August 4, 2011; St. Petersburg, FL, USA; Tampa Bay Rays catcher Robinson Chirinos (38) hits an RBI during the game against the Toronto Blue Jays at Tropicana Field. Tampa Bay Rays defeated the Toronto Blue Jays 7-6. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Rays Notes: Questions Surrounding the Rays With Pitchers and Catchers Reporting Tomorrow

We have arrived. The offseason will officially end tomorrow for the Rays as pitchers and catchers report and the Rays are primed for a big 2013 season. But before that happens, there are plenty of questions the Rays still need to address by the time the season comes around and plenty of things to watch in this year’s spring training. One thing that especially stands out is the impending competition for the position of backup catcher behind Jose Molina.

The three competitors for the job are Jose Lobaton, who held the position for most of 2012, Chris Gimenez, who failed in an opportunity earlier in the season but proceeded to play well at Triple-A and deliver a strong finish to end the year, and Robinson Chirinos, who missed all of 2012 following a concussion. Marc Topkin wrote about Chirinos in  today’s Tampa Bay Times.

 “He’s full go,” executive vice president Andrew Friedman said. “He got behind the plate a number of times this winter and felt good. We’re excited to watch him play in camp and get him back on track to getting up here and helping us win games.”

“I tell my family that I feel like God brought me here to the Rays for a big purpose,” Chirinos said. “I know I belong here and I’m going to be here and I’m going to help the team win games and hopefully win that World Series that everybody wants. I have a good feeling that it’s going to be a great year.”

Chirinos is a longshot to make the Rays’ roster- he’s rusty after a year off and didn’t even play that well in 2011. But Chirinos, even at 28 years old, also has the most upside of any of the Rays’ catchers, managing a .326/.416/.583 line with 18 homers and more walks than strikeouts between Double-A and Triple-A in the Cubs organization in 2010, and if Chirinos can stay healthy and continue to develop, he’s the only catcher in the mix for big league time with the Rays that has a chance to be above-average. Chirinos will likely start 2012 back at Triple-A no matter what he does and who knows where his career stands at this point. But if he can get back in the swing of things once again, he has a chance to seize the majority of playing time for the Rays at the catcher position by the end of the year and the Rays are nervously excited to see what he can do.

Speaking of the other two catchers, Joe Maddon hinted to Roger Mooney of the Tampa Tribune that Lobaton has the early edge.

“Lobaton definitely has an inside track, but I do like what Gimenez did at the end of last season. That stuff remains to be seen. I think the competition is going to be a lot like you saw last year. I don’t think anyone is on the team. Everyone is going to have to fight for that position.”

Lobaton did a serviceable job for the Rays as their backup catcher in 2012, managing a .222/.323/.317 line (83 OPS+) with 2 home runs and a 46-24 strikeout to walk ratio in 69 games. Defensively, he managed just a 16% CS% but did an OK job, not allowing a single passed ball. For their backup catcher, the Rays could certainly do worse than Lobaton. But between Gimenez and Chirinos the Rays hope that they can do better. Chirinos, as we just talked about, has interesting upside, and even Gimenez showed last year that he could play better than he has in the past. Playing regularly for the first time in years, Gimenez had a strong year at Triple-A Durham, managing a .310/.389/.483 line with 10 home runs in 71 games, and then he followed it up by going 13 for 32 (.406) after he came back to the Rays in September. He also has a 27% career CS% in 91 major leagues games and a 25% mark in the minors while still doing a good job blocking balls, so he has a chance to become a better all-around option than Lobaton if his Triple-A numbers are to be believed. Maybe Gimenez will always be a Quad-A type of player who hits well at Triple-A but can never put it together at the majors for an extended stretch- but he certainly deserves a look from the Rays and he may just turn into the Rays’ best option behind Molina.

Transitioning from catchers to pitchers, there is one uncertainty that could very well be the most important factor in whether the Rays make the postseason in 2013: is the Rays rotation going to take a major step back with James Shields gone? Speaking to Mooney, Joe Maddon was convinced that his starters can shoulder the load and maybe even be better.

Who picks up the slack?

“Simply put they all are,” Rays manager Joe Maddon said. “Every one of those guys is capable of pitching more than they did last year.”

Maddon thinks Moore and Hellickson can reach the 200-inning plateau this season and he anticipates more innings from the back-end of the rotation.

“I think we have it,” he said.

James Shields was an excellent pitcher for the Rays the last several years. However, if the Rays’ young pitchers can step up, the Rays’ rotation may somehow be better without him. Matt Moore‘s potential is known throughout baseball and Jeremy Hellickson made major strides in 2012 adding his curveball as a third plus pitch, and pairing them with rock-solid Alex Cobb and whoever wins the fifth starter job (Jeff Niemann, Roberto Hernandez, Chris Archer, or Jake Odorizzi), and the Rays’ rotation still ranks right up there among the best in baseball. The Rays are excited to see what their starters can do with the pressure on now that Shields and the security he provided are gone, and in sharp contrast to everyone saying that the Shields trade set the Rays back for this season, Maddon and the Rays are expecting big thing from their rotation in 2013.

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