Breaking Down The Minor League Free Agent Catcher Market: Part 2, Backups Who Could Be More
By Robbie Knopf
The Rays’ starting catcher is Jose Molina. As recently as two years ago, your friend would have laughed at you if you said that Jose Molina would ever be a starting catcher for a contending major league team for one year, let alone two as is about to be the case. Molina will not be a full-time catcher for the Rays with several other players in the mix for starts, but all of them profile as backups. The Rays don’t have a true starting catcher on their roster and there’s no help coming in the near future from the minor leagues. And now with James Shields and Wade Davis dealt, the Rays’ best trade chips are gone and the chances of a deal for a catcher near the big leagues with any promise seem negligible. A significant free agent signing seems almost equally as unlikely. In an attempt to improve their catching situation, the Rays are going to have to get creative. One way of doing that is through the minor league free agent market. Yesterday we discussed catchers who are essentially still prospects, possessing the upside to be above-average MLB catchers but requiring considerable improvement to get there. Today we’ll discuss a different route, players who had been backup catchers previously with the potential to possibly profile as starters.
Landon Powell– You may remember Powell as a backup catcher for the Oakland Athletics from 2009 to 2011 and think of him as another generic backup, but for a while Powell was an interesting prospect and he may deserve an extended look. Powell, who will turn 31 in March, was the Athletics’ first round pick in 2004 and saw his prospect star shine brightest in 2007 when he posted a .292/.385/.525 line with 9 doubles, 14 homers, 42 RBI, and a 44-36 strikeout to walk ratio in 64 games, 60 at Double-A and 4 at Triple-A, and 273 total plate appearances. Defensively, he posted a great 54% CS% and just two passed balls. The issue: he missed the second half of the season after tearing the ACL in his left knee, requiring season-ending surgery in early July. Powell slipped to a .230/.360/.417 line in 2008, dealing with more knee issues, but he was in the major leagues the next season as Kurt Suzuki‘s backup catcher and played relatively well, posting a .229/.297/.429 line (90 OPS+) with 7 doubles, 7 homers, 30 RBI, and 36 strikeouts against 14 walks in 155 plate appearances, managing a 50% CS% and just 2 passed balls in 36 games behind the plate. However, Powell’s production completely fell off in 2010 and 2011 as he slipped to just a .196/.276/.265 line in 251 plate appearances, even while he posted a 36% CS% and allowed just 1 passed ball, and Powell wound up signing a minor league contract with the Astros for 2012. Powell was just mediocre at the Astros’ Triple-A Oklahoma City affiliate, posting a .251/.353/.377 line with 6 doubles, 8 homers, 38 RBI, and a 56-36 strikeout to walk ratio in 279 plate appearances.
Switch-hitting catchers with power are a very rare commodity. For a while, Powell looked like he could be one of the few. Powell’s 6’3″, 255 frame has to remind you of Jose Molina, and he’s a good defensive catcher if not on Molina’s level as he moves well behind the plate with a quick release and strong arm. Because of his knee injuries, though, Powell hasn’t played in 100 games in a season since 2006 and has caught 80 or more games just twice. But the Rays don’t really need a full-time catcher- they just need someone who hits. Can Powell do that? Powell is a player who has shown excellent plate discipline in the minor leagues, never striking out double the amount of times he has walked and only coming close way back in 2006. In the major leagues, however, Powell’s plate discipline has been just average as he has struck out 90 times against 47 walks in 406 plate appearances. The knee-jerk reaction to that has to be that Powell has simply been overpowered by big league pitchers despite his good batting eye. But an alternative solution could be that he has never gotten regular at-bats in the major leagues and he just needs a chance. It’s also no coincidence that his ISO is .165 in the minors compared to just .121 in the majors as a big part of power for players who don’t have big-time raw power is patience and finding pitches to drive. Even if Powell is not exactly a star waiting to break out of his shell, he has been much better against right-handed pitching than lefties in his big league career, managing a .640 OPS compared to .534 (both underwhelming, but you have to think he could up both of those with more playing time), and Powell’s minor league numbers confirm that he is a better hitter from the left side against right-handed pitching. That’s especially important because Jose Molina is a right-handed hitter who is much better against lefties. Powell isn’t going to suddenly become a starting catcher at age 31, but he has a chance to be a similar player to Jose Lobaton with better defense and better power, and that would be quite an improvement. Robinson Chirinos and Chris Gimenez, the other catchers in the mix for playing time for the Rays in 2012, are both right-handed hitters so Powell could have an edge over them as well. Powell may truly be nothing special, but the ability he has shown in the past and his minor league numbers show reason to suspect that he could be an interesting platoon piece for the Rays. The Rays signing another backup catcher seems crazy (and they would have to do an excellent job selling Powell to enter a competition for playing time behind Molina that already features three others), but Powell could be a very interesting fit on a low-risk minor league contract.
Mike Rivera– Giving Powell a shot wouldn’t be the craziest thing the Rays have ever did. Giving Mike Rivera one just might be. Rivera, who turned 36 in September, has played a grand total of 189 major league games in a 16-year professional career. Rivera had a big season back in 2001 at age 24, managing a .289/.368/.578 line with 33 homers and 101 RBI in 112 Double-A plate appearances and 473 plate appearances before going 4 for 12 with 2 doubles when he made his big league debut that September. Rivera started 2002 on the big league roster before getting sent down in May after his line stood at just .225/.255/.337 after 94 plate appearances. Rivera a managed a .249/.341/.525 line with 20 home runs in 305 plate appearances at Triple-A that year, but his career as a prospect was over. Rivera was traded by the Tigers after the season and has since seen time in 8 organizations plus Independent ball. The bulk of Rivera’s big league time came as a backup catcher with the Brewers in 2006 and 2009. In 397 plate appearances since 2006, Rivera has been solid, managing a .251/.327/.405 line (90 OPS+) with 21 doubles, 11 homers, 55 RBI, and 70 strikeouts against 34 walks in 127 games. Defensively, Rivera has a 25% CS%, a bit below average, and has 17 career passed balls in 172 games at catcher- but 10 of those 17 came in 2002 alone and passed balls haven’t been much of a problem for him any other year. The most interesting thing for Rivera has been that he is a right-handed hitter with a reverse split- he has a .687 career OPS and 12 of 13 career home runs in 465 plate appearances against righties compared to a .631 OPS in 140 PA’s against lefties. For Rivera’s minor league career, his advantage versus righties isn’t quite as apparent but still exists.
Rivera is 36 years old now and he’s best years are behind him. But he has proven himself to be at least an average defensive catcher and the power potential that made him an interesting prospect at one point is still there. Even as a right-handed hitter, he could conceivably be a platoon partner with Jose Molina, getting starts against some right-handers. The chances of the Rays or any other major league team actually giving him a chance is very small, but Rivera could be a player the Rays sign for additional catching depth, and should he get a big league opportunity, he could surprise.
In Part 1 of this series, we saw minor league free agents with the potential to be above-average MLB catchers but also plenty of risk involved. Powell and Rivera would be less risky as players with extended time in the big leagues as backup catchers, and they still have a chance to provide solid hitting in platoon roles if they were to receive an opportunity. The Rays will look to many avenues in their search for offense from the catcher position, and you never know where they could find a player who could contribute to their 2013 effort. Maybe we could see a little-known former backup stepping up for them next season.