The Rays would love to improve their catching situation. Signing a minor league free agent backstop would provide no guarantees to actually make that happen, but at least they would give them a chance. However, at this point most of the quality free agent catchers are off the board and at the end of the day the Rays looking simply for productive players at any position. Two players listed at catchers could be players worth looking into.
James Skelton- Skelton, who turned 27 in October, was a 14th round pick by the Detroit Tigers but has already played in five different big league organizations, a different one the last five years. There are reasons he keeps bouncing from place to place- and also reasons teams keep giving him chances. Skelton is a slim 5’11”, 165 and doesn’t have the durability to be a regular behind the plate and has also played a role in his injury problems the last few years- he played in just 45 games in 2012 and 54 in 2011. Offensively, Skelton also has his deficiencies as he’s limited by a lack of power. But despite all that, he’s still a solid all-around player. For his minor league career, Skelton has a .265/.396/.265 line in 2133 plate appearances. His .396 on-base percentage has to jump out at you, and that’s thanks in large part to an incredible 367-369 strikeout to walk ratio. Skelton is a singles hitter, hitting just 22 minor league home runs and never more than 7 in a season but he’s able to hit some line drives and use the whole field, allowing him to hit for a solid average. And he also has some speed, swiping 61 of 81 stolen bases in the minor leagues, although injuries have prevented him from stealing too many bases after he stole 14 or more stolen bases each year from 2007 to 2009. A more pressing issue is that Skelton has just 22 career games at Triple-A, 5 in 2011 in the Reds organization and 17 in 2012 with the Nats, although he did have a good .280/.410/.360 line in 61 plate appearances in 61 plate appearances for the Nationals’ Triple-A Syracuse affiliate.
Defensively, Skelton is athletic behind the plate but has never been a firm receiver, allowing 40 passed balls in 490 games behind the plate. But he also has good arm strength, throwing out 35% of attempted basestealers, and if he could stay healthy and get more reps he could manage to be at least an average defender. But Skelton doesn’t have to be just a catcher. Combining his arm strength with his average overall speed, Skelton could play all over the field and actually has already gotten into 73 games as a second baseman in the minor leagues while also playing the corner outfield positions and first base. Combining his defensive potential with his on-base skills at the plate, Skelton fits an interesting utility profile- if only he can stay healthy. We know the Rays love versatility and are always looking for creative ways to construct their roster, and Skelton could be a player they could look at. If Skelton can finally stay on the field and get his first extended time at Triple-A, he could be a productive part of a major league roster, and we’ll have to see which team gives him a chance.
Sean O’Connell- Baseball America lists O’Connell as a starter on their Minor League Free Agent Tracker and that was the case for O’Connell for the first two years of his professional career. That’s our excuse to talk about him here. O’Connell, who turned just 21 on December 12th, was a 10th round pick by the White Sox in the 2010 MLB Draft but didn’t hit at all, managing just a .168/.237/.218 line in 133 plate appearances at Rookie Ball before he was released. The Dodgers then signed him and used as a pitcher and the results were not so great as he managed just a 6.30 ERA in 15 appearances and 20 innings pitched. However, O’Connell struck out 13 while walking just 6 and did not allow a home run, and that was in his first season as a pitcher basically throwing only fastballs. O’Connell was an unorthodox catching prospect considering he’s 6’4″, 181, but that projectable frame is perfect for a pitching prospect. O’Connell’s biggest tool as a catcher was his arm and off the mound he can hit the lower-90’s in velocity with some sink. He actually was able to throw if for a decent amount of strikes in his first season as a pitcher, which is a good sign. The key for him is going to be to learn some secondary pitches. O’Connell is a long-shot, but you don’t see 21 year old prospects with any promise available on the minor league free agent market all that often, and the Rays could sign him and send him to work with their pitching coordinators to see what he can do. The Rays will be taking a shot on O’Connell with about as little risk as you’ll ever see, and maybe O’Connell could blossom into a solid pitcher someday.
There’s no use trying to compare Skelton and O’Connell as they’re on the opposite edge of the spectrum as prospects. Skelton could potentially make an impact in the big leagues next season while O’Connell is raw and several years away even if everything goes perfectly for him. However, both of them are players teams will evaluate wondering whether they could be assets to their organizations, and both have enough talent to warrant another chance. The risk on a minor league deals is negligible, and you never know when you’ll get lucky and receive considerable reward.