The Rays are lined up to have Jose Molina be their de facto starting catcher in 2012 with several others fighting for playing time behind him. Given Molina’s defensive talents, specifically his pitch-framing ability, the Rays could definitely do worse than that, but obviously they would like to improve that situation if at all possible. Luckily, an obvious trade candidate just popped up. After the Oakland Athletics acquired former Rays catcher John Jaso in the big Mike Morse deal that happened yesterday, they designated another catcher for assignment, George Kottaras. Could the Athletics’ acquisition of the ex-Ray Jaso lead to Kottaras joining the Rays as part of another trade?
Kottaras turns 30 in May and has never made more than 250 plate appearances in a season since making his major league debut with the Boston Red Sox back in 2008. But wherever Kottaras has gone the past few years, he has hit pretty well. For his career, Kottaras has a .220/.320/.412 line amounting to a 95 OPS+ that’s basically average offensively for a catcher and certainly far better than the Rays could reasonably expect from any of their current catchers. In 2012 between the Milwaukee Brewers and the A’s, Kottaras was even better, managing a .211/.351/.415 line (108 OPS+) with 6 doubles, 9 homers, 31 RBI, and a 48-37 strikeout to walk ratio in 85 games and 209 plate appearances. Kottaras may not be an above-average hitter if he receives quite a few more plate appearances, but when he received his career-high of 250 plate appearances in 2010, he managed a .203/.305/.396 line (88 OPS+) with 9 home runs, still numbers that the Rays would be very happy with. Kottaras doesn’t hit for average at all, but thanks to a great batting eye and good power, he’s been able to be a productive player when he has gotten into games. And as a left-handed hitter who hits well versus right-handed pitching (.751 career OPS) and isn’t unplayable versus lefties (.658 OPS), he could fit in perfectly as something of a platoon partner with Jose Molina. None of the Rays’ other options to pair with Molina is a lefty batter- Jose Lobaton is a switch hitter while Chris Gimenez and Robinson Chirinos bat right-handed.
By the way, Kottaras’ solid hitting in the major leagues came after a minor league career where he put up an OPS of .720 or higher each season, posting a .810 career mark and a .781 mark at Triple-A. In his last season as a regular, 2008 at the Red Sox’ Triple-A Pawtucket affiliate, Kottaras hit great, managing a .243/.348/.456 line with 18 doubles, 22 homers, 65 RBI, and a 110-64 strikeout to walk ratio in 107 games and 462 plate appearances. Kottaras has hit everywhere he’s gone, and while he’s never been a big league regular, he looks like a very good candidate to receive a shot to start on a semi-regular basis, and Tampa Bay could be the perfect place for him to do that.
Wait a second- if Kottaras is such a good hitter, why hasn’t anyone given him a chance to start on a regular basis? The reason to have pause is Kottaras’ defense. In 196 career games and 165 starts as a catcher, Kottaras has thrown out just 16% of attempted basestealers while allowing passed balls at a rate 27% worse than the league average. He’s an athletic catcher at 6’0″, 200, but he features a long release on stolen base attempts, doesn’t do very well blocking balls in the dirt, and he isn’t known for calling a good game either. On a Brewers team that managed a 4.22 team ERA, Kottaras’ 4.89 ERA in 27 games was easily the highest of any of the Brewers’ regular catchers, and on an Athletics team with a 3.50 team ERA, Kottaras’ ERA came in at 4.15, also the highest of any of their regular catchers. Does Kottaras make the pitchers he’s receiving significantly worse? Those 2012 numbers look alarming, but it’s a small sample size and the answer actually no. I’m not sure this stat has ever been used before, but Kottaras’ catcher’s ERA+ relative to his fellow catchers is actually a solid 92, only 8% below average, in 1455.2 defensive innings, and in the two seasons where he spent the most time behind the plate, 2010 and 2011, he was better than the team average both years. Kottaras may not be a great defender at catcher, but he does a good enough job defensively and especially on a team with great pitching like the Rays, his offense more than makes up for what he gives up on defense.
George Kottaras seems like a near-perfect trade target for the Rays. He’s a solid hitter from the left side who would be a perfect semi-platoon partner with Jose Molina (Molina would still likely receive the bulk of the starts, but Kottaras could start 60 or 70 games), his defense behind the plate is serviceable, and then there are two additional factors: Kottaras will make just $1,000,000 next season, and considering the Athletics designated him for assignment, they have no leverage in trade talks, meaning the Rays could probably get Kottaras for just a decent prospect. The stars are aligning for Kottaras to land in Tampa Bay and finally have a shot at playing himself into a regular role. George Kottaras is a player the Rays are absolutely going to go after over the next few days, and although there’s no guarantee that a deal will happen, you can put the Rays down as the favorite to land him when it’s all said and done.