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Montero leads the catcher prospects pack

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With Buster Posey and Joe Mauer expected back from season-ending injuries and Alex Avila and Matt Wieters closing the gap on the elite class at the position, you're sure to find plenty of value at catcher in 2012.

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But that doesn't mean you should sell the prospects short.

Jesus Montero has already captured the hearts and minds of Fantasy owners with his power display at the end of the 2011 season, and Devin Mesoraco isn't far off from an upside standpoint. Could Ryan Lavarnway make a similar impact in Boston? Will Wilin Rosario do for Colorado next year what Wilson Ramos did for Washington this year?

Long-term keeper league owners take note: The best the minor leagues have to offer at the catcher position are right here, in list form, numbered 1-10. It's just the first installment in a position-by-position rundown of the top prospects for Draft Day 2012.

Note: This list has been adjusted for Fantasy purposes. Long-term potential is one of several factors that influence the order and is arguably less important than the player's expected role in 2012. These prospects don't all profile as superstars, but they're the names most worth knowing in Fantasy right now.

1. Jesus Montero, 22, Yankees
Where played in 2011: Triple-A, majors
Minor-league stats: .288 BA, 18 HRs, 67 RBI, .814 OPS
Major-league stats: .328 BA (61 at-bats), 4 HRs, .996 OPS

Forced to trudge through another minor-league season as the Yankees once again leaned on veterans early, Montero took a step back statistically in 2011, causing some to wonder if the 21-year-old was as ready for the big leagues as he appeared to be in 2010. But when he finally got the call in September, all the reports of him being the top offensive catcher prospect in baseball -- a title he earned even as Buster Posey and Carlos Santana were rising through the ranks -- came to fruition as he connected for four of the most impressive homers you'll ever see. He hit them far, and he hit them to all fields, giving reason to believe he was simply biding his time with those so-so numbers in the minors and convincing the Yankees once and for all that he needs to be in their lineup. His defense remains a major concern, but even if the projected DH loses catcher eligibility down the line, he'll be enough of a run producer to deserve an early round pick in Fantasy. He already rates as a top 10 catcher, and he only figures to get better.

2. Devin Mesoraco, 23, Reds
Where played in 2011: Triple-A, majors
Minor-league stats: .289 BA, 15 HRs, 71 RBI, .855 OPS
Major-league stats: .180 BA (50 at-bats), 2 HRs, 3 BBs, 10 Ks

Yes, Reds manager Dusty Baker has a history of sitting up-and-coming prospects for uninspiring veterans, but even he saw the value in using Mesoraco behind the plate down the stretch last season, starting him in nine of the team's final 11 games. It was just a first look at what should be a permanent development with Ramon Hernandez expected to leave via free agency. Though Mesoraco didn't exactly rewrite the record books in his first stint in the majors, his minor-league numbers suggest he has big things in store. The 2007 first-rounder gets on base at an especially high rate for a catcher and already has above-average power. Catchers have historically been slow to adjust to the big leagues given the emphasis on defense at the position, and if that happens to Mesoraco, Baker could quickly develop an unhealthy attachment to Ryan Hanigan. But if all goes as planned, Mesoraco will make a Fantasy impact in 2012 and could take his first step toward becoming one of the top hitters at the position. He's worth targeting in the late rounds.

3. Ryan Lavarnway, 24, Red Sox
Where played in 2011: Double-A, Triple-A, majors
Minor-league stats: .290 BA, 32 HRs, 93 RBI, .939 OPS
Major-league stats: .231 BA (39 at-bats), 2 HRs, 4 BBs, 10 Ks

Lavarnway has already etched his name in Red Sox lore thanks to his two-homer game on the second-to-last day of the season that nearly saved the team from its historic September collapse. But his 15 minutes of fame haven't come and gone. He's a legitimate prospect who should make a legitimate push for playing time in 2012. One thing's for sure: The guy can hit. His 32 homers last year only added to an already impressive minor-league track record. Though once considered a liability defensively and a near-certainty to wind up at DH, he made major strides behind the plate last year -- enough that the Red Sox were willing to start him there in their time of greatest need. He's still unproven, of course, but his potential is too obvious for the Red Sox to ignore. In the most-likely scenario, Lavarnway will split time with Jarrod Saltalamacchia in 2012. In the best-case scenario, he'll win the starting job outright. Either way, he'll be a relevant player in Fantasy both next year and beyond.

4. Yasmani Grandal, 23, Reds
Where played in 2011: Class A, Double-A, Triple-A
Minor-league stats: .305 BA (374 at-bats), 14 HRs, .901 OPS

Grandal's greatest misfortune is playing in the same organization as Devin Mesoraco. Otherwise, he'd be the most hyped catcher prospect after Jesus Montero. Mesoraco, who's poised to inherit the starting job in Cincinnati in 2012, is of course an elite prospect in his own right, but Grandal might actually have the higher ceiling of the two. The 12th overall pick in the 2010 draft actually improved his batting average every step up the minor-league ladder in his first full professional season, rising all the way from Class A Bakersfield to Triple-A Louisville. He'd already be pushing for a major-league starting job if not for Mesoraco. With his debut likely on hold and his immediate future unclear, Grandal isn't a player to draft in standard Fantasy leagues in 2012, but he's a must-have in long-term keeper leagues. Sooner or later, a spot will open for him -- whether in Cincinnati or elsewhere -- and when it does, he'll be an impact player for years to come.

5. Travis D'Arnaud, 23, Blue Jays
Where played in 2011: Double-A
Minor-league stats: .311 BA, 21 HRs, .914 OPS, 33 BBs, 100 Ks

Though already considered a top prospect, D'Arnaud managed to exceed expectations with a breakout performance at Double-A New Hampshire last year, setting career highs in batting average and home runs, not to mention just about everything else. You could say he established himself as the Blue Jays' catcher of the future in the process, but if you did, you'd be overlooking the 23 homers hit by rookie J.P. Arencibia in the majors. D'Arnaud profiles as the better all-around hitter of the two, but because Arencibia has already proven he can get the job done at the major-league level, the Blue Jays will have a hard time turning away from him. D'Arnaud can bide his time at Triple-A for now, but with another strong showing, he'll be a candidate for a midseason callup. Because the best he can hope for is a part-time role, he's not worth drafting outside of AL-only leagues, but he's an attractive option for long-term keeper formats.

6. Wilin Rosario, 23, Rockies
Where played in 2011: Double-A, majors
Minor-league stats: .249 BA, 21 HRs, .741 OPS, 19 BBs, 91 Ks
Major-league stats: .204 BA (54 at-bats), 3 HRs, 2 BBs, 20 Ks

If pure power was all a player needed to become a dynamic Fantasy option, Rosario would rank second on this list, behind only Jesus Montero. Unfortunately, it isn't, and by every other measurement, Rosario took a big step backward in 2011. Playing his second stint at Double-A Tulsa after shutting down early in 2010 because of a torn ACL, he produced a .249 batting average and a .284 on-base percentage, which are the kind of numbers you'd expect from Rod Barajas. Rosario has the upside for more, of course, but his poor plate discipline is hardly new and doesn't seem to be getting better. Rosario did get a few starts in the majors down the stretch, so the Rockies don't think he's far off. But with Chris Iannetta around, the best Rosario can hope for in 2012 is a part-time role. Even if he opens the year in the majors, he has enough question marks offensively that he isn't worth drafting in standard mixed leagues, despite his potential.

7. Derek Norris, 23, Nationals
Where played in 2011: Double-A
Minor-league stats: .210 BA (334 at-bats), 20 HRs, .813 OPS, 77 BBs, 117 Ks

The good news is Norris once again demonstrated an exceptional batting eye and plus power in 2011. The bad news is his shortcomings only became more apparent with his promotion to Double-A Harrisburg. As Norris advances up the minor-league ladder, he looks less and less like a player capable of hitting for a high batting average against higher-level pitching, which is of course a hindrance to his eventual Fantasy value. A broken hand prior the 2010 season could explain his low batting average then, but not now. He still has time to improve that aspect of his game, of course, but at this point, you have to consider the low batting average a part of his profile. As long as he continues to walk at a high rate, he could still thrive as a .230-ish hitter, as Carlos Santana did in 2011, so Norris remains an excellent long-term keeper option. But he's unlikely to make a Fantasy impact in 2012 with Wilson Ramos holding down the starting job in Washington.

8. Gary Sanchez, 19, Yankees
Where played in 2011: Class A
Minor-league stats: .256 BA (301 at-bats), 17 HRs, .820 OPS, 36 BBs, 93 Ks

If time isn't a factor for you, Sanchez is the minor-league catcher you want. Yes, he's still a teenager, and as such, he has virtually no chance of reaching the majors in 2012. But his ceiling is probably the highest of any catcher prospect, including fellow Yankee Jesus Montero. For one thing, he should actually become a good enough defender to remain behind the plate. For another, he already has big-time power -- and again, he's still a teenager. Perennial 30-homer men don't come along often at the catcher position, but that's exactly what Sanchez projects to be if he can improve his contact rate in the years ahead. Still, if you choose to target him in a long-term keeper league, you'll need to keep in mind that he might not even sniff the majors until late in 2014 with both Montero and Austin Romine ahead of him on the organizational depth chart.

9. Tony Sanchez, 23, Pirates
Where played in 2011: Double-A
Minor-league stats: .241 BA, 5 HRs, .340 OBP, .658 OPS

Sanchez occupies the exact same spot on this list as he did a year ago, which is kind of the problem. But it'd be one thing if he simply didn't progress the way the Pirates had hoped. Instead, he actually regressed -- and not just by a little. His batting average dropped from .314 to .241. His on-base percentage dropped from .416 to .340. Considering he was already lagging in the power categories, he's well behind the eight ball now, which is why you'll probably see him disappear from many preseason prospect lists entirely. But the guy was the fourth overall pick in the 2009 draft for a reason. He hit as well as he did in his first two years as a professional for a reason. With a quick start in 2012, all is forgotten, and the major-league starting job is his for the taking. Sanchez's young career is clearly at a crossroads, making him a boom-or-bust pick in long-term keeper leagues. In 2012, you wouldn't want to gamble on him outside of deeper NL-only formats.

10. Tim Federowicz, 24, Dodgers
Where played in 2011: Double-A, Triple-A, majors
Minor-league stats: .287 BA, 14 HRs, 69 RBI, .808 OPS
Major-league stats: .154 BA (13 at-bats), 1 RBI, 2 BBs, 4 Ks

Federowicz was one of the reasons why the Dodgers were willing to give up outfield prospect Trayvon Robinson in the three-team deal that sent Erik Bedard to Boston in 2011. The former Red Sox farmhand doesn't have the same upside as Robinson, but assuming Rod Barajas leaves via free agency, he fills a position of need. The question is whether he'll hit enough to hold down a starting job for the Dodgers, much less Fantasy owners. His minor-league numbers are decent, but they got a big boost from his 83 at-bats at hitter-friendly Triple-A Albuquerque after the trade, where he hit .325 with six homers and a 1.058 OPS. Federowicz is worth drafting in two-catcher leagues since he has a reasonable chance of starting for the Dodgers in 2012, but because a best-case scenario for him is something in the A.J. Pierzynski range, he's not a great long-term keeper option.

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