So many things change from year to year for the Tampa Bay Rays. Their catching situation, though, has not been one of them. The last three seasons, the Rays have had a catching tandem, with Jose Molina and Jose Lobaton doing the honors the last two years. Another year of an unideal situation at catcher has passed and now Molina is a free agent, creating some uncertainty. Could this offseason be the point where the Rays finally shake things up at the catcher position?
Jose Molina has always been a bad hitter, but this season saw him sink to new depths. Molina hit to just a .233/.280/.304 line (68 OPS+) with just 14 doubles, two homers, and 18 RBI in 313 plate appearances. His 68 OPS+ was his lowest since 2009. And despite making 39 more plate appearances than he did in 2012, Molina saw his home runs dip from 8 to 2 and his RBIs from 32 to 18. Molina isn’t on this team to hit, but it has to be concerning that he has gone from at least providing a small amount of value to doing nothign at all. The good news is that Molina’s defense has remained stable. His pitch-framing continues to be renowned throughout baseball, and his 29% caught stealing percentage and 8 passed balls with both right in line with the previous two seasons. However, with the way he has been deteriorating at the plate, his days of catching 100 games like he has done the last could be over. It is hard to see the Rays letting him leave, but they are going to have to find a catcher to take on more of the load. Is that catcher Jose Lobaton?
Lobaton’s career got off to a late start–he will turn 29 on October 21st. But even if Lobaton may not be the Rays’ catcher of the future, he sure looks like their catcher of the present. Lobaton had one of the best offensive seasons by a catcher in Rays history in 2013, managing a .249/.320/.394 line with 15 doubles, 7 homers, and 32 RBI in 311 plate appearances. His overall numbers were good, but his season was even more impressive because of his knack for hitting in the clutch. Rays fans won’t soon forget his walk-off home run off of Koji Uehara in Game of the ALDS, and 4 of his 8 homers came in the 9th inning or extra innings between the regular season and the playoffs. After just how well he hit, why don’t the Rays simply anoint Lobaton their starter for next year, having him catch two-thirds of the games and Molina the other third? The reasons for pause are his platoon splits and his defense. In 2013, Lobaton came through with a strong performance against right-handed pitchers, managing a .246/.330/.406 line, but he slipped to just .242/.295/.358 against lefties, losing his power and plate discipline. While the Rays would like it better if Lobaton could hit pitchers from both sides, that works out well because Molina is a right-handed hitter who has always been better against lefties and platooning the two would give Lobaton the bulk of the playing time anyway. But once we get to Lobaton’s defense, things get a little more sketchy. While it’s unfair to compare him to Molina, Lobaton is a below-average pitch-framer, costing the Rays pitchers several strikes a game. Lobaton does do a job preventing passed balls, allowing just two all season, but he doesn’t throw out basestealers either, throwing out just 14% on the year. Lobaton can be weapon from the catcher position as a hitter against right-handed pitching, but his struggles against lefties and defesnive issues make him better suited to stay in the tandem catcher role he’s in as opposed to becoming more of a starting catcher.
Between Lobaton and Molina, the Rays have a solid tandem catcher and a catcher that is ready to become more of a true backup. That leaves still a quarter of their games to be filled. One interesting option could be Chris Gimenez. Gimenez appeared in just 4 games for the Rays this season and did not have the best season at Triple-A this year (.656 OPS), but the reason Gimenez is very interesting is his versatility. If Gimenez is on the Rays’ roster, it’s not just as a backup catcher–he can play third base, first base, and left field as well. Assuming the Rays let Kelly Johnson walk, it’s unlikely that whatever outfield they sign will be able to play the infield as well. Gimenez could fill that role and also do some catching. Gimenez also fits well because he’s a right-handed hitter who is stronger against left-handed pitching. Gimenez could be very interesting on the Rays’ roster as a 25th man and could be the final piece of the puzzle for the Rays catching situation.
With the three catchers the Rays have right now, they have the capability to fine for another year. They want an upgrade at some point, and hopefully either Curt Casali in the minors or someone acquired in a deal for David Price, but even if they do nothing, their catchers should give them satisfactory production once again. This season, we will see if the Rays agree with that assessment and whether they look elsewhere for their catching needs.