Only five teams in Major League Baseball had a lower WAR (Wins Above Replacement) from their backstops than the Tampa Bay Rays last regular season. Kelly Shoppach, John Jaso, Jose Lobaton and Robinson Chirinos combined for a WAR of 1.3 in 2011. This total was down from 2.7 in 2010 when the Rays finished in the middle of the pack. It was especially bad offensively where the four combined for a .194/.274/.333 stat line, which is pretty abysmal no matter how you look at it.
The franchise has never really had a star player at the position, and Toby Hall remains the most productive catcher in Rays history. Given the makeup and philosophy of the organization however, the team only needs league average production from their backstops to have a legitimate chance at the postseason. Going into the 2011-12 off-season one of Andrew Friedman's main concerns will be trying to evaluate how to get that production within the confines of the Rays' strict budget.
There is some decent talent at catcher in the Rays' farm system, especially in the lower levels of the organization. There are also a few backstops who are worthy of getting a look at the big league level. The free agent market also has a few affordable, productive, veteran catchers to offer, so Friedman and the front office will have plenty of options to consider when making decisions this off-season. In addition, there will be some tough choices to make at other levels of the organization as well, and the following depth charts are sure to change significantly before Spring Training.
Here is an in-depth look at all of the catchers in the Rays organization, and where they currently rank on the franchise depth chart.
* Denotes player is on 40 Man Roster
Tampa Bay Rays
1) Kelly Shoppach*: A very unproductive season by Shoppach was largely forgiven by Rays fans because of his clutch plays in important games down the stretch. He also had a major hand in the team's only postseason victory when he hit two home runs in Game 1 of the ALDS and guided rookie Matt Moore to a sensational pitching performance.
But the fact remains that Shoppach hit .176 in 221 at bats and struck out 31.2 percent of the time, which was actually down from his 38 percent rate in 2010. He did display some great defensive play behind the dish, where he did an excellent job working with the pitching staff and threw out 41 percent of basestealers to lead the American League.
This lack of production will likely result in the cash-strapped Rays declining to exercise their $3.2 million option on Shoppach's contract. There is a $300,000 buyout, so the Rays could easily decide to let him go and then re-sign him as a free agent at a lower price. Friedman has indicated that he wants a veteran catcher on the roster, so depending on how things shake out in free agency the team may have no choice but to bring back Shoppach one way or another. With the organizational philosophy of having above-average defenders at each position and Shoppach's power presence lower in the lineup, he may still be the best option to take the bulk of the catching duties in 2012. Either way, at this point he remains the top dog at catcher in the organization until the front office makes a move.
2) John Jaso*: After a very promising 2010, when he was the Rays' primary lead-off hitter in the second half of the season and finished fifth in the American League Rookie of the Year vote, Jaso took a step backwards in 2011. His on base percentage dove from .372 to .298, and he was a liability behind the plate, throwing out only 17 percent of basestealers.
Despite his dip in offensive production he still remains a more consistent producer at the plate than Shoppach, and his left-handed bat allows manager Joe Maddon to do his thing with playing match-ups. However because of his inability to control the opposing team's running game, he will have to return his offensive production to 2010 levels to warrant consistent playing time. With several other options on the 40 man roster Jaso is no lock to make the team out of Spring Training.
3) Jose Lobaton*: Lobaton figures to be in the catcher mix for the Rays in 2012. Selected off waivers from the San Deigo Padres at the trade deadline in 2009, Lobaton made huge strides in his game last season. A cursory look at his .118 average doesn't immediately impress, but 34 at bats is a very small sample size to draw any definitive conclusions. He also went on the disabled list with a sprained knee ligament shortly after being called up from Durham in July and was hampered by a knee sprain late in the season.
But his work at AAA Durham was impressive. He posted a .293 average and .410 on base percentage, and Rays manager Joe Maddon praised his growth at signal-calling and managing a game. Perhaps the most intriguing thing about Lobaton is the fact that he is a switch-hitter, a quality that Maddon will be sure to utilize. The 27-year-old Venezuelan has a career .348 on base percentage in the minors. If he can continue to do a good job behind the dish and flashes at least a little power, the Rays are sure to give him a long look. 2012 may finally be Lobaton's chance to get some legitimate playing time in the big leagues.
AAA Durham Bulls
1) Robinson Chirinos*: Chirinos is a converted infielder that the Rays acquired last off-season in the Matt Garza deal. He made his major league debut for the Rays last season, and his bat appears to be ready for the big leagues. While he posted only a .259/343/.376 slash line in Durham last season, he hit .326 with 18 home runs and 74 runs batted in for two teams in the Cubs organization in 2010.
Even though he is pretty old to be considered a prospect, Chirinos has only been catching since 2008. In that regard he still has a lot of room for improvement. And while he doesn't project to be a star, if he can continue to work on his defense he should be a decent major league catcher. It is not unreasonable to believe that he will get a fair amount of time behind the dish for the Rays in 2012, since he certainly has the most offensive upside of all the current candidates. He owns a career .350 on base percentage in the minors, and that is a statistic that the Rays place a premium on. Upon arriving in his native Venezuela to play winter ball Chirinos sustained a wrist injury. There is no indication that he won't be ready for Spring Training, but it is a situation worth monitoring this off-season.
2) Nevin Ashley*: Ashley was once assumed to be the heir apparent at catcher for the Rays, and has long been considered the best defensive receiver in the Rays organization. In 2009 he was named Best Defensive Catcher in the Rays organization by Baseball America, and was also named Best Defensive Player by the Rays Baseball Operations department in the same year.
The big question mark for Ashley is his bat. He has yet to prove that he can hit AAA pitching consistently, posting a .218/.273/.307 line for Durham last year in 101 at bats. That is obviously a small sample size, and Ashley did have success at AA Montgomery where he had a .387 on base percentage and 23 extra base hits in 279 at bats.
Still the Rays could really use a consistent defensive presence behind the plate, and if he can improve his hitting even slightly he has a good chance of making his major league debut for the team sometime in 2012. He is currently playing winter ball in the Dominican Republic, and the extra work this off-season may give him an extra advantage going into Spring Training.
AA Montgomery Bulls
1) Craig Albernaz: Albernaz has solid catching skills as evidenced by his career .986 fielding percentage and 42 percent caught stealing rate in the minors. Still, at age 28 his career seems to be moving in the wrong direction as he has been unable to advance past AA Montgomery, despite getting brief promotions to Durham in each of the past three seasons. Unfortunately his career minor league numbers of .205/.290/.265 at the plate don't inspire much confidence that he will ever be able to hit enough to figure prominently in the Rays future plans.
2) Dave Wendt: A 50th round pick in 2009 out of Dowling College, Wendt has only acquired 167 at bats in three minor league seasons. He hit .211 for Montgomery last season, and like Albernaz does not appear to have much upside. But at age 24 it is too early to write him off, and he needs to be on the field more to accurately asses his future with the organization.
High A Charlotte Stone Crabs
1) Mark Thomas: Drafted in the 22nd round of the 2006 draft, Thomas hit .237 with 13 home runs last season for the Stone Crabs. In total he had 39 extra base hits, but also struck out 94 times in 422 at bats. His strikeout percentage has hovered around 20 percent the past two years, while his walk rate has not improved. He has a terrific arm though, and he threw out 48 percent of basestealers. He has progressed rather slowly through the organization, but a catcher with some pop in his bat who can control the opposing team's running game is worth keeping around. 2) Jake Jeffries: The 23-year-old Jeffries was a third round pick in 2008, and earned a brief promotion to AA Montgomery last season. For the season he hit .238/.282/.327, but he is a hitter who generally puts the ball in play as evidenced by his 10.8 percent strike out percentage. He was very good with runners on base as well, hitting .302 with 28 runs batted in in 102 at bats. As a high draft pick, the Rays are likely to continue to try and develop him, and he may be a candidate for promotion to AA in 2012. 3) Alejandro Torres: A product of the Venezuelan Summer League, Torres was the VSL Rays Player of the year in 2008, when he hit .316 and drove in 43 runs. Torres was not on the field much in 2011, totaling 148 at bats between Bowling Green and Charlotte, and his hitting seems to be regressing as he moves up in the organization. Last year he hit a career low .176, and he will have to do better than that to have a future in the organization.
Low A Bowling Green Hot Rods
1) Lucas Bailey: Bailey only hit .182 with 5 home runs as a 19-year-old in the Gulf Coast League in 2010. He improved on that moderately in 2011 by hitting .223/.294/.323 with the Low A Hot Rods. A fourth round pick in 2009, he was ranked the tenth-best catcher in the draft by Baseball America. His stock dropped considerably after he underwent Tommy John surgery just prior to the draft. Bailey is considered to be a good defensive catcher, and he nailed basestealers at a 40 percent clip last season. Still, his bat has been a disappointment thus far, and he will have to improve his contact rate as he struck out an alarming 33 percent of the time. He is only 20 years old, however, and the jury is still very much out on his future. 2) Keith Castillo: In his first year with the organization in 2011, Castillo hit .330/.409/.567 in 110 plate appearances. It's a very small sample size, but the combination of power and on base skills is intriguing. It will be interesting to see what level he is assigned to in 2012, and if he can continue to hit over the course of a full minor league season. 3) Mayo Acosta: Acosta's stock has dropped the past few seasons, as has his production at the plate. He hit .258 in 2010, but only .208 in 2011. Another catcher in the organization with a strong arm and solid defensive skills, Acosta will need to hit better to advance in the organization.
Short Season A Hudson Valley Renegades
1) Matt Rice: Matt Rice was pretty impressive in 2011 after being drafted in the 9th round of the June Amateur Draft. He hit .286/.376/.370 in 192 at bats, and even flashed a little speed by stealing five bags. He was projected as a late-round pick, so the Rays scouting department obviously sees some talent and potential in him. He is a player to watch in 2012, as his stock may be rising.
2) Kyle Holloway: Holloway hit .206 over two levels in 2011 while hitting 5 home runs and driving in 28 runs. The 23-year-old was signed as a non-drafted free agent in 2010.
3) Alejandro Segovia: The 21-year-old from Venezuela led the VSL in hitting in 2009 with a .349 average. He has a very strong arm and makes consistent contact at the plate. He had a .364 on base percentage for Hudson Valley in 66 plate appearances.
4) Gerardo Olivares: Olivares is a product of the Rays Dominican Summer League team, and has a career .262 average in five minor league seasons.
Rookie Princeton Rays
1) Justin O'Connor: O'Connor has yet to live up to expectations in his two years in the organization. The 31st overall pick in the 2010 draft hit only .157 last season and struck out 78 times in 178 at bats. He has shown power though, as 17 of his 28 hits were for extra bases. His swing obviously needs some work since his contact rate to this point is quite alarming. He is also still learning the catcher position, as he was a pitcher and infielder in high school. The scouts love his tools though, and it is important to remember that he is still only 19 years old. The Rays have never drafted a catcher in the first round in franchise history, and the organization could use a rising star at the position in its system. It is too early to call him a bust, but he will need to take a huge step forward in 2012 to regain his status as a top prospect. 2) Jake DePew: Like O'Conner, DePew was drafted with high expectations. A ninth rounder in 2010, he hit .214/.293/.264 in 2011. Most scouts grade his hitting ability to be around average, but he does have a strong arm and above-average speed and quickness for a catcher. Bailey, O'Conner and DePew are three young catchers that the Rays have invested heavily in, and thus far the return has not been promising. They all need extensive playing time and a lot of work to polish their raw skills. It will be interesting to see how the organization handles the trio in the coming years.
Rookie Gulf Coast League Rays
1) Omar Narvaez: Another graduate from the Rays Venezuelan baseball academy, Narvaez showed serious hitting skills in the VSL in his two years there. In 2009 he went .315/.390/.394 and in 2010 he was .308/.420/.371. It is very hard to predict how players coming from the VSL will perform when they come stateside. There are few pro scouting reports available on players and the league is comprised of teenagers. The one thing that stands out about Narvaez immediately though, is the fact that in his three minor league seasons he has never struck out more than he's walked. That is impressive at any level, and is certainly indicative of a good batting eye and an ability to make consistent contact. He has shown little power to this point, but his on base skills more than make up for that and he is still growing into his body. Narvaez also possesses good catch and throw skills, having thrown out basestealers at an above 50 percent clip for three straight seasons. Narvaez is a very intriguing player, and there is a lot to like from what he has shown so far in the organization.
2) Brandon Choate: The Rays 38th pick in this year's draft, Choate hit a home run every 10.7 at bats as a college player in 2011. In 51 at bats for the GCL Rays he posted a .825 OPS, and threw out almost 50 percent of base runners attempting to steal. He remains an unknown quantity, but he clearly has a lot of power and a strong arm.
3) Michael Bourdon: Another late round pick in 2011, the 6'3" catcher attended Tampa University. He posted a .344 on base percentage in 55 at bats in his first taste of professional ball.
4) Ian Tomkins: The last pick by the Rays in the 2011 June Amateur Draft, Tomkins went 4 for 9 on his 4 games with the GCL Rays.
Rookie Venezuelan Summer League Rays
1) Oscar Hernandez: If you were even a marginal watcher of Rays prospects in 2011, then Oscar Hernandez's performance in the Venezuelan Summer League surely caught your eye. All summer long the writers in the Rays blogosphere were abuzz trying to find out who he was and what the scouting reports on him said. If you haven't seen his stat line yet, prepare for your jaw to hit the floor.
Hernandez had a historic season in the VSL. He hit .402/.503/.732. That is a 1.236 OPS. He had 21 home runs and 66 runs batted in in 238 at bats. That is a home run every 11.3 at bats, and a run batted in every 3.6 at bats. He also had 175 total bases and was hit by a pitch 15 times. He was a complete monster, and seemingly came out of nowhere after hitting .223 as a 16-year-old in 2010. His numbers almost read like stats from a video game. To top it all off he appears to have a good arm as well, throwing out basestealers at a 42 percent clip.
As stated earlier, it is hard to quantify numbers from the VSL and DSL, and it is worth noting that the Rays team has led the VSL in home runs since joining the league in 2008. They clearly play in a bandbox. But Hernandez's output is so impressive that it is hard to imagine him being a mere product of a friendly ballpark. There is clearly talent here. But the question will be, how much? Hernandez warrants serious attention next season when he is expected to move stateside. If he can rake like this when he begins to face better pitching, then the Rays may have unearthed a huge catching prospect.2) Wilmer Dominguez: If not for Oscar Hernandez's Ruthian numbers, Dominguez's season would be impressive as well. He posted a .843 OPS in 188 at bats while hitting .324. In three years in the league, he has an average of .290, and has steadily improved his fielding percentage each season. He also has played 40 games at first base in his career, and it is hard to say what position he is better at. While certainly not as intriguing as Hernandez, Dominguez's career is worth monitoring in the coming years. 3) Gianfranco Aldozaro: With the exodus of Hernandez to the US expected in 2012, Aldozaro might be in line for some more playing time. He didn't show much in 2011, hitting .149 in 67 at bats, but was only signed by the Rays in September of 2010.
Rookie Dominican Summer League Rays
1) Armando Arazia: As an 18-year-old, he hit .256 with 6 home runs in 176 at bats. In two seasons in the DSL he has posted a career .373 on base percentage. Defensively his fielding percentage was only .978 behind the plate, but he has thrown out basestealers at a 46 percent rate in his brief career.
2) Jhancarlos Infante: At 22 years old, Infante is considerably older than most players in the DSL. He wasn't signed by the Rays until 2010 though, and he did post a .389 on base percentage in limited action.
3) Jose Rojas: Rojas didn't show much at the plate in a limited sample size of 48 at bats. He hit .188 with only one extra base hit.
4) Fransisco Rosario: He hit .265 at age 20, and only played four games behind the plate. Although he is listed as a catcher on the team's roster, he started 29 games at first and had a poor .969 fielding percentage behind the plate in 2010.
There is some talent at catcher in the Rays organization, unfortunately the majority of it is at the lower levels and extremely unproven. It is obvious that the Rays have made catching a priority in recent drafts, and the organization is so good at developing players that it is safe to assume that one or more of their recent draftees will one day play in the big leagues. There will be a lot of catchers to keep an eye on in 2012 and beyond. Some are heralded prospects like Justin O'Conner and Jake DePew, and others are unknown quantities like Oscar Hernandez. There are also some sleepers to watch like Matt Rice. It should be a fun season to watch catching prospects in the Rays organization.