With the proliferation of analysis available to fantasy players, the gap between the worst and best owners has shrunk. It’s much more rare to see an owner put together a truly awful draft or auction today than it was even ten years ago, simply because it’s seemingly impossible to use the internet without stumbling across some scrap of fantasy analysis. Even Jimmy from accounting, who knows next-to-nothing about fantasy baseball, can print off a few cheat sheets and put together a team that isn’t a total abomination.
Much like its real-life counterpart, fantasy baseball is a game in which one must constantly be searching for new market inefficiencies. One theory that I’m a big proponent of is capitalizing on reactions to small samples, specifically bad ones. As it turns out, Travis d’Arnaud is just the example I was looking for.
d’Arnaud, who missed much of the 2013 season with a broken left foot, recovered from injury in time to get a late-season call-up to the Mets in mid-August. He never really got comfortable in the majors, scuffling to a .202/.286/.263 slash line in 112 plate appearances. It certainly can’t be taken as a particularly good sign, but it’s a small sample from a guy who had just recovered from a broken foot and was seeing his first major-league action.
d’Arnaud was the top fantasy catcher prospect before last season, and that hasn’t changed going into 2014 (Austin Hedges‘ freakish defensive abilities put him in the conversation for top real-life catching prospect, but that’s another discussion entirely). What sets d’Arnaud apart in fantasy is that he possesses both an above-average hit tool and plus power, which makes him interesting by default as a fantasy catcher option.
As for last year’s major-league struggles, aside from any sample-size arguments, both d’Arnaud and manager Terry Collins recently stated that d’Arnaud’s primary focus in the majors last year was on the defensive side, learning how to handle the Mets staff. His defense drew rave reviews, but his offense suffered. d’Arnaud admits now that he was pressing at the plate, saying that he needs to slow his game down, an issue he worked to address this offseason by shortening his swing.
As it always has been with the 25-year-old backstop, health is the main concern, not his ability to hit. d’Arnaud has suffered plenty of injuries in his seven-year professional career, having compiled more than 303 plate appearances just twice in those seven years. By all accounts, d’Arnaud is 100% healthy headed into 2014, and the way the Mets are structured as an organization leads one to believe that the team is confident in his health.
Unless they sign Kelly Shoppach, the one remaining free-agent catcher of note, the only other catchers on the Mets’ 40-man roster are 30-year-old journeyman Anthony Recker, a career .194/.281/.348 hitter with a 30.9% strikeout rate, and defensive specialist Juan Centeno, who has two home runs and a .661 on-base plus slugging in 1,138 career minor-league plate appearances. With options like those, the Mets are clearly putting a good deal of faith in d’Arnaud to be both healthy and productive in 2014.
In traditional roto categories, Steamer projects d’Arnaud to hit .254, with 13 homers, 48 RBI and 46 runs in 431 plate appearances. Honestly, if d’Arnaud stays healthy enough to get in the ballpark of 450 plate appearances, I’d take the over on every one of those numbers. What we have here is an elite prospect who has been handed the keys to a regular major-league job going into the season, which sounds like a pretty interesting fantasy commodity, yes? I’d say so.
With that in mind, let’s take a look at how much d’Arnaud’s poor offensive production at the major-league level last year has devalued him coming into the season. At the time of this writing, d’Arnaud is ranked as follows among fantasy catchers for 2014:
- ESPN – No. 27 (mixed), No. 14 (NL-only)
- Yahoo – No. 24 (mixed), No. 14 (NL-only)
- CBS – No. 16 (mixed), No. 9 (NL-only)
Obviously, it’s not fair to say that he’s ranked so low solely because of a bad 112-PA sample from last year; the health concerns are completely legitimate, and he is still unproven at the major-league level. However, if I had simply said that a top-prospect catcher with a plus hit tool and plus power was virtually guaranteed a starting job in the majors, you’d think he would slot into a better spot than the mid-twenties.
I think the ranking from CBS listed above is about right. To speak on NL-only terms, it’s a very tight group this year between d’Arnaud and guys like Miguel Montero, Jarrod Saltalamacchia and Russell Martin for those No. 7 through No. 10 catching options. Ultimately, it comes down to your comfort level with risk-taking. I’m of the opinion that no one wins championships by playing it safe in fantasy. d’Arnaud certainly has the lowest floor of the group mentioned, but he also has the highest ceiling.
Personally, I’d still probably take Montero before d’Arnaud, banking on Montero’s 2013 being the outlier that it appears to be within his career statistical profile. Aside from that, I’m comfortable valuing d’Arnaud higher than Saltalamacchia or Martin, as I see d’Arnaud producing roughly similar counting stats to those two, but with a better batting average.
Of course, all of this hinges on d’Arnaud staying healthy and proving that he can adjust to major-league pitching. The way the Mets have structured their roster indicates they expect him to do just that. Sure, he could get hurt again and end up only playing in 50 games. Maybe he won’t be able to produce against top-level pitching. Or perhaps he’ll stay healthy, realize his potential, and deliver far more value than he’ll cost on draft day. I’ll take that risk over settling for a Russell Martin any day of the week.
Scott Strandberg started writing for Rotographs in 2013. He works in small business consultation, and he also writes A&E columns for The Norman Transcript newspaper. Scott lives in Seattle, WA.