Finding the Rays a good catching prospect


As a followup to my last post, Trying to make sense of the Rays’ catching situation, I’m going to try to find the Rays the upper-level catching prospect they most definitely need. For each player I mention, I’ll give a quick bio with stats and a scouting report before getting into possible trade scenarios. Is there a good catching prospect out there that the Rays could acquire in a reasonable trade?

I’ll start off with the no-brainer who I mentioned previously: unsigned minor league free agent Josh Ford. Ford will turn 29 in January, but he’s a very interesting case as a prospect, which I discussed here (scroll down to “Josh Ford, C (unsigned)”). The Rays wouldn’t have to give anything up to get him, and he could be a pretty good big league starting catcher, or at least as good as anybody the Rays have lined up right now. The Rays really should sign Ford.

Now let’s get to the true, conventional prospects.

Derek Norris (Nationals, Age 22)

Derek Norris is a player that has been linked to the Rays quite a bit lately as a potential piece in a B.J. Upton trade to the Nationals (which I personally discussed here). Norris, who will turn 23 in February, is the Nationals’ best catching prospect, but they appear to be set with Wilson Ramos at catcher for years to come. Norris will never be a good hitter for average, having hit just .210 at Double-A in 2011 after hitting .235 at High-A in 2010. The reason for that is that Norris is an extreme flyball hitter. He has shown nice power, leading to 17 doubles and 20 home runs in 2011, but flyballs generally have a much lower BAbip (batting average on balls in play) than groundballs, and Norris doesn’t hit too many line drive singles either. Nevertheless, he has the potential to be an above-average if not elite offensive catcher in the big leagues because of his power and another great asset- an outstanding eye at the plate. As expected from a power hitter, Norris strikes out a lot, although maybe a bit too much. He struck out 117 times, 27.5% of his plate appearances, in 2011 (league average 19.9%), but he also walked 77 times, 18.4% of his plate appearances (league average 8.4%), so despite his .210 batting average, he still posted a nice .367 OBP. Norris’ .210/.367/.446 line in 2011 was better than any line any of the Rays’ current catchers or catching prospects close to the big leagues could put up. In addition, Norris has some good speed and baserunning instincts for a catcher, having stolen 13 of 17 bases in 2011 and 38 of 58 for his career. Defensively, Norris allowed 15 passed balls in 2011, but he threw out 40% of attempted basestealers and is turning into a solid defensive catcher who also calls a good game. Norris certainly isn’t an elite defender, but he’s good enough to survive in the big leagues.

I discussed Norris and Upton trade scenarios at length in the post I linked to above, but let’s start from scratch here. We know that Upton has had his share of problems over the years, but his .243/.329/.429 line with 27 doubles, 23 homers, and 36 stolen bases was certainly well above league average. A good, not great prospect like Norris can’t be the only headliner in a trade for a player like Upton. Last time I talked about the Nationals’ top pitching prospect, A.J. Cole, possibly being a part of an Upton deal, but the Nationals understandably don’t want to give him up. After talking to Andrew Flax at FanSided’s Nationals blog District on Deck and Nathaniel Stoltz of FanSided’s prospects blog, Seedlings to Stars, I’ve decided to try another scenario headlined by Norris and another one of the Nationals’ top pitching prospects, lefty Robbie Ray. Ray isn’t the “stud” that Cole is (see there and scroll down to the post’s 5th picture), but as District on Deck detailed, he’s a pretty good prospect (who also has a good name for a Rays pitcher). Ray, who turned 20 in October, throws a low-to-mid 90’s fastball with some movement along with a nice changeup and a developing slider, and even though he is a flyball pitcher with average control, he does rack up strikeouts. Even Norris and Ray isn’t enough, so first you throw in Blake Kelso, a player who I have typified as a “vintage Rays prospect” (once again, I’ll direct you to that post), and then we have to find another good prospect. Maybe that prospect is centerfielder Michael Taylor, who will turn 21 in March. Taylor had a nice season at Low-A in 2011, posting a .253/.310/.432 line with 26 doubles, 7 triples, 13 homers, 68 RBI, and 23 stolen bases (but 12 CS). His big problems were a lack of walks (as evidenced by his low OBP), and 120 strikeouts, 24.6% of his plate appearances compared to the league average of 20.1%. His lack of stolen base success wasn’t a good sign either, but hopefully simply more experience will help him improve that. But Taylor has power and speed, and a converted shortstop, Taylor has nice defensive upside as well. If he can figure out how to make more contact and draw some more walks, he could be a good player. So that wraps up this trade proposal, although the Nationals would ask for a window to negotiate an extension with Upton, something he would presumably agree to because the Nationals are a young team that could be contenders for quite a while beginning pretty soon, and they’re his hometown team. So here’s my proposed trade:

Tampa Bay Rays trades CF B.J. Upton and INF Sean Rodriguez to the Washington Nationals in exchange for C Derek Norris, LHP Robbie Ray, 2B Blake Kelso, and CF Michael Taylor. B.J. Upton agrees to 5-year extension with Washington Nationals.

The plus of this trade are that the Nationals trade four players they don’t desperately need. They have Wilson Ramos as their catcher of the future and lots of pitching depth, and Kelso and Taylor both finished last season at Low-A, so they’re expendable as well. You would think that the Nationals would agree to this type of package. But you can’t be sure that the Rays would agree to a trade like this. Norris would be their catcher of the future, but the other three prospects could be hit-or-miss. I’m sure the Rays would rather do my previous trade where they acquired Norris, A.J. Cole, and Kelso. But accepting the trade certainly wouldn’t be like pulling teeth for the Rays. They’re still receiving nice upside, and it would be the kind of trade where if 3 of the 4 prospects pan out and Brandon Guyer steps up to be a nice outfielder for the Rays replacing Upton, the Rays would look back on the trade as a huge success. (Rodriguez is a throw-in to even the deal out a little bit. The Rays wouldn’t be too weary of parting with him.) I think that in the end, the Rays would keep trying to look for a better offer, but if it came down to doing this trade or holding on to Upton and letting him leave as a free agent following the season, they’ll do this trade.

Josh Phegley (White Sox, Age 23)

You’re probably more familiar with the White Sox’ more high-profile catching prospect, Tyler Flowers. While the Rays would love to receive Flowers in a trade, he’s not going anywhere. But maybe they would settle for the White Sox’ second-best upper levels catching prospect, Josh Phegley. Phegley was a prospect who was expected to move quickly through the minor leagues after being a supplemental first round pick in 2009, but that didn’t quite work out as Phegley has disappointed as a pro. But his tools are still there, and Phegley, who will turn 24 in February, is on the cusp of the big leagues.

Phegley had mixed results in 2011. His .242/.298/.368 line is not what you want to see, although he did hit 25 doubles, 2 triples, and 9 homers in 116 games, 94 at Double-A Birmingham, and 22 at Triple-A Charlotte. Defensively, Phegley made just 5 errors all season for a .994 Fld% and he threw out 43% of attempted basestealers, but he allowed 20 passed balls, considerably more than a good defensive catcher should allow. Phegley has a line drive swing with some power and he has a good arm, but his plate discipline and his overall defense at catcher have trailed behind. But something funny happened when Phegley was promoted from Double-A to Triple-A. Phegley posted a .242/.292/.368 line at Birmingham, but unlike most players, who lose plate discipline upon a promotion, Phegley actually improved his plate discipline substantially, posting a .241/.326/.367 line. He also didn’t make a single error defensively at Triple-A, kept up his 43% CS%, and lowered his passed ball rate slightly. It was a small sample size (22 games, 90 plate appearances), but it was enough to inspire hope that Phegley could get back to being the prospect he was supposed to be the moment he was drafted. Phegley still has the potential to be a good, if not great big league catcher, and he has higher upside than any of the Rays’ upper-level catching prospects. And a trade for Phegley would be a much more low-profile trade than a trade for a player like Norris (above)- unless it was just a small part of a 3-team deal. Let’s see what we can come up with.

The White Sox are a team in rebuilding mode, having already let Mark Buerhle go as a free agent and who are dangling John Danks and Gavin Floyd as trade bait. Considering catcher is a position they appear to be set it, you would think that if they were to trade Phegley, it would probably be for a pitcher, a position of need for them right now. Good thing the Rays have tons of upper-level pitching depth. Here’s two possible trade scenarios:

Tampa Bay Rays trade RHP Nick Barnese to the Chicago White Sox in exchange for C Josh Phegley

Tampa Bay Rays trade LHP Alex Torres to the Chicago White Sox in exchange for C Josh Phegley, RHP Matt Heidenreich, and 3B Juan Silverio.

Barnese is kind of in a similar situation to Phegley. He features a nice low-90’s fastball with outstanding movement, but he struggled in 2011 because his secondary pitches, a changeup and a slurve, never developed as the Rays had hoped. Barnese is coming off a bizarre season in which his BB/9 jumped from 1.9 in 2010 at High-A to 4.4 in 2011 at Double-A, but you have to hope that’s a fluke. A look at Barnese’s MLC page shows that hitters weren’t swinging at this pitches outside the zone (which would often be his secondary pitches), but you have to hope he’ll be able to get his walk rate back down to its usual level (his career BB/9 is 2.9). Maybe a change of scenery is what both players need, and Barnese provides nice upside for the White Sox as they rebuild if they can get his secondary pitches up to par.

Torres, a lefty starter, is the kind of player who would be a major league starter or at least challenging for a spot if he was on any team other than the Rays. As I talked about here, Torres is a player who finished 2011 in the big leagues and who has nasty stuff. His problem is poor control. Nevertheless, he has the ability to be a pretty good major league 4th starter right now, and if he can ever figure out how to throw more strikes, he could be a number two or very good third starter. The Rays don’t need him, but since the White Sox are traded every starter they can possibly trade, they need some pitchers to fill out their rotation right now and be part of their rebuilding process, and Torres could be a part of that. If the White Sox’ pitching coaches can somehow help Torres repeat his delivery, he could be a nice starter for them.

In addition to Phegley, the White Sox would throw in 20 year old right-hander Matt Heidenreich, who uses his high-80’s to low-90’s sinker to force quite a few groundballs. Heidenreich also throws a changeup and a slider, and in sharp contrast to the pitcher he would be traded for, he has very good control. In 2011 at Low-A, he posted a 4.32 ERA and a 3.80 FIP in 27 starts and a 154.1 IP, forcing a 50.8% GB%, but posting just a 5.9 K/9 and allowing a 0.8 HR/9. Heidenreich has some upside if he can continue to improve his changeup and get his slider up to par, but best-case scenario, he’s probably a 4th or 5th starter or a middle reliever.

The third component in the trade is third baseman Juan Silverio, who will turn 21 in April. Silverio completed a season between Low-A and High-A in which he posted a .285/.335/.453 line with 39 doubles, 9 triples, 9 homers, and 85 RBI. Silverio has some power potential and a good arm, but he has a multiplicity of problems. His bat speed has been ripped over and over again, and he posted just a 15.6% LD% between the two levels according to MLC. His plate discipline is lacking as well, and he has absolutely no speed. The lack of speed is also a reason why Silverio has struggled defensively. He made 39 errors at third base in 2011, posting just a .900 Fld%. Silverio has some upside as a prospect, but some serious issues as well.

Either of these trades would work because every player involved in both trades is expendable for both teams. The Rays could survive without Barnese or Torres, Phegley is blocked in Chicago, Heidenreich played last year at Low-A, and we don’t know what to make of Silverio. Phegley isn’t quite the catching prospect the Rays aspire for, but he could be an improvement over what they have now and it wouldn’t take too much to acquire him.

The Rays don’t have to go into 2012 without a sure answer at catcher. There are a couple players available in Norris and Phegley that the Rays could choose to acquire in a trade. Will they necessarily acquire one of these players? Certainly not. Giving up Upton is a pretty hefty cost, even if he is one year away from free agency, and Phegley still has several question marks. But it’s clear that do have the option to make a move, and we’ll have to see if they decide to do so.

Tomorrow we’ll take a look at catchers in the 2012 MLB Draft.