RCG Mailbag: Why Have the Tampa Bay Rays Lost So Many Valuable Catchers?


Even though the Tampa Bay Rays are continuing their unceasing quest to find a desirable catching situation, they just had a catcher selected from them in the Rule 5 Draft. How does that make any sense? The fact that the Rays let Oscar Hernandez be selected by the Arizona Diamondbacks befuddled reader Phattitudes, and we will address his question here in the latest edition of our Rays Colored Glasses Mailbag.

Phattitudes: I don’t get it. Supposedly the Rays minor league system ranked 25 out of 30. Minn, Bos, Hou, Pitt, and CHC reportedly had the best. Yet the first player taken is from the Rays. Do they not know how to create a 40 man roster to protect their assets? What is the deal. I am thinking they have too many players in their system that are long in the tooth in terms of years in the minors. This is frustrating. Especially when the Rays are searching for a catcher. Evidently Arizona thinks they found one in Rays system. The Rays have always been searching for a catcher yet they continue to supply catchers that seemingly produce for other teams. Navarro, Jaso, Gimenez, Vogt, Chirinos, and Lobaton have all been Rays property and have went on to be valued in other organizations. Now lets add Hernandez. Yet the Rays continue to search for a “catcher”. What is up?????

Phattitudes, let’s start out by saying that this recent Oscar Hernandez business has nothing to do with and of the other cases. For the other six catchers you mentioned, the Rays got rid of them because they believed they had better catching options available. That is decidedly untrue with Hernandez.

The Rays look at Hernandez and see a very good catching prospect and potentially their starting catcher someday, but they also see a player with a lot of work to do before he is big league-ready, especially at the plate. The Rays did not deem it worthwhile to protect a player on their 40-man roster with such a tiny chance of sticking on another team’s big league roster all year. The Rays would much rather lose Hernandez from now to spring training than potentially lose a pitcher like Grayson Garvin forever.

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A broader point to make about the Rule 5 Draft is that since all the true top prospects are protected, the differentiation between the unprotected players from a great farm system and such prospects from a mediocre one is much smaller. We saw three players get selected from the Houston Astros organization because they had too many prospects than they could protect. However, the difference between Delino DeShields Jr. (the best prospect they didn’t protect) and Oscar Hernandez (the best prospect the Rays didn’t protect) is much smaller than between Carlos Correa (their best prospect) and Willy Adames (the Rays’ top prospect).

Now we’re up to the more difficult part of your question, which is explaining why the Rays let the other six catchers go. At least, the first one you mentioned, Dioner Navarro, is quite easy to explain.

The Rays held onto Dioner Navarro as long as they possibly could have. The stuck with him despite underwhelming results over the last three months of 2006 and all of 2007. For their efforts, they were rewarded with Navarro’s All-Star season in 2008. However, Navarro came apart entirely after that, managing just a 54 OPS+ in 2009 and just a 49 mark as he lost his starting job to John Jaso in 2010.

Navarro was still very young–he didn’t turn 27 until February of 2011–but the Rays saw a player who hadn’t hit at all in two years and decidedly to non-tender him. Navarro then had another terrible season with the Los Angeles Dodgers that year and spent nearly all of 2012 at Triple-A before he finally reestablished his value with the Chicago Cubs in 2013. Essentially, Navarro went through a mini version of Scott Kazmir‘s inexplicable collapse. Just like we can’t blame the Rays for letting Kazmir go even though he is pitching well now, we can’t blame them for giving up on a player who needed three years to get back on track.

In regards to Jaso, trading him for Josh Lueke turned out to be a disaster. I’m not going to dispute that. The reason they traded him, though, was because they saw a player who had trade value despite being just a decent hitter, a poor defender, and an injury-prone player. Clearly the Rays underestimated Jaso’s bat, but the injuries and the subpar defense have certainly held true.

The Rays thought they could trade Jaso for a player who could fill a need elsewhere and find a couple of cheap catchers who could easily replace his production. They ended up getting Jose Molina and Chris Gimenez to join Jose Lobaton, and those three did a decent enough job in 2012 and 2013 while Jaso proved to be a great hitter but not one who could play catcher regularly.

No one would have rather had Jaso over Pena or Scott entering 2012. (Credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports)

Jaso was never going to be the Rays’ starting catcher, so with the benefit of hindsight, they would have had him be a regular first baseman/DH (and an occasional catcher) against right-handed pitching in 2012 and 2013. At the time, though, was there anyone that would have rather had Jaso instead of Carlos Pena or Luke Scott? We would have thought the Rays were nuts if they did that! The Rays have no regrets about trading John Jaso the catcher, and it made little sense for them to keep John Jaso the hitter given their alternatives. It’s just unfortunate that they didn’t realize just how good John Jaso the hitter was.

In regards to Robinson Chirinos and Stephen Vogt, the Rays lost them both at the end of spring training in 2013 because of a roster crunch. In the case of Chirinos, there is nothing they could have done. Chirinos wasn’t young–he turned 29 in June of that year–and he had just missed all of 2012 from a concussion. Moreover, he was an extra player as the fourth catcher on their depth chart. How could they have possibly kept him when they needed a roster spot?

The Rays knew that Chirinos had talent, but the risk involved with him was extremely high and they knew that he was unlikely to become a starting catcher even in his best-case scenario. Maybe Chirinos is defying the odds right now, but let’s see him hit for more than one season for the Texas Rangers before we say that the Rays were completely off the mark.

For Vogt, on the other hand, the irony is that the Rays lost him because they had recognized his talent too early. Vogt wasn’t on the Rays’ 40-man roster before they decided they needed an extra bat and put him on their 25-man roster to begin 2012. Of course, he wasn’t ready as he had logged just 131 Triple-A plate appearances and wasn’t considered more than a fill-in catcher defensively, and calling him up nevertheless expedited his timetable unnecessarily.

There were multiple obstacles in the Rays’ way in regards to Stephen Vogt. The first was that, like Chirinos, there were several catchers ahead of him on the depth chart. In addition, he didn’t exactly dominate opposing pitchers at Triple-A in 2012, so the Rays could not have justified giving him a starting first base or DH job (like Jaso). Finally, he was one of the lowest-upside players on their 40-man roster, so it made little sense to keep him unless he was a big league factor for them, which he was not. It was just poor timing for the Rays that Vogt wasn’t ready when they gave him a chance and didn’t break out until after they needed his roster spot.

This response is getting way too long, so I’ll be brief on Gimenez and Lobaton. Getting rid of Gimenez was nothing for the Rays to be ashamed of because he didn’t even have enough value to get a major league deal this offseason. He was a good third catcher, but it made no sense to keep him once he was out of options.

For Lobaton, meanwhile, the Rays sold high on him and received Nate Karns in a trade for their efforts, and it’s also worth noting that he didn’t hit at all this year (64 OPS+). Keeping him instead of Molina would have saved the Rays a few million dollars, but Karns should provide value to make up the difference.

The overarching reason why the Tampa Bay Rays have lost all these catchers is that they all had their flaws and the Rays had to move on from each of them as they pursued a more permanent catcher solution. While the Rays deserve some blame–specifically in the case of Jaso–the fact that several of them have found their niches since leaving the Rays is mostly due to factors out of the team’s control.