The catching position has been a black hole for the Tampa Bay Rays since the beginning of their franchise. When your best catchers have been John Flaherty and Toby Hall from the Devil Rays days, one would think that things can only get better. Unfortunately, that has not been the case.
The Rays started the 2015 season with Rene Rivera and Bobby Wilson as their catchers. Rivera was obtained from San Diego as part of the Wil Myers/Steven Souza Jr. trade. He was a terrific defensive catcher who was also coming off a breakthrough year at the plate as he hit to a .252/.319/.432 slash line with 11 home runs and 44 RBI in 329 plate appearances. Wilson, meanwhile, barely qualified as a journeyman major leaguer, having played in only two major league games since 2012. He too was known as a good defensive catcher.
It didn’t take long for this duo to disappoint. Both were having trouble even putting the ball in play and even at midseason, they were hitting well below the Mendoza line. Desperate for offense, the Rays called up Curt Casali and cut Wilson. Casali, thought to be nothing more than a backup, got off to a good start and delivered some real power. He pulled off the incredible feat of delivering consecutive two-homer games. He had replaced Rivera as the Rays’ starting catcher when he pulled a hamstring running out a home run.
Casali went on the DL and the Rays called up J.P. Arencibia from Durham to replace him. Arencibia wasn’t much of a catcher and Durham had been using him as a 1B/DH most of the season. However, his power bat caught fire with the Rays and he finished the year starting most of their games. He and Casali ended up 2015 season with 16 home runs and 35 RBI in 186 plate appearances. Meanwhile, Rivera ended the season with a .178/.213/.275 slash line with 5 home runs, 26 RBI, and 86 strikeouts in 319 plate appearances.
Where does that leave the Rays for next season? Rivera, Casali and Arencibia are all under team control with Rivera and Arencibia up for arbitration. Rivera is projected to make $1.6 million while Arencibia is at $1.4 million, and it seems hard to believe that the Rays will tender contracts to both. Whoever is kept will fight it out with Casali for the starting job but likely end up backing him up.
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Also on the 40-man roster are Luke Maile and Justin O’Conner. Maile, if he keeps his roster spot, looks to be Durham’s starting catcher at best while O’Conner took a step back offensively at Double-A. His upside remains tremendous, but we have to wonder whether he will ever have the plate discipline to be more than a defense-first backup catcher. He leads a crop of Rays catching prospects that have not exactly stood out for their bats, a group that also includes former first rounder Nick Ciuffo. You have to go down to David Rodriguez at Princeton to find somebody that actually hit in 2015.
The Rays could look outside their roster if they don’t like their internal options, but the pickings are slim. On the free agent side, Matt Wieters is the top free agent, but he will be way out of the Rays’ price range. Chris Iannetta and Alex Avila produced at the plate in past years before collapsing in 2015, and the Rays could sign either if they think a rebound is likely. A.J. Pierzynski and Dioner Navarro are also in the mix, but they are poor defensively and trouble in the clubhouse. Lastly, Brayan Pena is a Ryan Hanigan type with worse defense, not exactly a great profile.
Trades are always a possibility but most teams want to hang onto a quality catcher and anyone who is available is likely too expensive for the Rays in terms of money and prospects. One exception may be Jonathan Lucroy of the Milwaukee Brewers. Lucroy is a former All-Star catcher who suffered a down year while battling injuries in 2015. The Brewers are rebuilding and a couple of quality prospects might make the deal happen. Lucroy is affordable, due under $10 million over the next two years, but he is a free agent afterwards. The latter is a problem, and unless the Rays see him as the last piece of their puzzle, I don’t see them giving up prospects for a two-year rental.
The Tampa Bay Rays are hoping upon hope that they have a quality big league catcher in Curt Casali. They could take a flier on Iannetta or Avila and hope to stop their declines, but that is always a dicey proposition. Though Lucroy would be a nice addition and maybe a bridge to O’Connor, the price and lack of team control may just be too much to make a deal happen. Once again, the Rays will enter a season with less-than-ideal catching options, and it will take Casali proving that his small-sample breakout was real or someone else’s resurgence to change that once the year begins.