RCG Mailbag: Who Is the Rays' Catcher of the Future?

Welcome to another edition of our Rays Colored Glasses Mailbag answering questions from our readers. You can submit a question by emailing [email protected] or by commenting on any post on the site or our RCG Facebook page.

Commenter Baltar Asks: What are the Rays going to do for a catcher whenever Jose Molina hangs ‘em up?

The catcher position has been a major weakness for the Rays since… basically the start of the franchise. Dioner Navarro did have an All-Star campaign in 2008, but that’s basically it for the highlights, especially on offense. Even if you set the minimum as low as 200 plate appearances, only Navarro (exactly 100) and John Jaso in 2010 (112) have managed OPS+ marks league average or better (100 is average and each number above that is that much percent better than average). Unfortunately, Navarro’s 2008 season may stand alone as the only All-Star season by a Rays catcher for at least the next several days. The good news, though, is that the Rays may finally end up with an above-average average situation at catcher and maybe even find that elusive franchise catcher they’ve never had in their history.

Other than Molina, the Rays’ major league catchers right now are Jose Lobaton and Chris Gimenez. But at 28 and 30 years old respectively, neither are prospects in any sense of the word and if either is starting for the Rays in two or three years, something will likely have gone horribly wrong. Lobaton has a decent eye at the plate and stands out as a switch-hitter, but he fits much better as a backup thanks to struggles against right-handed pitching and little power. Gimenez actually may actually have more potential after breaking out at Triple-A last season with a new approach at the plate, and his best-case scenario may be carving out a nice career for himself as a late-blooming catcher who can provide decent offense and defense. In all likelihood, though, he looks like another backup and he’s certainly not the future for the Rays at the position.

Things begin to get interesting when we get to the Rays’ only real upper-levels catching prospect, Mark Thomas. Thomas, who turns 25 next month, had a solid season at Double-A Montgomery last year, managing a .254/.323/.383 line with 19 doubles, 5 homers, and 42 RBI in 349 plate appearances, and he’s back with the Biscuits to begin this year as well. Thomas attracts attention primarily for his defense, and in that regard he’s quite special. An athletic 6’1″, 180, Thomas moves extremely well behind the plate and stands out for his receiving, Molina-esque pitch framing, and also a very strong although  arm that has helped him throw out 41% of attempted basestealers in his pro career. Pitchers love working with him and he has a chance to be a Gold Glover if he hits enough to start. His hitting, though, is the big question with him.

Thomas, a right-handed hitter, has shown some flashes at the plate, hitting 18 home runs in 2011 between High-A Charlotte and the Australian Baseball League and finishing extremely strong in 2012, hitting .397 with 4 of his 5 homers on the season in the final month of the minor league season in August. However, he struck out 78 times versus just 29 walks in 2012 and has had major trouble against right-handed pitching as a righty batter, managing just a .229/.286/.343 line the past two years compared to a solid .273/.349/.475 mark versus lefties. Thomas’ defense should get him to the major leagues and his power could make him at least an average major league starter, but he needs serious work with his plate discipline and against righty pitchers before that enters the realm of possibility. Thomas’ likely role over the next few years might be replacing Molina as a defense-first catcher splitting time with someone else, and although he has potential, he’s another player much more likely to be a fringe-starter or backup moving forward.

Behind Thomas, you have three players with considerable upside but also plenty of risk in Luke Bailey, Justin O’Conner, and Oscar Hernandez. Bailey and O’Conner were both high-profile draft picks, but neither has done anything as a pro. Bailey somehow made it to High-A Charlotte last season but had a bad season made worse by injuries, managing just a .231/.277/.393 line with 15 doubles, 7 homers, and 28 RBI in 256 plate appearances. Bailey has big raw power but no plate discipline whatsoever, striking out 67 times versus just 8 walks in 2012, and his defense may be even more of a work in progress. Bailey has a great arm but it’s erratic, and his receiving has a long way to go after he allowed 11 passed balls in just his partial season in 2012. Bailey is still only 22, but the Rays have been waiting for Bailey to break out for four years and it may never happen at this point.

O’Conner, a 1st round pick by the Rays’ in 2010, is only worse right now, only 21 but just starting at Low-A now after three seasons in Short Season ball and owning a .197/.270/.355 line with a 201-55 strikeout-to-walk ratio for his career. O’Conner has even bigger raw power and arm strength than Bailey, but he can’t make contact and needs plenty of development time behind the plate as well. A hip injury that bothered him for all of 2012 and prevented him from catching a single game only made things worse. As with Bailey, the Rays are still hoping that this could be the year O’Conner finally takes a step forward, but if he doesn’t make progress soon he’s going to be converted to the mound as the Rays try to make use of the outstanding arm strength that made Bailey a nationally renowned pitcher in high school.

Then there’s Hernandez, just 19 years old but shockingly and depressingly the most likely of these three to pan out as a catcher. Hernandez caught eyes with an enormous season in the Venezuelan Winter League in 2011, managing a ridiculous .402/.503/.732 line with 14 doubles and 21 home runs in 294 plate appearances, and while he didn’t nearly live up to that standard in his US debut at Rookie-level Princeton in 2012, there’s still plenty to be excited about. Hernandez had a solid season for the P-Rays, managing a .231/.349/.394 line with 9 doubles, 5 homers, 24 RBI, and most impressively, a 31-23 strikeout to walk ratio in 195 plate appearances. Hernandez didn’t hit for much average at all, but he remains impressive for good bat speed and nice raw power and patience. Drawing that many walks while not striking out too much certainly bodes well for Hernandez’s future, and as he improves his pitch recognition over time, he’ll be able to use his patience to find pitches to hit and tap into his power. Defensively, Hernandez has a long way to go but progressed nicely in his US debut, cutting his bassed balls from 12 to 6 while still throwing out 38% of attempted basestealers. He moved well behind the plate and has a good if not great arm and he could be a solid defender someday. Hernandez has a chance to be a great offensive catcher a few years down the line and he has to be the Rays’ catcher of the future, albeit almost by default.

Beyond the players we’ve talked about, sleepers include Taylor Hawkins, who the Rays’ signed to an above-slot bonus after drafting him in the 12th round of the 2012 Draft thanks to big-time power, and Alejandro Segovia, who was never much a prospect but then broke out to a .269/.362/.527 line with 15 homers in 284 plate appearances at Low-A in 2012.

Overall, the Rays’ outlook at the catcher position remains pretty bleak. Lobaton and Gimenez might be halfway-decent, Thomas has a little potential, and then there’s some upside in the form of Hernandez, Bailey, and O’Conner, but everyone is either not very very talented or far from the big leagues and coming with tons of risk. There’s no clear answer on the way and the Rays are going to have to look at acquiring a topflight catching prospect, whether by trading a starting pitcher (if they’re going to deal David Price, they better get an impact catcher) or through the draft.

Baltar’s question happened to come at the perfect time as I’m planning a series on the top catching prospects in the 2013 MLB Draft beginning in just a few days. The Rays’ catching situation has to be improved, and after drafting O’Conner in 2010, the time may have come for the Rays to take a chance on another high school catcher or maybe even a college one early in the draft. We will look at the candidates for that player who could finally give the Rays that solid major league starting catcher they’ve been hoping to find for far too long, and we’ll have to see whether the Rays choose to go that way once June comes around.

Tags: Justin O'Conner Luke Bailey Mark Thomas Oscar Hernandez Tampa Bay Rays

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