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Deep Thoughts: Catcher Talk

April 10, 2012; Detroit, MI, USA; Tampa Bay Rays catcher Jose Molina (28) at bat against the Detroit Tigers at Comerica Park. Mandatory Credit: Rick Osentoski-US PRESSWIRE
April 10, 2012; Detroit, MI, USA; Tampa Bay Rays catcher Jose Molina (28) at bat against the Detroit Tigers at Comerica Park. Mandatory Credit: Rick Osentoski-US PRESSWIRE

The Rays have struggled with the bats as of late, but one position that's been struggling all season is that of catcher. Former DRB mainstay R.J. Anderson joins me for a discussion about the position and what, if anything, the Rays can do.

Erik Hahmann: Heading into spring training the Rays looked as if they'd get league average offensive production and above from eight of the nine positions, the one outcast being catcher. That's pretty much held true thus far. The backstops have combined for a line of .179/.244/.253. Before we get into specific players let me ask you this, do the Rays actually need to get some production from their catchers?

R.J. Anderson: The answer to that depends on how you categorize need and how you evaluate the catchers' defense and whatnot. If you only look at batting average then you might say the Rays need better production out of Ben Zobrist, too. Still, the backstops haven't been pretty at the plate. Entering Wednesday, the Rays ranked 29th in catcher OPS, only ahead of Oakland and fantasy trade heartthrob Kurt Suzuki. Could the Rays stand to get better offensive production? Yes. But that isn't the question for me. The questions is how do they get that better production?

EH: That's another question I wanted to ask; is there a point of diminishing returns when it comes to playing Jose Molina? How many runs does he have to save defensively to make up for his bat? How much value does his defense add to an already good pitching/fielding team? There's a reason he's only appeared in more than 80 games once in his career. A great offensive team can afford to all but punt an offensive category like a fantasy player would. I'm not sure the Rays can. To answer your question, the only way to get that better production would be via trade, unless Lobaton begins to hit like he did at Durham last year.

RJ: There are reasons why Molina has never been a fulltime starter, but there are reasons why he's lasted 13 seasons with a career .285 on-base percentage, too. The guy can catch. We--the analytical community--used to ignore defense for everyone, but especially catchers. We would pretend that the only difference was in caught stealing rates. Now, obviously that's changed with some of the recent work, and maybe we are too far the other way where we look at Molina and completely ignore his offense because his defense is that good.

I couldn't tell you how many runs he adds or how much cascading value he brings to the table (be it by dissuading baserunners from attempting stolen bases, or providing some advice to the pitching staff). What I can tell you is that the Rays can live without offensive production from the catcher's spot when the rest of the lineup is healthy. Entering the season, I think everyone knew the only real question marks were catcher and shortstop (and Sean Rodriguez has done his part to make shortstop a non-concern). If you look around the league, you can win without a great catching situation, so long as the backstop you do have brings something to the table. Molina does.

"maybe we are too far the other way where we look at Molina and completely ignore his offense because his defense is that good"

EH: That's the point I'm talking about. What if his offense dips even lower? It's not like he's a young player with upside. Would the Rays stick with him as the main backstop? Would they use Lobaton, or someone else, as the main catcher with Molina as the backup/defensive specialist? The current cumulative .497 OPS would certainly be the lowest in team history.

RJ: Molina is the Rays main backstop, but by a thin margin. Joe Maddon is alternating catchers almost by the day. Heck, Chris Gimenez only had 15 fewer plate appearances and he left with an OPS more than 100 points worse than Molina, so he deserves more blame for the poor production than anyone. As for Lobaton, I think the Rays would love to see him bloom offensively, and he'll ge the chance, though I don't think Molina will be quite this poor offensively heading forward.

EH: I wasn't blaming all of the production issues on Molina, but he's the only constant going forward. What's a realistic seasonal expectation for him going forward? ZiPS gives him a rest of season line of .223/.286/.364, which is a big improvement over his current totals.

In a different direction, what do you foresee being Robinson Chirinos' role on this team?

RJ: That line sounds about right.

Regarding Chirinos. First and foremost, he needs to get healthy. A concussion is nothing to play around with, especially when the player in question is a catcher, and I wouldn't be surprised if he misses the rest of the season. Hopefully he can make a quick recovery and get back out there. Realistically, there's a chance he's going to have to move off the position. It's a shame because he might have turned into an asset behind the plate, probably as a backup type, but you have to prioritize his well-being; everything else comes after that.

EH: So what's the outlook for next season? There are no prospects in the system ready to contribute at the big league level. Do we go out and sign another Kelly Shoppach type? Does Molina's $1.8m option get picked up?

RJ: I would've said this preseason, too, but I think they'll pursue a trade. It's hard to find teams willing to part with big-league quality catchers, so whether they find a match, well, who can answer that? They might have to take the Chirinos route again and pluck a guy from an org with numerous options. You look at Chicago and they had Geovany Soto, Welington Castillo, and Steve Clevenger all right there, so trading Chirinos wasn't a big deal. I think San Diego makes sense in that regard, with Hundley, Baker, Grandal, and Hedges in their system

Molina's option might come down to whether they feel comfortable with the progress of Lobaton (and/or Chirinos, should he return). I don't believe it's wise to go with youth just for youth's sake, but you might be higher on Lobaton's potential than I.

EH: A trade partner would be ideal, but good catchers don't come cheap. Even a good backup is a valuable commodity. The 2013 free agent catcher's market isn't awful with names like Doumit, Ross, Pierzynski, Snyder littering the market, not to mention Mike Napoli and Brian McCann. There might be someone in the class that's willing to take a one year deal, don't you think? That is, if the Rays want to go that route.

I'm not so high on Lobaton either, but he's under contract and will be given the opportunity to showcase what he can do at the major league level. If he even shows that he can hit .240/.310/.350 that should be good enough to get a bulk of the playing time next season.

RJ: I'll confess that I don't have a strong opinion either way on Lobaton. Maybe I should pay more attention to him heading forward.

As for those free agents, I think you have to go case-by-case and ask, "Is this guy clearly better than Molina?" Doumit isn't a catcher to me, so he's a no. Ross is good, but he's also older than people think and he hasn't caught in 80-plus games since 2007. Pierzynski has a better bat than Molina, however, I wonder if he doesn't mitigate that advantage with his glove and attitude. Then Snyder, I don't think you can rely on that guy to stay healthy or give you dependable performances, so he's another no.

Molina might be the best choice if you want a solid, no-thrills backstop on a one-year deal. Don't you think?