Tampa Bay Rays: No End To The Catching Issues

TORONTO, ON - AUGUST 15: Tampa Bay Rays catcher Wilson Ramos (Photo by Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images)
TORONTO, ON - AUGUST 15: Tampa Bay Rays catcher Wilson Ramos (Photo by Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images) /

With all the free agent signings that the Tampa Bay Rays have made so far in adding infielders and pitchers, the lack depth at the catcher position is disappointing.

It certainly is nice to see the Tampa Bay Rays go into spring training with a catching duo of Wilson Ramos and Jesus Sucre. Wilson looks in great shape and should provide a lot of the right handed power the team lost when they traded Evan Longoria. If Sucre can repeat his last season totals of seven home runs and 29 RBIs in 179 at-bats, he will provide a more than capable backup.

After Wilson and Sucre, things go downhill rather quickly. The other catchers in camp are Nick Ciuffo and a couple of MLB journeymen in Adam Moore and Johnny Monell both have very limited MLB experience and minor leaguers Brett Sullivan and Xorge Carrillo.

Ciuffo can’t play in games because he is on a 50-day drug suspension and I can’t remember ever seeing the others names in a major league box score. Should either Ramos or Sucre sustain an injury during Ciuffo’s suspension it’ll will be a scary sight.

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Having so little talent to back up Ramos and Sucre at the MLB level is terrifying enough but the overall lack of minor league depth is even more of a concern.

For a long time the Rays hoped that former number one draft choice Justin O’Connor would be the team’s long term catcher. Unfortunately injuries and lack of progress caused him to top out at AA and he has signed as a minor league free agent with San Francisco.

So where does that leave the Rays in terms of minor league catching talent? The top candidate is, in fact, Nick Ciuffo. Ciuffo, a former first round draft pick and Rays’ 2017 minor league defensive player of the year, was making steady but not spectacular progress through the minors and was scheduled to be the starting catcher for AAA Durham this year.

Unfortunately, he ran into a suspension for recreational drug abuse, and this being his second drug abuse suspension does not bode well for Ciuffo. History tells us that players with a history of substance abuse are usually on their way out of the Rays organization.

Next in line is Brett Sullivan. Sullivan is a converted infielder with a strong bat. He has hit at every level in the Rays’ organization and shows left handed power. The issue is that his time behind the plate has been limited and he’s not a polished catcher.

Sullivan has made progress but he still looks like a Stephen Vogt utility type. That wouldn’t be all bad but it wouldn’t solve the Rays’ everyday catching issues. He will probably start the season at AA Montgomery. Hopefully, Sullivan’s receiving game will continue to progress and he can turn into a full time big league catcher.

The Future Behind the Dish

Dipping down a little deeper into the Rays organization, we come to Chris Betts. Betts was a number two draft choice in 2015 and has had ongoing injury issues including Tommy John surgery. Scouts still like his offensive first approach to catching and felt his defense would catch up.

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Nonetheless, in two years of professional ball he has only hit .193 in 118 at-bats, and while the talent is still there he needs to get healthy and step up his game to make up for lost time. Whether the Rays see him as ready for full season A ball remains to be seen.

The last, and perhaps the best, prospect is Ronaldo Hernandez. Signed out of Latin American, Hernandez has burned up the short season league over the past three years with 11 home runs, 79 RBIs and a .326 batting average in 525 at-bats.

He has a cannon for an arm, he’s young and has a long ways to go but scouts like his overall talent and just been ranked as one of the ten best catchers in minor league baseball. He will probably begin next season at A ball.

As the Rays’ have virtually no major league ready catchers in their minor league system, they may need to consider a trade. However, catchers are a scarce commodity. Only Baltimore, Cleveland, Colorado, Philadelphia and St. Louis have the type of talent that would be worthy of a major trade. Any decent free agent catcher would be out of the Rays’ price range.

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Let’s hope that the stars are aligned correctly and the Rays 2018 team led by Wilson Ramos takes them to the playoffs. In the meantime, let’s also hope the front office spends some quality time resolving the Rays’ long time catching issues.