Breaking Down the Minor League Free Agent Catcher Market: Part 1, The Prospects
By Robbie Knopf
The Rays’ catching situation is far from ideal right now. And short of a shocking big-name free agent signing, there’s no help on the way. The Rays have several catching prospects who have shown promise, including Luke Bailey, Oscar Hernandez, and Justin O’Conner, but all of them are lightyears from the major leagues and can’t be counted on for anything over the next two or three years, let alone this year. What will the Rays do as they try to fill their void at catcher? The Rays could trade a starting, but after trading James Shields it seems very doubtful that the Rays have another major trade coming, and even if the trade that sent Shields to the Royals fell through, you almost never see teams trade promising catching prospects who are anywhere near the big leagues. So instead, the Rays are likely going to have to get creative and find undervalued players with potential hoping that someone can pan out and turn into a serviceable starting catcher in the big leagues.Who could those players be? Let’s go through this year’s minor league free agent catching market looking for players with the ability to be that type of player.
J.R. Towles– Towles, who will turn 28 in February, was once one of the top prospects in all of baseball. Towles was drafted by the Astros in the 20th round of the 2004 MLB Draft but began arousing intrigue in his first three minor league seasons even as he was injury-riddled playing just 165 games total over the three years. But in 2007, Towles had a dream of a season. He began the season hitting just .200 at High-A but a suspension necessitated him to be called up to Double-A and suddenly he started hitting out of mind, posting a .324/.425/.551 line with 12 doubles, 11 homers, 49 RBI, 35 strikeouts against 23 walks, and even 9 of 13 stolen bases in 61 games and 257 plate appearances. He hit .279 in 13 Triple-A games before finishing the season hitting .375 in 14 MLB games. But since then, Towles has flopped in the big leagues with injuries being a big part of that again. In 155 big leagues games and 484 plate appearances from 2007 to 2011, Towles has a .187/.267/.315 line with 22 doubles, 11 homers, 50 RBI, and 95 strikeouts versus 37 walks. He has, however, fared much better at Triple-A, posting a .267/.361/.409 line with 38 doubles, 15 homers, 73 RBI, and 112 strikeouts versus 69 walks in 205 games and 745 plate appearances, although he hit just .211 in 52 Triple-A games in the Twins organization in 2012 after signing there as a minor league free agent, missing most of the season with yet another injury. But after all this, Towles is still relatively young and has talent if he can stay healthy.
Towles shows good bat speed and plate discipline with gap power, and defensively he has made major strides over the years and is a solid receiver with a solid arm. Best-case scenario, Towles has the ability to be a catcher who could hit .270 with 10 homers and solid defense, and the chances he gets there aren’t very high. But the Rays would be thrilled with that type of production and on a no-risk deal, he could be exactly the type of player they decide to target. Towles deserves another chance and the Rays could very well be the team that gives it to him.
Lucas May– May, who just turned 28, was once a good prospect for the Dodgers but has seen his career begin to get away with him after a few key areas of his games have never progressed as hoped. May, an 8th round pick by the Dodgers back in 2003, slammed 25 homers as a 22 year old High-A in 2007 and three years later he began the season at Double-A for the Dodgers and finished the season in the big leagues for the Royals after getting traded for Scott Podsednik. On the year, he posted a .283/.349/.483 line in 417 plate appearances between Double-A and Triple-A with 21 doubles, 16 homers, 59 RBI, and 86 strikeouts versus 36 walks, but he hit just .189 in 39 big league plate appearances, striking out 10 times versus not a single walk as his lack of plate discipline was exposed. May has since spent time in the Royals, Diamondbacks, and Mets organizations, suffering through a terrible 2012 at the Mets’ Triple-A affiliate, managing just a .215/.245/.348 line with 74 strikeouts against 10 walks in 269 plate appearances. May’s tools are still every bit as impressive as they once were but the rest of his game has never come together.
May stands out most for above-average bat speed and great raw power, especially for a catcher, and he also surprisingly has slightly above-average overall speed and could be the rare catcher that steals 10 bases a year. Defensively as a catcher, May has a strong arm, good athleticism, solid actions, and has a quick release on stolen base attempts. However, poor plate discipline and pitch recognition holds May up at the plate and struggles with his receiving hold him up behind it. Even at age 28, May still needs work to become a big league caliber player. But the potential is stil there with further development, and the Rays would have nothing to lose giving May a chance to catch some games for them at Triple-A and seeing if he can ever improve enough to be a major league option.
This is where we’ll stop for today. It has already become clear that the remaining catching options on the minor league free agent market aren’t the most exciting group of players- if any of them were, their teams would not have let them go. However, J.R. Towles and Lucas May are two players available with the ability to be average or better major league catchers if they can make necessary improvements to their game- Towles needs to stay on the field and simply relax while May has to work on his plate discipline and receiving. While the chances of either of them reaching that level are not very high, signing them would require no financial commitment and maybe you get lucky and they do put it all together. The Rays love making low-risk moves with the potential for upside. Signing Towles or May would be exactly that.