The Tampa Bay Rays have their concerns with their team right now, but catcher does not rank highly among them. Ryan Hanigan is signed for the next three years with a team option and has impressed considerably both offensively and behind the plate to begin his Rays tenure. Jose Molina, meanwhile, is signed for the next two years and remains an incredible pitch framer. The Rays’ catcher position looks set for the time being, and that works out well with top prospects Nick Ciuffo and Oscar Hernandez a while away from the big leagues. But there is one player threatening to shake up everything–Curt Casali–and the Rays are about to face a very interesting decision.
Casali was acquired by the Detroit Tigers prior to the 2013 season in exchange for lefty Kyle Lobstein. He was regarded as a decent catcher but nothing too exciting, and no one expected much. Though Casali did OK for High-A Charlotte, managing a a .268/.344/.409 line in 183 plate appearances, he was doing so as a player 1.2 years older than the league average. With that in mind, the Rays decided to challenge him, bringing him up to Double-A Montgomery. There, for reasons no one can really understand, Casali started hitting out of his mind.
For the first time in his career, Casali was going to be younger than the league average with the Montgomery Biscuits in the Southern League. He had generated good results before, but people could disregard them every time because he was not facing advanced enough competition. This was his chance to prove that his abilities were, and he seized his opportunity. Casali hit to a .383/.483/.600 line in 145 plate appearances, drilling 11 doubles and 5 homers, driving in 31, and managing an 18-21 strikeout to walk ratio. He returned there to begin 2014, but after a .314/.500/.429 line in 96 plate appearances including a 16-23 strikeout to walk ratio, the Rays finally were satisfied and brought him up to Triple-A Durham. Curt Casali has established himself as a legitimate prospect. Now the question is just how good he can be.
At the plate, Casali has excellence patience, and that has served him quite well through Double-A. But his discipline will not be enough to get him to the major leagues alone. Casali needs to prove that he can recognize and even hit the high-quality breaking pitches of Triple-A and the major leagues. In addition, will he keep drawing walks in leagues where he will see increasingly more strikes? Casali does not have great bat speed and has never hit for much power, so it is going to be his ability to draw walks and get on base that will always be his calling card offensively. He has to prove that he can make that last at higher levels.
Defensively, Casali does a lot of things well. He is durable receiver at 6’2″, 225 and is also good at some of the intricacies of the position like framing pitches. He shows good leadership behind the plate and pitchers like working with him. All of that being said, though, Casali still has major work to do learning to throw out basestealers. Casali once had very good arm strength, but Tommy John Surgery in college ended that and he has been trying to make up ground ever since. He has worked on releasing the ball more quickly, but he still has plenty more work to do as he has thrown out under 25% of attempted basestealers the last two years. If Casali’s offense does not stop him from being a starting catcher, his defense might. However, with his all-around abilities, it is not long before Casali is a major league option at catcher, and the Rays will have to decide what to do with him.
This offseason, the Rays signed a pair of minor league free agents, Roman Ali Solis and Eddy Rodriguez, to be their Triple-A catchers. It was clear from the start, though, that if Hanigan or Molina got injured, the Rays’ first call would be to Curt Casali. But beyond being the Rays’ third catcher, what role will Casali play for the Rays? Will he serve as trade bait for another team needing a catcher or would the Rays move a player like Molina to get Casali on the roster? The cliche is that those things are out of Casali’s control, but in reality, everything is firmly in his hands. If he continues to prove himself at the plate and behind it, the Rays will have to give him a chance. Rays fans will see Curt Casali on the big league roster come September, and we will soon find out whether he can be part of Rays catching corps as soon as next year.