Are catchers becoming extinct?
Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - For those of you searching for a great fantasy catcher, here's some advice.

Find one that doesn't play catcher.

I realize that sounds preposterous but it's actually very possible to find a player with these exact specifications in today's topsy-turvy MLB. I'll even give you a hint. Think side burns.

Yeah, that's right. Joe Mauer, arguably the greatest catcher of his generation, is no longer catching. The 2009 American League MVP has traded in his catcher's mitt for a first baseman's glove and fantasy owners couldn't be happier.

Here's why. Catching is lethal. It's a distraction and an injury waiting to happen.

How is Mauer supposed to concentrate on hitting when he's trying to figure out what pitch to throw to Miguel Cabrera? Add 15 pounds of catcher's gear to the mix and you've got a guy who couldn't care less about his next visit to the plate ... if he even makes it there.

I say "if" because playing catcher is a lot like getting into the ring with Floyd Mayweather. These guys take a beating.

If you don't believe me, you can ask Buster Posey.

In 2011, Posey was at the plate minding his own business when Marlins outfielder Scott Cousins came barging in like a terrorist at a tea party (one of my favorite lines from the holiday classic Jingle All the Way). Cousins walked away with only a few bumps and bruises but the Giants' franchise catcher was much less fortunate. He suffered a season-ending leg injury, essentially ruining any chance San Francisco had of repeating as World Series champs.

Fortunately, Mauer has been one of the lucky ones. He's been relatively injury-free in his ten years behind the plate, though any more time there would probably be pushing it.

By moving over to first base, Mauer is following the same model that just led to the most productive season of Mike Napoli's career. You wouldn't know it because he didn't play a single game there in 2013 but Napoli spent a lot of time catching early in his career.

And predictably, the long hours behind the plate took their toll on the 32- year-old. This wear and tear was especially evident during the 2012 campaign when Napoli posted the lowest batting average of his eight-year career (.227).

Playing only first base in 2013, Napoli led the Red Sox to their first post- Theo Epstein title by launching 23 HR and 92 RBI in 139 regular season appearances. The RBI total was 17 higher than he had produced in any previous season. Napoli's 498 at bats in 2013 were also a career-high.

The great thing about Napoli, at least from a fantasy perspective, is that he still maintained catcher eligibility throughout his successful 2013 campaign.

Will that happen again next season? Probably not. But it will for Mauer.

Holding catcher eligiblity while not actually playing it can be quite a perk. The position is famous for its lack of offensive firepower and logging 500 at bats can be a major advantage. Only six catchers throughout the league saw that many at bats in 2013 with Cleveland's Carlos Santana representing the high-water mark at 541. Similar to Mauer and Napoli, Santana is moving away from catcher to split time at the two corner infield positions this season.

That's why fantasy owners have to be relieved to see Brian McCann in pinstripes. As soon as New York deals one of its outfielders, McCann will be able to DH on a fairly regular basis for the Bronx Bombers. That slot is currently being filled by Chicago Cubs castoff Alfonso Soriano.

McCann could certainly use a break from catching full-time after hitting a combined .242 over his last two seasons in Atlanta. Matt Wieters hasn't had that luxury in Baltimore with light-hitting Steve Clevenger behind him on the depth chart.

Wieters is an interesting case because unlike McCann, he has always been an outstanding defensive catcher. It's actually gotten to the point where Wieters' Gold Glove-caliber defense has come at the expense of his hitting.

Once considered a phenom, the 27-year-old Wieters may now lose out on millions of dollars in free agency because of his lackluster hitting. At an age when most players are just entering their prime, Wieters' batting average has fallen each of the last two seasons (career-worst .235 in 2013). At least he has decent power numbers to hang his hat on (22 HR, 79 RBI last season).

It's important to realize that even though Mauer and others aren't spending as much time behind the plate, there's no guarantee that playing elsewhere on the diamond will be safer. Detroit's Victor Martinez became a full-time DH in 2011 but it didn't stop him from tearing his ACL. He missed the entire 2012 season while rehabbing the injury.

In general, the fewer games a player is forced to catch, the better they'll perform offensively. Unless, of course, your name is Yadier Molina.

The five-time All-Star has managed to buck almost every stereotype that exists about catchers. He has power (.477 slugging percentage), can hit for average (.319) and is relatively fleet of foot for a man who spends nine innings a night with a mask over his face (12 steals in 2012). And of course, there's the six Gold Glove awards he's won since 2008.

Molina is terrific but he's a dying breed. Soon all the great offensive catchers will be extinct.




Comments? Criticism? Applause? Contact Jesse Pantuosco at jpantuosco@sportsnetwork.com.