- Eric Karabell, ESPN.com Senior Writer
Entering Thursday, the No. 3 most-added player and No. 4 option on the ESPN Player Rater for standard mixed leagues was, believe it or not, New York Mets catcher John Buck. While it's simplistic to note that he is not likely to continue his torrid pace and end up as a top-10 backstop, the fact is he's hot now. Buck homered in each of three games this week at Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia, the first time in his career he has accomplished such a streak, and he sits just one home run behind the big league leaders with five of them, matching in nine games what all Mets catchers did the entirety of 2012. John Buck? Really? Yeah, John Buck.
I figured I'd speak with the suddenly popular Buck after the Phillies finished off their 7-3 win Wednesday night and find out if he knew why this was happening. After all, while I admit to being mighty skeptical of a 32-year-old catcher with a career .237 batting average and only one 20-homer season on his nine-year résumé keeping this going, that doesn't mean it can't continue. Stranger things have happened.
"I'm just trying to stay loose with my hands," said Buck, whose 15 RBIs lead the National League by five. "It's something I worked on with [Miami Marlins hitting coach] Eddie Perez last year toward the end, trying to take the tension and muscle out of my swing. I carried it into the offseason. I think it's made my bat speed better, helped me stay more selective at the plate."
Buck hit .192 for those 2012 Marlins and .227 the year prior, striking out more than 100 times each season, so it's safe to say we have a reasonable baseline on him. His current .375 batting average is soon going to take a major hit, resulting in fantasy teams moving on. But let's be fair, the power is a different story. Since Buck debuted in 2004, only six primary catchers have more home runs, so there is value in longevity.
But really, all of this is OK. The main issue with adding Buck in ESPN standard, 10-team formats, where each team needs only one catcher, is that people are impulsively dropping stronger long-term choices, such as the Milwaukee Brewers' Jonathan Lucroy, the Kansas City Royals' Salvador Perez and the Seattle Mariners' Jesus Montero. Then again, with so much depth at the position for one-catcher formats, there's also little harm in doing that since you know talent should be readily available.
The truth is that Lucroy and Perez are really good, and a week of underwhelming stats doesn't scare me away one bit. I'm quickly losing faith in Montero, I must admit, since, according to the great Tristan H. Cockcroft in Wednesday's Hit Parade, he has yet to make hard contact even once and hasn't drawn a walk. That's a bad combination to go with him not being a good defender and top prospect Mike Zunino seemingly about ready. The point is to go ahead and add Buck while he's hot and hitting homers every day, but be prepared for normalcy to sprout its realistic head and for the option that you cut to potentially come back to haunt you, producing for another fantasy rival.
What if this really is a late-career emergence, though? I asked Buck if he was a new player or this was simply a good start.
"Both, I think," Buck said. "I feel like I do have some things that I didn't have in the past. Going through last year, I grew from it and benefited from it. Maybe I'm getting good results early on because of that. I'm just trying to hit the ball solid, literally, and not trying to do anything more."
In 2010 for the Toronto Blue Jays, Buck hit what seems like an aberrant .281, achieving this despite drawing 16 walks against 111 strikeouts. That's tough to do, and repeat. He also hit 20 home runs and turned that into a nice contract with the Marlins, whom he hit .213 for. Buck was included in the one-sided November trade heading back to Toronto then sent to the Mets a week before Christmas in the R.A. Dickey deal.
The Mets, likely not playoff contenders this season, have one of the top catching prospects in the game in Travis d'Arnaud, who was a bigger key to the Toronto trade. Certainly Buck wouldn't be benched if he continued to rake, but when it stops, he's top trade bait to make room for d'Arnaud, who seems ready for the big leagues. Perhaps Buck will hit in his next stop as well, but there's tremendous batting average downside. ESPN Fantasy projected a .229 mark with 15 home runs, which is certainly reasonable, so be aware.
Mets meanderings: Leadoff hitter Jordany Valdespin produced three infield singles and shined defensively in center field, and one must wonder why he doesn't play more regularly. Fantasy owners would love his steals potential. Second baseman Daniel Murphy, who cost Valdespin a run scored Wednesday with a poor baserunning play in the fifth inning, lauded Valdespin's "energy at the top of the lineup," while manager Terry Collins said, "We've gotta try to get him in there a little bit more." Keep interest, fantasy owners. ... Lucas Duda, high on my sleeper list last season, launched two solo home runs Wednesday. He wasn't real talkative after the game, noting, "I'm seeing the ball pretty well" and saying his "confidence level is pretty high, especially at the plate." That last part made me chuckle. He's not a good defender in left field, but if he hits 20 home runs, and he should, few will care. ... First baseman Ike Davis is hitting .129. We've been here before, no? Another 30-homer season is coming, but I don't see why anything more than a .250 batting average can be expected.