It is no secret why all championship clubs have a strong catcher. The catcher is the leader on the field and sets the mentality of the ball club by the attitude he takes to his position and the pride that he takes in running the pitching staff. The Tampa Bay Rays run to the World Series was a shocker to many, but the impact of the man who donned the “tools of ignorance” in Tampa last year was not.
Dioner Navarro has faced adversity and doubt throughout his entire career and is a better competitor because of it. Navarro has been traded three times – the most recent brought him from the Los Angeles Dodgers to the Rays in June, 2006 – and needed a breakout season in 2008 to prove to the Rays, and himself, that he could make it as a big league backstop.
After posting a line of .295/.349/.407 and earning a trip to the All-Star Game in Yankee Stadium, Navarro gained respect throughout baseball. The switch-hitting backstop brings toughness and poise to the ballpark and is a great model for the young catchers in major league spring training. Rays manager Joe Maddon earned his stripes with the Angels, a franchise that is known for putting an emphasis on pitcher and catcher development. Maddon worked alongside Mike Scioscia in Anaheim and brought the catcher mentality to Tampa Bay.
The Tampa Bay system is known for its wealth of pitching prospects, and while the system is a little thin on top-flight catchers, the cupboard is not barren of guys who could one day play at the big league level. The catcher rankings for the Rays begin with John Jaso.
Jaso is a left-handed hitter from Chula Vista, California who was drafted out of Southwestern Community College in the 12th round of the 2003 amateur draft. At 6’2”, 205 lbs., he is a physical signal caller who looks the part of a major league player. Jaso turned 25 in September and will spend all of next season at that age; this plays into the consideration of his prospect status.
Jaso is not old, and catchers are typically given a couple more years to develop than other prospects. But he does need to start making strides with his game-calling and polishing up the defensive part of the position, which is the most important, if he wants to become a big league regular. Part of the reason why Jaso isn’t as far along as he should be in his development, however, is because he has been hampered with numerous injuries forcing him into spending more time at DH than the Rays would have liked.
Despite still being a bit raw behind the dish, Jaso’s bat excites the Rays most; this tool will be his calling card. He posted a solid .273/.391/.426 line in 2008 splitting time between Double-A Montgomery and Triple-A Durham. He added 12 home runs and a 72/47 walk-to-strikeout ratio en route to becoming a Southern League Mid-Season All Star. As an extremely disciplined hitter who gets on base, his bat projects as a plus tool at the catcher position at the highest level. He then made his big league debut on September 6, 2008 with Tampa Bay, collecting a pair of hits in 10 at-bats with the big league club. He will head to spring training looking to compete for a job, with Shawn Riggans, backing up Navarro.
Behind Jaso is Jacob Jefferies, the Rays third-round pick last June out of UC Davis. Jefferies was a sleeper entering the spring season until he led UC Davis to the NCAA Regional and was named Big West Conference Co-Player of the Year. He showed a consistent approach at the plate, striking out only 12 times all spring, and proved to be a capable receiver.
Jefferies, 21, has a good frame at 6’2” and 200 lbs., and should be able to produce some power in the future; his inside-out stroke, it seems, prevents him from doing so currently. He reported to Short Season Hudson Valley, where he posted a .315/.379/.433 line in 238 at-bats while showing off an advanced feel for the strike zone and the ability to lay off of “chase” pitches.
Jefferies’ bat is bitter-sweet, but his skill set can fit in well if he remains behind the plate. He doesn’t generate a lot of power because of a short load and an approach that relies more on his hands spraying the ball around the park instead of using his lower half to produce some pop. But because of this, Jeffries is able to keep his bat in the hitting zone for a long time and he couples that with good plate discipline, producing a lot of walks and a high OBP. For these reasons, he has a real chance to turn into a solid regular, but he does not project to do any one thing particularly great. If he has to move from behind the dish, second base seems like the only other position where his skill set would profile to some reasonable degree, but then his overall value will take a big hit.
Mike McCormick does not receive a lot of pub in prospect circles, but his ceiling is very intriguing. McCormick was drafted in the fifth round, 148th overall, by Tampa Bay in the 2005 draft out of Marist High School in Eugene, Oregon. Selected as an infielder, he struggled at third base in 2006 while playing for Princeton. His struggles prompted the Rays to move him behind the plate for 2007, where he responded by hitting .276/.352/.469 and threw out 31% of would-be base stealers.
McCormick’s overall line regressed in 2008 – .216/.276/.365 – while playing for the Columbus Catfish in the South Atlantic League, but he hit 13 home runs in 375 at-bats. While his approach leaves a bit to be desired, he brings serious power potential at a premium position. McCormick, who turned 22 in September, is young enough to develop into something more and has only caught for two seasons to this point. With those things considered, he is further along than he probably should be, and that’s due to the exceptional attitude and work ethic that scouts rave about.
After McCormick comes Matt Spring, who was the Rays’ 2004 fourth-round pick out of Dixie State. Spring spent all of 2008 at Double-A Montgomery, posting a .248/.314/.431 line, with nine home runs. Listed at 6’2” 215 lbs., he has the frame to hit for more power in the future. He is decent behind the plate, but his best tool may be his make up. Spring is a likeable guy and a great teammate, and his commitment to helping others was recognized this September when he won the second annual Eric Walker Community Champion Award, which is given to the Tampa Bay prospect who best exemplifies teamwork, sportsmanship, and community involvement.
Rounding out the catchers is 24-year-old Nevin Ashley. Ashley was drafted in 2006 by the Rays in the sixth round out of Indiana State, where he was named to the First-Team All-Missouri Valley Conference. He had a breakout year in 2007 at Columbus, but struggled a little bit this season while playing for Vero Beach in the Hi-A Florida State League.
Ashley is a strong kid but doesn’t have a lot of tools that will impress. He is a smart guy – earned ESPN The Magazine Academic All-District honors in college – who has a good feel for the game. But Ashley regressed substantially this past season, hitting only .235/.348/.315 against younger competition in the FSL. The lack of power makes his walk totals and OBP all the more important, and Ashley won’t make it to the big leagues if his on-base skills don’t improve. Nobody will mistake Ashley for Usain Bolt, but, for what it’s worth, the big guy does possess surprising speed for a catcher; in 2007, he swiped 20 bases to go along with eight triples. He is an average defensive catcher.
1. John Jaso
2. Jake Jefferies
3. Mike McCormick
4. Matt Spring
5. Nevin Ashley
Teddy Mitrosilis is a sophomore baseball player at Long Beach City College in California. To reach him, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.