The Jose Molina era for the Tampa Bay Rays is officially over. After three years of excellent pitch-framing and little of everything else, the Rays have released Molina and now will look to replace him. The most interesting possibilities with whom they can do so are trade targets like Evan Gattis and Yasmani Grandal, but it would require a significant return to acquire either one and the Rays will look elsewhere as well. While a trade may wind up being the Rays’ best option, let’s take a look at the free agent catchers available and see whether the Rays can find a good tandem partner for Ryan Hanigan.
Before we start, there are a few things we should make clear about the Rays’ backup catcher search. The first is that the Rays are not simply acquiring a backup catcher–the player they are acquiring could realistically receive 80 starts this coming year. Hanigan is a good player, but he lacks the durability to be a true starter, so his backup will be critical to the Rays’ success as well.
The Rays cannot just be making a depth move–they need a player better than Curt Casali, and previous starting experience would certainly be a plus. They need someone that can be a halfway-decent hitter and hold his own defensively as well. Matt Silverman is looking for a veteran, and he wants as good of one as he can get.
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Given that the catcher the Rays sign or trade for will be pairing with Hanigan, it will be ideal (although certainly not a requirement) that he is better against right-handed pitching. Finally, we have one miscellaneous thing that we must mention: the Rays love strong pitch-framers. The Rays won’t be looking for another Molina–they need someone that can hit–but a catcher with a good pitch-framing history would certainly appeal to them. In any event, let’s get to the actual free agent catchers and evaluate them based on these criteria.
John Baker, Brett Hayes, Gerald Laird: None of these guys really hit. With that in mind, the best offer the Rays would give any of them would be a minor league deal and the opportunity to compete with Casali for the backup catcher job in spring training. Maybe that is the route they end up taking, but they are certainly hoping for something better.
Ryan Doumit: Doumit was Evan Gattis before Evan Gattis, and he was a decent hitter as recently as 2013. He is a terrible defender, but he has the best offensive track record of anyone we’ll talk about and his hitting can make up for his defense if he plays the way he is capable. If the Rays could get Doumit on a one-year deal worth under $1 million, that might be worthwhile.
Nick Hundley: Hundley isn’t a great defender, but he has been at least a halfway-decent hitter four of the last five years. He also happens to be a right-handed hitter who hits same-side pitchers better. Hundley could make sense on a cheap major league deal, and the Rays would love to get him on a minor league pact.
Wil Nieves: Nieves’ first advantage is that he would join Wil Myers as a second “Wil with one L” on the Rays’ roster. Beyond that, he has a leg up on Baker, Hayes, and Laird because he has hit a little better. However, he didn’t play as well in 2014 and his strikeout to walk ratios were atrocious even when he was performing at the plate. The Rays would certainly offer him a minor league deal, but that’s all.
Jordan Pacheco: Pacheco hasn’t really hit since his rookie year in 2012, but he has great versatility and a good track record against left-handed pitching. As we have discussed in our Winter Leagues recaps, he also taught Matt Moore his breaking ball. Pacheco is an excellent fit on a minor league deal, although the Rays ideally would like to sign another one of these guys in addition to him.
A.J. Pierzynski: He had been a solid hitter and a poor defender for years before struggling in 2014, and the Rays could be interested in him. We know how bad Pierzynski’s reputation is, but the Rays are great at getting the most out of such players and that should not be an obstacle. The Rays would likely prefer Doumit or Hundley because they are years younger than Pierzynski, but the Rays would have to consider offering him another one of these one-year, $800,000 type of deals.
David Ross: Ross has been attracting interest as a strong veteran catcher (and pitch-framer) who can hit a little bit, but that doesn’t seem to be the type of player the Rays are looking for right now. They would love to have him cheaply, but given the amount of potential suitors he has, that doesn’t appear to be a possibility.
Geovany Soto: The former Rookie of the Year is a solid on both sides of the ball and even hit righties better than lefties in his strong 2013. A reason for pause, though, is that he has hit the DL in five of the last six years, missing nearly all of 2014 with knee surgery, a groin strain, and back spasms. Those are major red flags. Even so, if the Rays could sign him for a little over a million and have a guy like Pacheco join Casali as depth, maybe a Soto signing could make sense.
Doumit, Hundley, Pierzynski, and Soto also represent options with some upside for the Rays on the free agent market. They could conceivably get by simply signing one or two of these free agents if the asking price for players like Gattis or Grandal is too high, especially since Luke Maile could give them yet another catching option before the end of the season. While a big trade would make more headlines, it is far from crazy to think that the Rays will head to the free agent market to find a replacement for Jose Molina.