12 HRs, 58 RBIs, 1 SBs Outlook: Don't let those 2005 numbers fool you - Hernandez posted them in far fewer ABs (369) on this list and did it while playing in San Diego's spacious stadium. A potential draft-day bargain, Hernandez won't hurt your batting average and will make a run at 20 HRs in cozy Camden Yards.
8. Bengie Molina, Blue Jays 2005 stats: .295, 15 HRs, 69 RBIs, 0 SBs Outlook: Tough to find fault with Molina's three-year averages (.285, 13 HRs, 65 RBIs), which prove he's got top-five talent. It took him some time to find a place to play in 2006 thanks to a cool market for catchers, but he could be every bit as valuable as new division rivals Varitek, Lopez or Posada when all's said and done.
9. Kenji Johjima, Mariners 2005 stats (Japan): .309, 24 HRs, 57 RBIs, 3 SBs Outlook: A prolific power hitter in Japan - Johjima totaled 70 homers and 210 RBIs in 2003 and 2004 before a shin injury short-circuited his 2005 season - but how will he handle the adjustment to the majors? A true dark horse, he could pay huge dividends, but don't pull the trigger too early.
10. A.J. Pierzynski, White Sox 2005 stats: .257, 18 HRs, 56 RBIs, 0 SBs Outlook: Eighteen homers - that's no typo. There's also no chance he does it again.
11. Michael Barrett, Cubs 2005 stats: .276, 16 HRs, 61 RBIs, 0 SBs Outlook: You know it's a sad state of affairs for NL backstops when Barrett is the best of the bunch. That said, he does get on base a lot and has discovered his power stroke in the past two seasons. He'll flirt with 20 HRs this time around.
12. Mike Piazza, Padres 2005 stats: .251, 19 HRs, 62 RBIs, 0 SBs Outlook: Piazza hit 19 homers in 398 ABs before breaking his wrist in August, proof that he still has some pop left. But he's bound to be a drag on your batting average, and Petco Park won't do him any favors.
13. Paul Lo Duca, Mets 2005 stats: .283, 6 HRs, 57 RBIs, 4 SBs
14. Jason Kendall, Athletics 2005 stats: .271, 0 HRs, 53 RBIs, 8 SBs Outlook: A career .302 hitter, Kendall hit below .280 for just the second time in his 11-year career in his first AL season. He's better than that. Look for a bounce-back year from the one-time fantasy draft darling.
15. Johnny Estrada, Diamondbacks 2005 stats: .261, 4 HRs, 39 RBIs, 0 SBs Outlook: A much better hitter than he showed in '05, when a bad back kept him in check for most of the season. A .300 hitter when healthy, Estrada should benefit from a move to the desert.
16. Rod Barajas, Rangers 2005 stats: .254, 21 HRs, 60 RBIs, 0 SBs
17. Mike Leiberthal, Phillies 2005 stats: .263, 12 HRs, 47 RBI, 0 SBs
18. Brian McCann, Braves 2005 stats: .282, 5 HRs, 23 RBIs, 1 SB Outlook: Best remembered for his rocket-shot HR off Roger Clemens in the playoffs, McCann's rapid maturation made Estrada expendable in Atlanta. He's got a good bat but also has a lot to prove after a meteoric rise through the minors.
20. Ryan Doumit, Pirates 2005 stats: .255, 6 HRs, 35 RBIs, 2 SBs Outlook: Batted .345 at Triple-A, then impressed the Pirates after a second-half callup. Doumit has solid offensive tools, but barring a position switch, he'll have to compete with the defensively superior Humberto Cota for playing time.
21. Javier Valentin, Reds 2005 stats: .281, 14 HRs, 50 RBIs, 0 SBs
22. John Buck, Royals 2005 stats: .242, 12 HRs, 47 RBIs, 2 SBs
25. Yorvit Torrealba, Rockies 2005 stats: .234, 3 HRs, 15 RBIs, 1 SB Outlook: Despite cautionary tales such as Ben Petrick, Bobby Estalella, Kit Pellow and J.D. Closser, fantasy loves a Rockies catcher. Keep in mind, Torrealba is a career .250 hitter who hasn't logged more than 6 HRs in a single season.
27. Damian Miller, Brewers 26. Toby Hall, Devil Rays 28. Jeff Mathis, Angels 29. Mike Matheny, Giants 30. Jason LaRue, Reds 31. Humberto Cota, Pirates 32. Danny Ardoin, Rockies 33. Ramon Castro, Mets 34. Brad Ausmus, Astros 35. Doug Mirabelli, Padres