Could Eli Whiteside’s Next (and Final) Destination Be The Tampa Bay Rays?
By Robbie Knopf
Eli Whiteside has had himself one wild ride this offseason. He began with the San Francisco Giants, with whom he has spent the last five seasons, but then they placed him on waivers and he was claimed by the New York Yankees. Then the Yankees put him on waivers and he was claimed by the Toronto Blue Jays. But Whiteside still was not done moving around. The Blue Jays also exposed him to waivers, and this time the Texas Rangers claimed him. They avoided arbitration with him by signing him to a 1-year, $625,000 contract. And now, after the Rangers signed reliever Jason Frasor to a 1-year contract, they’re the next team to let him go, designating him for assignment. Once again, Whiteside is ripe for the taking, and he find himself with his fifth team this offseason after spending the previous 12 years with only three organizations. This time around, could the Rays be the team that claims Whiteside- and finally keeps him?
Whiteside, 33, has spent part of six seasons in the major leagues, amassing a .215/.273/.335 career line (67 OPS+) with 21 doubles, 10 homers, 43 RBI, and a 130-131 strikeout to walk ratio in 208 games and 537 plate appearances. He appeared in just 12 games for the Giants this past year, going just 1 for 11 (.091). In the minor leagues, Whiteside managed a .253/.310/.495 line with 18 home runs back in 2004, back when he was an interesting Double-A prospect for the Orioles, but his career MiLB line is just .243/.289/.386 in 2743 PA’s. Whiteside, a strong 6’2″, 220, has always shown flashes of power but has never been able to materialize it consistently other than that 2004 season thanks to a long swing and poor plate discipline. Defensively, though, Whiteside has always been highly-regarded, throwing out 31% of attempted basestealers in the major leagues and a similar 34% mark in the minors to go along with good defensive actions. He also has shown flashes of versatility, appearing in a game each at third base and left field in the minor leagues, something you know the Rays would try to make him more comfortable doing if they acquire him. But does it make any sense for the Rays to put a waiver claim on him and give him a 40-man roster spot.
The Rays currently have four true catchers on their 40-man roster: Jose Molina, Jose Lobaton, Chris Gimenez, and Robinson Chirinos. Molina is the Rays’ de facto starting catcher and the Rays’ are fine with that thanks to his unbelievable pitch-framing ability, but the others have never done much in the big leagues and are all 28 or older and no longer prospects. Molina, Lobaton, and Gimenez managed nearly identical offensive production in terms on OPS+ in 2012, managing marks of 80, 83, and 83 respectively, while Chirinos missed the entire season after a concussion in spring training. Behind Molina, each of the other three have their distinguishing characteristics. Lobaton has great plate discipline but threw out just 16% of attempted basestealers in 66 games this year. Gimenez is coming off a career year at Triple-A this year (.871 OPS, 10 home runs, 57-33 K-BB ratio in 301 plate appearances), played well after returning to the big leagues in the latter half of the season, and is also versatile, able to play all four corner positions in addition to catcher, but he’s average at best defensively and who knows whether he has really made any progress offensively. And then there’s Chirinos, who might have the most upside of anyone, showing flashes of being at least average offensively and above-average behind the plate, but he looked overmatched at Triple-A in 2011 (even though injuries brought him to the big leagues, where he also struggled), and obviously his concussion complicates matters. Basically, the Rays have four backup catchers on their 40-man roster (plus Stephen Vogt, who can’t really catch), unless someone can prove otherwise. Would Eli Whiteside give the Rays anything that their curent four catchers don’t?
Whiteside does have his advantages. His defense presence would be second on the Rays to only Molina, he has more raw power than any of the Rays’ current catchers, and although he’s a right-handed hitter, he could be a solid platoon mate with Molina considering he’s been better against righties than lefties in his big league career (.616 OPS versus .574) albeit in a pretty small sample. But is Whiteside good enough to warrant the Rays designating another catcher for assignment? There’s some chance that Whiteside wil hit- he did manage an 89 OPS+ in 141 plate appearances in 2010- but he most likely won’t, and he looks like another backup catcher type at best. Considering the Rays’ other catchers behind Molina are younger and a touch cheaper, the Rays’ best move is likely to decline claiming Whiteside. If the Rangers were to release him (something that seems unlikely given that every team could use an extra catcher at Triple-A), he might be a player the Rays could sign to a minor league contract, but he’s not the type of player the Rays should use up a 40-man roster spot on. Good like to Whiteside finding some stability, but it seems unlikely that Tampa Bay will be the place where that happens.