As a major league team, your goal has to be to get your best players on the field on a daily basis. There are certain exceptions to that, with the most notable one being with top prospects, a case where you keep players in the minor leagues a month or two longer in order to keep them under team control for an additional year and/or save money by preventing them from being Super Two eligible and going through arbitration four times instead of the usual three. Another example took place last season, when the Rays sent down Sean Rodriguez to the minor leagues in August even though he was playing decently because there was no point of them being forced to designate Elliot Johnson for assignment just to keep Rodriguez in the majors for two more weeks. But regarding the Rays’ backup catcher competition between Chris Gimenez and Jose Lobaton, things are exponentially crazier, and at this point we’re stretching the logic of the other cases to the point where it may no longer make sense.
Who has played better for the Rays this spring, Gimenez or Lobaton? It has been Gimenez so resoundingly that the question might as well be rhetorical. Gimenez has gone 11 for 26 (.423) with 2 doubles, a homer, 3 RBI, and a 2-1 strikeout to walk ratio. Lobaton has gone just 4 for 18 (.222) with no extra-base hits no RBIs, and a 2-2 strikeout to walk ratio. Spring training numbers don’t mean very much, and seeing a 20-plate appearance sample size doesn’t mean we can conclude very much. The spring training numbers certainly tell us that Gimenez is a better player than Jose Lobaton- but we have other ways of doing just that. Both in 2012 and for their careers, Gimenez and Lobaton have managed remarkably similar OPS+ marks, with Gimenez managing an 83 mark in 2012 and 63 overall while Lobaton was also at 83 overall while managing a 65 for his career. What distinguishes Lobaton from Gimenez is that he’s a switch-hitter and he’s two years younger than Gimenez at 28 years old compared to 30. He also showed much better plate discipline than Gimenez at least in 2012, managing a 46-24 strikeout to walk ratio compared to Gimenez’s 24-8 mark. But beyond that, every advantage goes to Gimenez. His minor league numbers are significantly better as he has managed a .273/.378/.463 career line compared to Lobaton’s .256/.346/.414 mark. He managed an OPS over .800 six times in his minor league career, Lobaton just one. At Triple-A, the gap gets smaller but Gimenez is still noticeably better, managing a .278/.357/.436 line compared to .262/.346/.408 even in 962 plate appearances compared to 658. Lobaton did throw out a few more attempted basestealers and allow passed balls at a slightly lower rate in the minor leagues, but in addition to catching, Gimenez can also play the corner infield and outfield positions, a versatility that you know the Rays will make the most of. But Gimenez’s advantages over Lobaton aren’t so stark that the Rays should keep Gimenez and designate Lobaton for assignment when they could instead give Lobaton the starting catcher job to begin the season and keep Gimenez in the organization at Triple-A.But that’s disregarding the progress made this past year.
Gimenez served as the Rays’ backup catcher from mid-April until late-May but it did not go very well as he hit just .191 in 24 games and 73 plate appearances before Lobaton came off the DL. Gimenez was then sent down to Triple-A, which had to be a disheartening experience. However, after arriving in Durham, Gimenez immediately set out to recreate himself at the plate. As he told Bill Chastain of the Rays’ official site, Gimenez worked incessantly with Bulls hitting coach Dave Myers to find himself in the batter’s box after years of struggles, and the results were pretty incredible. Gimenez described his new approach like this:
"“I just kind of keep my bat on my shoulder, lifting up and out,” said Gimenez while offering a demonstration. “I’m basically on my tippy toes, which keeps me on the inside of my legs and I don’t fly open as much. And all I’m trying to do is hit the ball up the middle or the other way."
It was a simple change, a Gimenez freely admitted, but combining his adjustment with the fact he was playing regularly for the first time since 2008 led to a breakout season. In 71 games and 301 plate appearances for Durham, Gimenez managed a .310/.389/.483 line with 15 doubles, 10 homers, 49 RBI, and a 57-33 strikeout to walk ratio. Then he returned to the majors in September and stayed red-hot, going 13 for 32 (.406) in 18 games. Obviously Chris Gimenez is exceedingly far from a .400 hitter, and even expecting him to hit anything like his Triple-A numbers would be misguided. However, he has turned a corner at the plate and hasn’t stopped hitting since, and he provides the Rays with an opportunity for solid offense from the catcher position that they don’t get with Lobaton. Lobaton is what he is, a halfway-decent offensive and defensive catcher who will be serviceable but won’t wow you in any way. Gimenez has the pure hitting ability and power to actually do a little damage at the plate and make a Rays lineup that needs every contribution that it can get a little bit better. How could the Rays possibly not give him the job?
The issue here isn’t just whether the Rays think that Chris Gimenez will be better than Jose Lobaton in 2013. They have to prepare for every worst-case scenario, with either of them candidates to completely fall apart next season, and keeping both of them makes the most sense with that in mind- and that can only happen if Lobaton wins the backup catcher job over Gimenez because otherwise Lobaton would have to be designated for assignment and could very well be claimed. Chris Gimenez isn’t simply competing against Jose Lobaton this spring, he’s competing against both Lobaton and the Rays’ perception of the risk he carries. If Chris Gimenez is going to make the Rays’ Opening Day roster, he’s going to have to do everything in his power to convince them that he won’t flame out once the season starts and give them good enough production all season. If anything, Gimenez’s best bet to make the Rays doesn’t revolve around his performance but that of Robinson Chirinos, the Rays’ 4th catcher (behind Jose Molina, Gimenez, and Lobaton). Chirinos is coming off a lost year because of a concussion, but if he can get back on track, the Rays will have the depth they need behind Gimenez to give him their starting catcher job assuming he continues to prove that he’s deserving. For what it’s worth, Chirinos is 2 for 8 so far this spring, although he has drawn 3 walks while not striking out a single time.
It’s crazy that Chris Gimenez having a minor league option and Jose Lobaton being without one stacked the odds in favor of Lobaton winning the Rays’ backup catcher job entering the spring. However, the option guarantees nothing and it’s only another obstacle for Gimenez to overcome. If Gimenez continues playing just as well as he has and builds the Rays’ confidence in him, there’s no way the Rays will keep him off their Opening Day roster. The Rays have seen firsthand on quite a few occasions how players they have counted on have suddenly fallen apart and understand that always need to have the depth to overcome that when it happens. As bizarre as it may seem, the Rays’ motivation behind tilting the backup catcher competition in Lobaton’s favor is entirely sound. At the time, though, the Rays are going to do everything they can to win games, and if Gimenez continues to impress while Lobaton stays decent but unimpressive, the Rays will give Gimenez every opportunity to make the team.