The Rays keep waiting for one of their high-upside catching prospects to pan out. They are still waiting. Jose Lobaton broke out in 2013, but he is a 29 year old who was never too highly regarded. He looks like the Rays’ catcher of the present, but is he the Rays’ catcher of the future? Before we go there, though, let’s talk about Lobaton’s journey from the Padres’ waiver wire a central role in the Rays’ catcher corps.
Lobaton was signed eleven years ago by the San Diego Padres. He spent seven years plodding his way through the Padres organization before finally reaching Triple-A in 2009. He was called up by the Padres in July of that year and spent the month with the big league club until being designated for assignment at the end of July. The Padres thought he would pass through waivers, but instead, the Rays picked him up, sending him to Double-A Montgomery. Lobaton moved up to the Triple-A Durham Bulls the following year, and Durham remained his home for 2011 and 2012 as well aside for a few rehab games at High-A and 15 forgettable games for the Rays. Lobaton turned 27 following the season and had made just 56 major leagues plate appearances, hitting just .137. But the following spring training, the monotony of Lobaton’s career quickly came to the end.
The Rays entered 2012 with Jose Molina as their “starting catcher,” and with that in mind, the catcher with whom he would split time would be extremely important. Lobaton engaged in a hot duel with Chris Gimenez for the job in the spring of 2012. Lobaton got the job and emerged as the victor, although it was in good part due to the fact that Gimenez had an option remaining. Lobaton’s 2012 season did not get off to the best start as a shoulder injury sidelined him from mid-April to late May. But when he returned, the Rays decided to give Lobaton his job back and he put up decent numbers. In 69 games he had a .228/.311/.343 slash line, throwing out just 16% of attempted basestealers, but based on the meager offensive standards set by Rays catcher, he was fine. Typical for the Rays, there was no other affordable catcher on the horizon and the Molina/Lobaton duo went into spring training of 2013 with no new competition.
It was decided in spring training that Lobaton and Molina were going to split the catching duties in 2013. Molina wasn’t getting any younger or better and Lobaton had shown enough at the plate and behind it to warrant more duty. For the most part, Lobaton was up for the challenge. He put up a .249/.320/.394 slash line with 7 home runs and 32 RBI. He did strike out a little too much but he contributed two walk-off home runs and, amazingly, a walk off triple. Who can forget that October 8th walk off against the Red Sox! Lobaton’s work defensively also improved dramatically, especially his blocking of pitches in the dirt. He continued to have trouble throwing out runners with a 14% caught stealing rate, but as with any catcher, how many of those steals were on the pitcher is always in question. On the whole, he made significant strides both at the plate and behind it as he put together one of the best seasons by a catcher in team history.
The future for Lobaton is brighter than it was in 2012. How much brighter remains to be seen. With Molina a year older and a free agent, Lobaton is expected to receive the bulk of the starts at catcher in 2014 unless Andrew Friedman pulls off a miracle deal for a better catcher. How far he goes beyond next year depends on his ability to keep adding to his defensive game. At 29, he has probably come close to his ceiling but you never know and at worst he’s a good low-cost option. Lobaton is far from perfect, but he is the first solid all-around catcher the Rays have had in far too long. Lobaton will hold down the fort as the Rays will continue their seemingly never-ending quest for the next Buster Posey.