With the regular season winding down, it's time to look ahead to 2008. Here are four catchers who could be among next year's top sleeper picks.
Ronny Paulino, Pirates: As the season has moved toward its finish, Paulino's bat has gotten hotter and hotter. He hit .310 last season, partially due to some good luck on balls in play, but still established himself as a legitimate starting catcher in the big leagues.
However, he scuffled to start this season, hitting .216 and .220 in the first two months even though he was still making good contact.
Gradually, things started picking up, culminating with a big September that's gotten his keeper-league owners excited about 2008.
Paulino has put up a .379/.446/.552 stat line so far this month. He hit just .234 before the All-Star break but has a .301 average, a .360 on-base percentage and a .457 slugging mark in the second half. Contrast that to someone like Brian McCann, who has put up a .290/.336./496 stat line over that same period.
Chris Snyder, Diamondbacks: If the D-backs secure a playoff spot over this final week, they will owe a lot to the second-half contributions of Snyder, who has quietly started to emerge as an offensive force behind the plate.
Snyder was rushed to Arizona straight out of Double-A in 2004 largely because he was ready to handle his duties behind the plate at the Major League level. However, his bat took a couple of years to catch up with his defense.
It looked like he was headed back in the wrong direction over the first half of this season, when he batted just .212 (although he did hit seven homers before the break).
At midseason, the D-backs replaced hitting coach Kevin Seitzer with Minor League hitting coordinator Rick Schu, who worked with Snyder all through the Minors. Schu made a couple of adjustments to Snyder's swing, and the catcher's season took off offensively.
He has been Arizona's best hitter statistically over the second half and one of the top offensive catchers in the bigs. He's posted a .319/.410/.546 stat line since the Midsummer Classic to bring his season average up to .261.
He's going to be a big sleeper in mixed leagues next season.
Geovany Soto, Cubs: Even though the Cubs are trying to secure first place in the National League Central, this rookie catcher may see a good amount of playing time in the last week.
If the Cubs wind up missing postseason play, they could look back on the decision to leave Soto in the Minors in favor of playing Jason Kendall as one that cost them.
Soto is hitting .387 with four doubles and two homers in 11 big league games this season, and he's thrown out two of the seven runners who've tried to steal against him.
This follows a season in which he hit .353 with 26 homers and a 1.076 OPS at Triple-A. Make no mistake about it: Soto can hit.
Meanwhile, Jason Kendall has thrown out just two runners all season long (in 50 attempts). And though he has a .284 average in 51 games since joining the Cubs -- as opposed to a .227 mark he posted with the A's -- he has hit just .208 thus far in September. This is especially unfortunate, considering Soto could have been providing a nice late-season boost all the while.
Regardless, with Kendall set to become a free agent after the season, Soto has a good chance to open 2008 as the big club's starting catcher after leading the Pacific Coast League in batting.
J.R. Towles, Astros: Here's a deep sleeper alert, especially for NL-only leaguers. Towles is getting some playing time down the stretch so the Astros can see if he'll be a part of their plans next season. He's hit .412 with three extra-base hits in six big league games, including an eight-RBI effort Thursday against the Cardinals.
Only 23, Towles hit .324 with a .976 OPS for Houston's Double-A affiliate in the Texas League. Granted, it's a good hitting environment, but the numbers were still good. He then hit .279 in 13 Triple-A games before being called up to the bigs.
The bottom line? It appears that the Astros have someone who can put Brad Ausmus out to pasture. Towles has flown a little under the radar due to injury problems over his first three professional seasons (just 165 games in that span), but he continued his mini-breakout in the Minors that started in 2006 in Class A ball. He's already a plus defender with great intangibles behind the plate, and he has good bat control and stays back on offspeed and breaking stuff well. His power is still developing, and he can even swipe a bag. Towles may be a poor-man's version of Russell Martin if you're looking for a comparison, but he has to stay off the disabled list. He's headed to the Arizona Fall League, and if he does well there, he could put himself into contention for the starting role next year, as Ausmus is expected to serve as a veteran backup.
If you still have something to play for over this last week, I wish you the best of luck.
Jason Grey is the content manager for FantasyBaseball.com and a two-time Tout Wars and LABR champion. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.