On March 25 of last year, the Rays and the Tigers quietly completed a trade involving two minor league players. Earlier in the offseason, the Tigers had selected Kyle Lobstein, a 2008 second round pick by the Rays, in the Rule 5 draft. Though Lobstein was not a top 30 prospect in the Rays system, the Tigers were obviously impressed with him. However, in accordance with Rule 5 draft rules, the Tigers couldn't keep him unless they placed him on their 25 man roster. In order to keep him, they decided to trade for him.
In exchange for Kyle Lobstein, the Rays received Curt Casali. Not a big name prospect, his acquisition received very little attention, even at this site. Admittedly, that was probably something of an oversight. While Curt Casali was slotted behind several players in the Tigers depth chart at catcher, which made him somewhat expendable, he still made the Tiger's top 30 list by Baseball America, slotting in at #23. With a terrific season 2013 season under his belt and Jose Lobaton dealt, Curt Casali is a name for Rays' fans to keep an eye on for 2014 and beyond. For the young backstop, it has been a long journey.
Though Baseball America rated Casali the second best prep prospect in Connecticut/Rhode Island entering the 2007 draft, he went undrafted and honored his commitment to Vanderbilt. There, he stayed with the Commodores for four seasons, developed the reputation of being a strong defender and among the best hitters in the league, and even made an appearance in the College World Series.
During his senior season, Casali was drafted for the first time, taken by the Detroit Tigers in the 10th round of the 2011 draft. Baseball America's scouting report on him noted that Tommy John Surgery had eliminated much of his former plus arm strength, but that he was still a good receiver with a solid approach at the plate. After signing, Casali logged in 35 games during the 2011 season, splitting time between the Connecticut Tigers (NYPL, short season class-A) and the West Michigan Whitecaps (Mid West League, Class-A). As a 22 year old, he hit a combined .243/.366/.405, showing good on base skills and a low strikeout rate (10.3%, with a 19/14 BB/K ratio).
Hardly on any prospect radars at the start of the 2012 season, the Tigers sent him back to West Michigan (Midwest League, Class-A), where he tore up the pitcher's league to the tune of a .288/.402/.500 line with eight home runs in 48 games (206 plate appearances) before receiving a promotion to Lakeland in the Florida State League (Advanced Class-A). There, he slowed down, posting a moderate .672 OPS in his remaining 46 games (179 plate appearances). This was the first time Casali struggled in pro ball. To this point, it also represents the only time he has struggled.
While his season concluded on a somewhat sour note, his quick rise and demolition of the Midwest League caught the attention of scouts and Tiger's fans. In their offseason rankings, SB Nation's Bless You Boys ranked the catcher as the 23rd best prospect in the Tiger's system. Baseball America also took notice, also pegging Casali as the organization's 23rd best prospect. Still, Casali sat behind quite a few players in the depth chart at catcher, so he represented something of a surplus to Tigers. When they saw the opportunity to hang on to Kyle Lobstein, the Tigers sent Casali packing to the Rays.
Few Rays fans expected much out of Casali in 2013, labeling him more of an organizational soldier than a real prospect, an obvious oversight considering his rising prospect stock. The Rays decided to give Casali another shot at the notoriously pitcher friendly Florida State League, and the newly acquired catcher made the absolute most of his opportunity. In 46 games (184 plate appearances), he hit .267/.342/.406, earning a promotion to Montgomery mid-season. Though the line doesn't look so stellar on the surface, it still comes out to a very respectable 116 wRC+. After his promotion, Casali really took off, batting .383/.483/.600 in 35 games (145 plate appearances) to cap off his age 24 season. He hit an overall .316/.404/.488 during his 2013 campaign.
The popular perception I believe we have with players like Casali, who go from complete unknowns to top 10 consideration (at least in our community list) is that we are inflating a player's value based on one good year. In many cases, that may be true. But in Casali's, it isn't. He entered the season as a borderline top 30 prospect (even if we failed to give him that recognition) and had an excellent season in which he advanced across two levels and responded to the tough jump to Double-A by hitting near .400. The only time Casali has ever really struggled in professional baseball was his 179 plate appearance stint with Lakeland in 2012, when he hit for a 93 wRC+. If we break out his league adjusted stats for each season in its entirety, this is what we get:
2011: 126 wRC+
2012: 126 wRC+
2013: 160 wRC+
Did I mention he is a catcher?
So while this past season was a step forward, he has had a history of successful performances as well as a history of garnering attention as a prospect. Granted, Casali has always been on the older side for a prospect, so his performance should be taken with a grain of salt. Still, it was unavoidable as a college senior drafted, and catchers normally take longer to develop. Furthermore, all he has done since making the transition to pro ball is hit and quickly ascend the minor league levels.
To fully understand the intrigue to Casali though, one must look beyond just the batting average, on base percentage, and slugging. In his three seasons (850 plate appearances), he has walked 96 times for a strong 11.3 BB% while striking out only 109 times (for a very low 12.8 K%). If it wasn't for his poor stint in Lakeland where he struck out almost three times as much as he walked, he would have more walks than strikeouts in his career.
All of his hitting would matter very little if Casali didn't play the most premium defensive position on the spectrum: catcher. Once a stellar catcher at Vanderbilt, he has since settled into the title of a solid defensive catcher. Tommy John surgery while in college wiped out much of his plus arm strength, and after throwing out 33% of basestealers in 2012, the rate dipped to 25% in 2013. Baseball America's report on him, however, notes that he made improvements with the Rays coaches, and that he should throw out more runners as his technique continues to improve. Elsewhere in the catching department, Casali grades out as average to above average. He reportedly works well with pitchers, he is considered an above average receiver, and he does well to block pitches in the dirt. So while he won't be a weapon behind the plate, Casali brings enough defensive chops to not be a liability either.
While Curt Casali is unlikely to make a significant impact with the big league team this season, he represents the best piece of quality catching depth in the upper minors. He brings a very balanced game to the table: he hits for a good average, walks at a strong rate, doesn't strike out, features some pop, and defends solidly enough. He may not have the physical tools to become a standout backstop, but he has the makings of a fringe starter or a backup with the chance of developing into an everyday catcher. Those types of players normally hang around in the major leagues for a while. So get to know Curt Casali....he may not be the savior to the Rays catching woes, but he very well could be a strong complementary piece in an important position.