We’re all still waiting for the Rays to make some trade to get them help at either catcher or first base. In lieu of that as of right now, let’s see how the Rays’ catching situation currently looks.
This offseason, the Rays signed veteran backup Jose Molina to a 1-year, 1.5 million dollar contract with an option for another season. Even though Molina is the only veteran catching option on the Rays roster, he doesn’t have any extended big league starting experience, with the 36 year old’s career-high in plate appearances being just 297. In 666 career major league games, Molina has just a .244/.286/.344 line, not exactly what you want from your starting catcher. Defensively though, Molina is outstanding, owning a 40% CS% (caught-stealing percentage) including two seasons where he led the AL in the stat, and his career dWAR (defensive wins above replacement) is 3.7, with not a single season with a negative rating. Nevertheless, Molina is not the player the Rays want to be their starting catcher this season. They are hoping to start him somewhere from 50 to 80 games, but the need a better offensive option to carry most of their catching load.
A player who has been brought up as a possible starter catcher for the Rays has been Jose Lobaton. But among the Rays’ catching options on the 40-man roster, Lobaton is not by himself. Other than Molina, the Rays’ have four other catchers on the 40-man, and they all have something in common- they were all born in the year 1984. None of them are very young, being 27 years old. The Rays need a dependable placeholder until their catching prospects in the low minors (Luke Bailey and Justin O’Conner) hopefully pan out, or until whatever catching prospect they acquire in a trade is ready for the big leagues. So which one of the four catchers could be that stopgap?
Jose Lobaton kind of had a breakout year in 2011, putting up a .307/.417/.505 line at Triple-A Durham. Unfortunately, that came in just 60 games, so it doesn’t mean very much. Lobaton has a little pop, but he never hit more than 10 homers or 21 doubles in a season. His 35.8% career X/H% (percentage of hits for extra-bases) is just above the league average of around 34% the past few seasons. Defensively, Lobaton isn’t anything special either. In his 15 game big league stint in 2011, Lobaton was horrible, hitting just .118 and looking overmatched by big league pitching. Best-case scenario, Lobaton is a big league average catcher, say a win above replacement. He just has basically no upside, and while he might be able to survive as a big leaguer, he’s not the guy you want as your starting catcher.
Nevin Ashley also had a pretty good year in 2011, posting a .263/.358/.384 line with 16 doubles, 8 homers, and 48 RBI in 112 games. He did that while posting a nice 40% CS%. Ashley has a decent line drive swing with a little pop and he plays good defense, but he still profiles as more of a backup catcher.
Robinson Chirinos had a disappointing season in 2011. After coming over in the Matt Garza trade in the offseason, Rays fans hoped that Chirinos could be the Rays’ catcher of the future, or at least the short-term. He was coming off an outstanding season between Double-A and Triple-A in the Cubs organization, having posted a .326/.416/.583 line with 28 doubles, 18 homers, and 74 RBI in 92 games while also posting a 32% CS% in just his second full year as a catcher. But in 2011, Chirinos didn’t live up to that at all. His .259/.343/.376 in 78 games was a huge drop-off from his gaudy 2010 numbers, and his 13 doubles, 6 homers, and 24 RBI paled in comparison as well. Defensively, Chirinos gained experience behind the plate and posted a 27% CS%, that’s a positive, but there wasn’t much to be impressed about from Chirinos. After John Jaso and Jose Lobaton both went on the shelf, Chirinos was brought up to the big leagues out of necessity and played decently, posting a .218/.283/.309 line with 2 doubles, 1 homer, and 7 RBI. Defensively, he appeared to call games pretty well, but he threw out just 2 of 23 attempted basestealers for just a 9% CS%. But Chirinos did have a couple of shining moments. On August 3rd, he went 2 for 2 with a homer and 4 RBI’s against the Blue Jays.
The next day, Chirinos didn’t enter the game until the 11th inning, but he came away the game’s hero. That day, Wade Davis had a heck of an outing before an 8th inning Jose Bautista homer sent the game into extra innings tied 3-3. A Colby Rasmus double gave the Jays the lead in the top of the 10th, but Desmond Jennings tied it with a leadoff homer in the bottom of the inning. Then one of the most unlikely hit you’ll ever see occurred, a go-ahead two-run triple by new Rays Jose Molina, gave the Jays a 6-4 lead. But in the bottom of the inning, a Matt Joyce groundout pulled the Rays within 6-5, and with 2 outs and a runner on 2nd base, Joe Maddon pinch-hit Chirinos for Kelly Shoppach. And Chirinos delivered, hitting a perfectly-placed groundball into centerfield for a game-tying hit, and after the Rays failed to score the remainder of the inning, Chirinos came up again with the bases loaded in the bottom of the 12th and delivered a single into left field for a walk-off hit to seal an exhilarating Rays win.
That was a great moment for Chirinos, but overall, he was overmatched by big league pitching. He posted just a 7% LD%, which is downright pathetic. It was the lowest line drive percentage of any American League player with at least 40 plate appearances. Chirinos has to prove himself at Triple-A right now, let alone fight for a big league job. Chirinos has some talent. He has a good swing and nice plate discipline (something he still showed in 2011 both at Triple-A and in the big leagues), and he he has good defensive ability, but right now, he’s not ready to be a dependable big league player. Best-case scenario for the Rays, he’ll be ready in a few months. But they can’t expect any significant big league contribution from him.
Stephen Vogt might be the most interesting player of the five. Vogt had an excellent offensive season in 2011, posting a .298/.335/.494 line with 35 doubles, 7 triples, 17 homers, 105 RBI, and while we’re at it, 4 stolen bases in 128 games between Double-A and Triple-A. He didn’t walk a whole lot, but he was adept at making contact, striking out just 80 times in 558 plate appearances compared to 106 times the league average player who split time at both levels like Vogt did would have had. Vogt showed a nice line drive swing, leading to a 20% LD% between the two levels (the average of the two levels’ league average was 18.5). Vogt declined a little bit in his 31 games after being promoted to Triple-A, but nothing to be scared about overall as he still posted a .290/.305/.516 line, with his lack of walks just a result of the pressure he felt at the new level, something that shouldn’t be a problem going forward. But the problem with Vogt is defense. Vogt made just 1 error and allowed just 1 passed ball in 2011 while throwing out a decent 29% of attempted basestealers, but that came in just 50 games as he also played 50 games in the outfield. Baseball America’s J.J. Cooper stated in a chat that “At the big league level, defense is the first requirement of a catcher, and Vogt just isn’t an everyday catcher defensively. He’s made strides, but he’s more of an excellent utility backup not a guy to put behind the plate five days a week.” The Rays can always use bats, but Vogt is not the answer defensively. He’s more of a Jesus Montero-type catcher who can catch 20-25 times a year while playing DH as well, although Vogt adds versatility in his ability to play the corner outfield positions along with some first base. Vogt will probably be sent back to Triple-A Durham after playing just 31 games there in 2011, but even if he improbably makes the roster, he’s not the Rays short-term answer at catcher.
As you can see, the Rays current catching situation is far from ideal. Four of the five catchers on the 40-man roster don’t profile as above-average big league catchers, with only Robinson Chirinos having a chance. If the season were starting today, Jose Lobaton would probably be the starter, backed up by Molina, although the Rays would hope that Chirinos figures out Triple-A and can become a better big league catcher. We’re still waiting for the Rays to trade a starter or B.J. Upton for a catching prospect who could contribute at the big league level soon. You have to think that the Rays will make such a move. The Rays need help at catcher, and at least in the short-term, that help will need to come from outside the organization. Maybe the Lobaton and Molina combination will be around for some or even all of 2012, but you have to think that the Rays will get a true catcher of the future who’s at least relatively close to the big leagues in a trade before the offseason is through.