As an organization, the Tampa Bay franchise has never had an outstanding catcher. In the Devil Rays days, they got eleven years of serviceable work from John Flaherty and Toby Hall. The Rays got one All Star year in 2008 from Dioner Navarro before his waistline and attitude drove him out of town. More recently, they have depended on the defensive work of an aging Jose Molina. This is not surprising as good catchers are in short supply and expensive. Brian McCann, who will never be confused with Johnny Bench, signed a seven year $85 million contract with the New York Yankees last year.
With that in mind, when the Cincinnati Reds made Ryan Hanigan available last winter, it made sense that the Rays traded for the veteran catcher. It also seemed like the right move when they signed him to team friendly three-year contract extension for $10.75 million plus an 2017 option for $3.75 million. Hanigan had been an under-the-radar but efficient catcher for the Reds. His defense, pitch framing, and game management skills were outstanding and the Rays value all three. He was never a power hitter, but was a very good slap hitter. In his seven years with the Reds and posted a .262/.359/.345 slash line. He also walked more times than he struck out in each of those seasons. However, he also had a history of injuries and had played in over 100 games only once in his major league career.
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Fast forward to the 2014 season and things seem to be off to a good start. Hanigan was healthy and his defensive skills were as advertised. As a plus, he hit very well and at one time was leading the team in RBIs. Then the injuries started to set in and the season began to fall apart. By September he had made two trips to the disabled list and missed several games as he was “day to day” with Major League Baseball’s injury de jour, the oblique strain. All of this seemed to throw off his hitting and he finished the season with a .218/.318/.324 slash line in only 263 plate appearances. Once again, he appeared in less than 100 games.
All of this was made worse by the fact that the Rays had no adequate backup for Hanigan. Jose Molina, signed to a two year $4.5 million deal to be a once-a-week backup, was thrown into regular action and showed that his conditioning and defensive skills had regressed at age 39. Curt Casali was brought up from Durham and did a nice job defensively, but his offensive skills were not big league ready. Catching was once again a black hole for the Rays.
What should the Rays do for a catcher in 2015? The answer is clearly Ryan Hanigan. The Rays have him under contract for at least two more years and there is no surefire prospect on the immediate horizon. Somehow, the team has to find a way to keep Hanigan healthy and hope that his offensive woes over the last two years have been a result of injuries. To be fair, Hanigan’s slash line amounted to an 86 OPS+, markedly better than what the Rays received from Molina even before his latest decline and just below his career average of 90. In order for Hanigan’s offense to represent a true improvement, however, the Rays need to find a way to keep him on the field.
If the Rays are going to keep Hanigan healthy, they need to find a backup catcher that deserves to play more than once a week and can hit above the Mendoza Line. Given the struggles of Molina and Casali this season, that may be easier said than done. And, of course, while all this is going on, we need to keep an eye on Justin O’Connor in the Arizona Fall League. Could he finally give the Rays an answer to their longstanding need at catcher by the time Hanigan’s contract runs out? As always, when it comes to the Rays’ catching situation, there are a lot of questions and not many answers.