The past three years, the Tampa Bay Rays catching situation has impressed no one. From 2011 and 2013, every team in baseball had at least one catcher make 350 plate appearances in one of those years except for the Rays. We can talk about Jose Molina‘s pitch-framing or Jose Lobaton‘s solid offensive season in 2013, but that fact remains unbelievable. The Rays were the only team in the entire sport that didn’t have a single player remotely resemble a starting catcher. When the Rays re-signed Jose Molina, it looked like those days were set to continue for yet another year. Then the Rays acquired Ryan Hanigan, and finally the Rays’ era of mediocrity at the catcher position drew to a close.
Ryan Hanigan is no superstar. However, he is a strong all-around catcher, and the Rays have been in need of that for a long time. Before struggling while dealing with nagging injuries in 2013, Hanigan managed an OPS+ of 90 or above in the previous three seasons, managing a 100 mark overall. 100 is only league average (adjusting to ballpark), but for catchers, that mark was only 95 in those years. Hanigan hit above-average for a catcher, and he was never too far below. Add in his defense, and he was a very valuable player. Hanigan led the National League in caught stealing percentage the last two years, and he has also shown the ability to be a strong pitch-framer and limit passed balls. Hanigan has his flaws at the plate–he is stronger against lefties than righties and does not have much power–but the Rays are confident that they are getting an average major league starting catcher and maybe even better. The last three years, they had barely patched together the catcher position as they waited to finally find a more permanent solution. Now, they finally have it.
In their entire history, just twice have the Rays had a strong offensive season from a primary catcher: Dioner Navarro in 2008 and John Jaso in 2010. Navarro’s season was an outlier–he didn’t hit at all in his other four years with the team–and Jaso has never been good enough to start behind the plate. We are talking about offense, but even factoring in defense, just one other catcher joins the list with an above-average season: Toby Hall in 2005, another aberrant year. The Rays have had a few catchers start for them for multiple years, but never have they featured a consistent starting catcher. With that in mind, it was enormous how the Rays not only acquired Hanigan, but they signed him to a three-year extension with an option for 2017.
It is extremely hard to acquire a quality catcher at an affordable cost. When the Cincinnati Reds looked to trade Ryan Hanigan, the Rays saw the rare opportunity to acquire the catcher they desperately needed without paying an exorbitant price in terms of dollars or prospects. The Rays are still waiting for that star catcher to come through their system and hope that Oscar Hernandez or Nick Ciuffo could be that guy, but now the Rays don’t have to dream of a brighter future while their current situation leaves something to be desired. In Hanigan, the Rays have their solid catcher, and while they hope the coming years bring even more, they can finally be happy about where they stand.