The Tampa Bay Rays are experiencing a bit of a down year in their minor league system this year, but one place that they are clearly not lacking is the catching position. Catcher is arguably the second most important position to develop behind pitcher, as there are not many great catchers in the big leagues, and those that are great do not come cheap. Thus, the pressure is on for the Rays to develop their own catchers. This has not happened so far in their history, but there are plenty of reasons to be excited about their current crop of young catchers. Here’s a look at the notable Rays catching prospects.
Ciuffo, 19, was taken at 21st overall out of high school by the Rays in the 2013 draft. He put up underwhelming numbers in his first go around at pro ball, posting a .258./.296/.308 line (80 wRC+), although this was in just 169 PAs and occurred while he was also trying to adjust to living on his own for the first time. Ciuffo has great potential on both sides of the ball. He has a smooth swing from the left side of the plate, and has the potential to hit for above-average power on top of a good average. Defensively, he has also shown potential thanks to a strong arm and nice receiving skills. As with any high school pick, there is a ton of work for him to do on both sides of the plate. But when all is said and done, Ciuffo could be an above-average catcher on both sides of the ball.
Casali was acquired from the Detroit Tigers prior to the 2013 season. He was though to be a defensive-minded catcher, but he impressed with the bat in his first season in the Rays’ organization, posting a 116 wRC+ in 46 High-A games before posting a 216 (!) wRC+ in 35 Double-A games. He was thought to just be a potential backup, but the newfound offensive ability could turn him into a starter. That being said, his numbers were inflated by a high BABIP (.302 in High-A, .418 in Double-A), and he still has significant work to do offensively. Best case scenario is he becomes an above-average defender and an average hitter in the big leagues, but his defense alone gives him a good chance of reaching the majors in some capacity.
Hernandez burst onto the scene when he put up a .402/.503/.732 (222 wRC+) line in the Venezuelan Summer League in 2011. His numbers haven’t been quite as good in the states, but he still put up a respectable 110 and 96 wRC+ in the past two seasons respectively, and did so while being young for his league. His defensive ability was raw when he came over to the states, but he made huge strides as a defender last year. Thanks to a plus arm and vastly improved footwork and receiving skills, he could be an above-average defensive catcher if he continues to progress. The bat still needs work, but he has quick hands and some power potential, and has held his own the past two years despite being a teenager playing against older players. We will get some clarity on truly what kind of player he can be as he moves to full season ball for the first time in 2014. The potential of an above-average everyday catcher appears to be an attainable goal for Hernandez.
Maile is an under-the-radar player, but he quietly put up a nice season in Low-A last year and will jump to Double-A this season. Drafted in the 8th round in 2012, Maile came with the reputation of a big bat, but also many defensive questions. He did a good job at the plate, posting a .283/.351/.402 (114 wRC+), but where he surprised was with his work behind the dish. He was ranked the best defensive catcher in the Midwest League by the league’s coaches and threw out 51% of potential base stealers, also allowing just two passed balls. He needs to show that his bat and defense will continue to play in the upper levels, but the Rays have yet another catcher with offensive and defensive potential.
A first-round pick in 2010, O’Conner has been a disappointment so far in his career. He has struggled with injuries throughout his career, something that has significantly hurt his development. But this year, he finally was healthy. His best asset right now is his arm, which is plus-plus and led to him tying for the minor-league lead in catcher’s pickoffs last season. His receiving skills are coming along nicely, and he also does a good job framing pitches. Where he continues to fall short is at the plate. He hit just .233/.290/.381 (88 wRC+) last season despite coming into the draft with the reputation of a big bat. However, he still does have potential there, even if his chances of reaching that potential are slim. He still has a chance of reaching the big leagues, but he is going to need to turn things around quickly. If not, the Rays could take his big-time arm to the mound.
Rodriguez was one of the Rays’ three significant international signings in 2012. He did a great job at the plate last season, posting a .329/.409/.540 (164 wRC+) line in the Venezuelan Summer League, but what gets him on this list is his natural baseball IQ. Rodriguez has maturity beyond his years, and it shows in his hitting and defense. He has outstanding receiving skills and knowledge of how to lead a pitching staff, something that few 18 year old catchers can say. There is still lots of work to be done, but he too could end up as an above-average catcher if he reaches his full potential.
As you can tell, this is an impressive crop of Rays catching prospects. These six guys all have the potential to be at least average defensively and offensively, some more likely to reach that potential than others. With catching such a premium in the big leagues, the Rays have put an emphasis on building up their organization’s catching depth. If just one of these six guys can pan out, it would pay huge dividends for the Rays.