The Tampa Bay Rays have certainly not given up on winning in 2015. However, this coming season will mark the least confident that Rays fans have been about their team’s chances in a long time, making the current status of the Rays’ minor league system even more important.
Especially if further changes are coming this offseason, do the Rays have the prospects to get their team back on track before long? Over the next couple of weeks, we will go position-by-position in the Rays organization in an attempt to answer that question. We will start today at catcher.
Major League Roster
Acquired in the Wil Myers trade, Rene Rivera still needs to prove that he can be a real starting option moving forward. The good news is that he is coming off a breakout year with the San Diego Padres, is a strong defender, and has a better history of durability than Ryan Hanigan. On the other hand, 2014 marked the first time he had hit in an extended sample size in the major leagues, and the Rays need to hope that he has truly turned a corner.
The current favorite to back up Rivera is minor league signee Bobby Wilson. Wilson isn’t a real candidate to be a tandem catcher with Rivera–Rivera is set to be the starter–but he is a good defender and pitch-framer who also has good MLB numbers against lefty pitching. Wilson is a decent enough option to keep the backup catcher job warm until one of the Triple-A backstops is ready to replace him.
Assessment: The Rays will look quite smart if Rivera turns into a real commodity, but while he does possess real upside, there is a lot of risk involved with him. At least the presence of Curt Casali and Luke Maile (more on them in a second) provides the Rays with more security.
Triple-A Durham Bulls
Curt Casali was unbelievable in 241 plate appearances Double-A Montgomery the last two years, but his results since then have been less impressive. Casali fell back to earth in 183 plate appearances at Triple-A Durham, managing just a .694 OPS, and was overmatched (.477 OPS) in his 84 PA’s with the Rays.
Casali still has a chance to be at least a useful tandem catcher, but he clearly needs to return to Durham if he is going to get there. He does not have a great arm behind the plate, so his ability to receive regular big league time will be based around his bat. Heading back to Triple-A is the best way for Casali to continue improving at the plate.
Joining Casali in an interesting catching tandem is Luke Maile. Maile, more than two years younger than Casali, held his own in 2014 despite jumping straight from Low-A to Double-A, and it will be interesting to see how Durham treats him. He has surprised many people defensively since he has been drafted, and if can continue to progress on both sides of the ball, he has the upside of a starting catcher.
Assessment: The Rays almost never have this much Triple-A catching depth, and unlike when they had Chris Gimenez as their third catcher, the Rays can look at Casali and Maile and see potential long-term solutions at the position.
Double-A Montgomery Biscuits
Justin O’Conner had been a major disappointment since the Rays had selected him in the first round of the 2010 MLB Draft, but everything changed this season. O’Conner broke through to the tune of a .278/.316/.466 line between High-A and Double-A, and combining his bat with his tremendous defense makes him the Rays’ catcher of the future.
The main issue that O’Conner will need to address to reach his potential is his plate discipline. He struck out more than six times for each of his walks in 2014, a rate even worse than his career average. O’Conner does not have to hit too much to be a starting catcher given his defense, but his first full season at Double-A will be a major test for him nonetheless.
Pairing with O’Conner will be Maxx Tissenbaum, who had a solid 2014 at High-A and has been spectacular in the Australian Baseball League this offseason. Tissenbaum continues to make strides defensively to go along with a decent bat, and he also has experience at all four infield positions in addition to catcher.
Tissenbaum will see time all over the place if he spends 2015 in Montgomery, and if he continues to hit, he could be a fascinating super-utility player. The Rays could elect to send him to High-A to get more time at catcher, but given the depth the Rays have in their system, the Biscuits will likely be his team.
Assessment: O’Conner is the most exciting Rays catching prospect in far too long and will be fascinating to watch. Having Tissenbaum to join him in Montgomery is icing on the cake.
High-A Charlotte and Below
After Double-A, things get more crazy for the Rays’ catching prospects. The Rays will have to wait and see whether Oscar Hernandez gets returned to their system by the Arizona Diamondbacks, and while that remains the likely outcome, plenty will be up in the air until then.
Armando Araiza, an outstanding defensive catcher who needs major work at the plate, will likely be the catcher with the High-A Charlotte Stone Crabs. Joining him will either be Hernandez or organizational players like Luke Bailey and Jake DePew.
Low-A Bowling Green, meanwhile, will likely be where Mac James appears in his first full professional season. The Rays’ 6th round pick in 2014, James possesses some upside on both sides of the ball and will be given the chance the prove that he can be another catching prospect in this system.
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Finally, at Short Season ball, 2013 first rounder Nick Ciuffo will look to finally hit his stride at Short Season-A Hudson Valley while David Rodriguez will take his talents to the Princeton Rays. Ciuffo has been a disappointment thus far as a professional, but it is not out of the question that he could impress in extended spring training and make his way to Bowling Green in late April or early May. The catching picture for the GCL Rays is less clear, but Rafelin Lorenzo in one name to watch out for.
Assessment: There is talent here, but also plenty of uncertainty. It will be interesting to see who will establish himself as a real prospect and who will put his career in further question.
Catcher has been a position of weakness for the Tampa Bay Rays basically forever, but O’Conner, Maile, and Casali are leading the way as that may finally be changing. In 2015, the focus will be on whether Rivera can be a starting catcher and whether O’Conner and the other prospects can continue to progress.