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Catching on

Fans are looking for a catcher of the future, but the team's failure to develop it doesn't reflect their attempts to address the position

Taylor Hawkins is the latest Rays catching prospect to get a six-figure bonus
Taylor Hawkins is the latest Rays catching prospect to get a six-figure bonus
Jim Donten

Since Dioner Navarro's All-Star season in 2008, the Rays have tried band-aids such as Gregg Zaun, Kelly Shoppach, John Jaso and Jose Molina, but none of them have lasted very long and haven't provided a long term solution. They're all quite limited players; Zaun and Jaso weren't particularly good defenders, Shoppach was really only a platoon player, and Molina doesn't add anything to the lineup. They obviously haven't had any problems succeeding as a team using combinations of these players, but as an organization that thrives on player development, it stands out as a position they haven't had much success at.

In fact, in the team's history, only five catchers they've drafted or originally signed have reached the majors with the team. They've combined for 3142 plate appearances with the organization, and 70% of them belong to Toby Hall. The rest came from Jaso, Shawn Riggans, Paul Hoover and Stephen Vogt, most of them belonging to the first two. Jaso is coming off a solid season with Seattle, and Vogt could always get that first hit at some point. If not Hall, then Navarro is the best catcher in the team's young history, but the former top 50 prospect was traded once before the Rays even acquired him from Los Angeles. Their lack of homegrown catchers isn't from a lack of effort though.

Six-figure men

Justin O'Conner

O'Conner was selected between Josh Sale and Drew Vettleson in the 2010 draft for $1,025,000, above the slot recommendation. He was an incredibly risky pick, but the Rays had three extra picks in that draft which usually allows teams to take gambles on high ceiling talent. He was known for two tools: big time power and a plus-plus arm, and catchers with that profile will always get a chance. He would go as far as his hit tool took him, and that has not been out of short-season ball in two and a half seasons as a pro. In 641 plate appearances scattered across the Gulf Coast, Appy and New York-Penn Leagues, he's struck out in over 30% of his plate appearances and is batting below .200. His .160 career ISO would put him in good standing with catchers... if he played catcher. Because of a second major hip injury, he didn't play a single inning in the field in 2012, and his future as a position player is in serious doubt.

Luke Bailey

Bailey fell to the Rays in the 4th round of the 2009 draft thanks to an elbow injury that limited him in his senior season of high school. He still got a $750,000 bonus though, roughly equal to a sandwich round pick. He's cut from a pretty similar cloth to O'Conner with power and a nice arm, but he may actually be a better receiver behind the plate. Unfortunately, that cloth also includes a long swing and trouble making contact. His career average is just .217 with a 6.2% walk rate (including 3.1% in 2012) and a 29.4% strikeout rate, so he has plenty of trouble tapping into his raw power in games too. Because of various injuries, he's only played in 141 games over the last two seasons, and that adds up to a lot of missed development time for a very raw player.

Jake Jefferies, Nevin Ashley and Matt Spring

All three of these players were from the college ranks and maybe closer to organizational soldiers than legitimate prospects anyway, but they received bonuses of $515,000, $150,000 and $350,000 respectively.

Jefferies came with a well-rounded skillset as a third rounder from UC Davis in the 2008 draft. He's not at all similar to O'Conner and Bailey with quieter tools, and he was supposed to make much better contact. After batting .315 with a .812 OPS in his pro debut for Hudson Valley that year, he's batted below .240 since and is now with the Marlins organization. In 1572 career plate appearances, he has 116 walks to just 148 strikeouts, but with below average power and unremarkable defensive skills, AAA may be his ceiling.

Ashley was only a sixth rounder, but his profile is not too different from Jefferies'. He has a little more power, both in terms of extra base hits and simply making harder contact, and his defense is held in higher regard as well. Although he has a little more power, it's not enough to make teams forget about a swing that doesn't produce that hard contact consistently enough. His 10.4% walk rate is more than adequate, and although he's now 28 and with the Reds organization, I wouldn't rule out a cup of coffee in the majors at some point. A team could probably entrust him to handle their staff for a short time.

Spring may have had the highest ceiling of the college bunch coming out of Dixie State, a wood bat junior college. He has more power than the other two, and he was new to catching with room to grow. 2013 will be his 10th minor league season, which would indicate his defense has improved from his amateur days. The solid power is there, but he never really broke out because he's another player that has a hard time putting his bat on the ball. He's a career .213 hitter, and he's not patient enough to make up for it (career OBP below .300 and 29.9% strikeout rate).

Taylor Hawkins

I'll wrap this up with their most recent foray into the amateur catching market with their 12th rounder in the 2012 draft. He's another player with a high ceiling, and it was a surprise that he signed with the Rays after lasting as long as he did with signability concerns. $272,500 was enough to sign him away from his Oklahoma commitment, and the Rays hope he's the one that develops into their future catcher. In 2010, the Marlins drafted J.T. Realmuto in the 3rd round, and it was Hawkins who kept him from playing catcher in high school. Realmuto held the school record for career home runs with 47, and Hawkins obliterated that with 74. He's very raw at and behind the plate, but his power and athleticism gives the organization plenty to work with in coming years.