As we head towards the offseason, the Tampa Bay Rays face a series of question mark regarding their arbitration-eligible players, free agency, and possible trades. Over the next two weeks, I will be taking a look at each position and going through the Rays’ options as they hope to improve their team for next season. We’ll start today at the catcher position.
Jose Molina- It is still undetermined if Molina will return for a third season with Tampa Bay. He had a career low year offensively hitting .233/.290/.304 and is not getting younger as he turned 38 in June. That being said, he was never on the team for his bat, he was on the team for his top-tier defense and pitch-framing ability. His 29% caught stealing percentage was 3 points better than the league average, but his lowest since 2009 when catching with the Yankees.
Jose Lobaton- Lobaton had a good year offensively hitting .249/.320/.394 in 311PA. But if you look deeper you will see a big platoon split as he did much better vs. RHP than LHP, hitting .246/.330/.406 against the former as opposed to .242/.295/.358 versus the latter. His defense overall at catching is below-average as he threw out only 14% of baserunners and is considered a below-average receiver. He will be 29 on October 21st and while catchers develop later than other position players, he isn’t exactly the catcher of the long-term future, just the catcher of now. He won’t hit arbitration until 2015, though, so he is a low-cost option.
Chris Gimenez- The third catcher for the team, Gimenez only had 4 plate appearances for Tampa this season and will likely be back for another season. Gimenez has never been a good defensive catcher but has a solid enough arm to throw out 25% of base-stealers at AAA. Gimenez played C, 1B, LF, and RF for Durham this year and is still looked at as a utility player that can catch, which slightly increases his value to the team. Gimenez is also out of options, which may also be a factor in his sticking with the Rays next season.
Free Agent Options
Brian McCann- He is considered the best free-agent catcher on the market and will be turning 30 in 2014. He got paid $12M in 2013, which was third-highest among catchers (behind Yadier Molina and Joe Mauer) and is likely to receive more years and dollars than what Tampa would have financially. More pie in the sky than realistic.
Carlos Ruiz- The glue for the Phillies during their championship run, he has spent his entire career as a member of the Phillies. Ruiz made $5 million in his last year with the team and is entering free agency when he will turn 35 in January. After a career year in 2012 in which he hit .325/.394/.540, he hit .268/.320/.368 in 92 games with the Phillies in 2013. He missed 32 games with a right hamstring strain, and also sat out the first 25 games of the year for a positive test for Adderall last November. While he won’t receive a contract such as McCann’s, he is being considered as a buy-low option. A one or two year deal at around $6 to $8 million per year is most likely for him, and unless he stays at the lower end of that range, the Rays don’t have a chance.
Geovany Soto- With he and A.J. Pierzynski both free agents, Texas is expected to re-sign one or both of them depending on if they are able to sign Brian McCann or not. If Texas were to let him go, he could be an attractive option for Tampa Bay. The former Rookie of the Year with the Cubs has not had quite the career people thought he would have but is still one of the better players at his position. Soto rebounded in 2013 to hit .245/.328/.466 in 184 plate appearances being the backup catcher to Pierzynski and threw out 29% of base runners and allowed only 1 passed ball. It was a small sample size and Soto had a bizarre platoon split (.874 OPS versus righties, .656 against lefties as a right-handed hitter), but as a player who has shown as much talent as Soto has, his strong play still makes him a good candidate for a team looking for a starting catcher at a low cost. Soto made $2.75 million on a one-year deal and should receive offers similar to that this offseason if Texas doesn’t re-sign him. Soto should be a potential option for the Rays.
Overall, this position, while weak offensively for years, is still hugely important to the team as the Rays expect top notch defenders and pitch framers at the position. If Molina is brought back for 2014, I would expect his playing time to decrease and be used more as defensive replacement for Lobaton later in games. Tampa Bay has no other realistic options for significant playing time in the minor leagues so the team could sign some veterans for depth at the position. (Sorry Craig Albernaz.) The question is going to be whether Rays stick with what they have and make just minor additions or sign a player like Ruiz or Soto off the free agent market. Will the Rays finally get themselves a flashier backstop, or will we see a catcher tandem for the fourth year in a row?