As Spring Training gets fully underway and opening day approaches, I wanted to start taking a look at the Tampa Bay Rays roster piece by piece. First up, the men behind the dish. We already know who the starting catcher is, but there is a big battle underway for who will win the backup spot.
The Tampa Bay Rays sent Mallex Smith back to Seattle, where he once called home for just over an hour, in return for Mike Zunino. In getting Zunino, the Rays got the top-of-the-line catcher they have been waiting for, well, forever. Although Wilson Ramos was a welcome sight in Tampa Bay, he wasn’t here for long. Now with the former Florida Gator back in his home state, the Rays will have the stability behind the plate that they have been searching for since the days of Toby Hall.
Zunino, the 3rd overall pick in the 2012 draft, has put together a nice career to this point. Nothing truly amazing, but he is consistent. The Cape Coral native broke in with the Mariners in 2013 and since then has compiled 6.9 bWAR. He has had three 20+ homer seasons and is only a season removed from a career year at the plate, where he hit a career high 25 bombs and hit a career best .251.
In 2018, the right handed slugger played in 113 games and put up these numbers:
1.9 bWAR // .201 // .259 // .410
20 HR // 40 RBI // 85 OPS+
The added pop in the lineup will be huge but his defensive prowess behind the dish cannot be overlooked. Plain and simple, Zunino is one of the best defensive catchers in the game. Pair that with his powerful bat and veteran presence, Zunino will play a huge role for the Rays in 2019 and beyond.
Perez, who the Rays acquired in exchange for Matt Andriese earlier this season showed plenty of promise prior to suffering a season ending leg injury. After the trade, the Puerto Rican catcher was immediately brought to Tampa Bay.
While he only appeared in 24 games, the left handed hitter showed promise at the plate as well as behind it.
.4 bWAR // .284 (21-74) // .304 // .392
1 HR // 11 RBI // 92 OPS+
In my opinion, Perez is in the driver’s seat this spring as he competes with Nick Ciuffo for the backup role. He was good during his abbreviated stint in Tampa Bay and likely made a nice first impression on Cash and company.
Ciuffo made his debut thanks to a September call-up last season after being ranked the system’s best defensive catcher for the second year in a row by Baseball America. Albeit a short sample size, we got to see his much talked about arm and defensive capabilities in Tampa for 11 games.
In those 11 games, Ciuffo struggled at the plate:
-.2 bWAR // .189 (7-37) // .262 // .297
1 HR // 5 RBI // 56 OPS+
But, at Durham the once embattled and suspended catcher was better across 60 games:
.262 // .301 // .380
5 HR // 28 RBI
The battle for the backup role is a 2 man race and it will be a decision that will likely loom over the heads of Ciuffo and Perez until the final days of camp. But, rest assured Rays fans our young pitching staff is in good hands. Mike Zunino will lead the staff and whoever wins the backup role will learn plenty from the new Rays catcher.
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Check back in tomorrow for a look at the Rays options at 3rd base in 2019 as we start our trip around the infield.