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2013 Season Preview: The Return of Robinson Chirinos

Al Messerschmidt

There was a time when Robinson Chirinos was considered among the best prospects in the game.

Not by conventional means, but by Oliver - the baseball projection system from The Hardball Times. Oliver reaches deep in its predictions of performance from the major leagues through the minors, down to assigning each player a Wins Above Replacement.

Oliver is considered the strongest projection system for minor league players, and normally projects around 8,000 players each year with extraordinary consistency. Before the 2011 season, the year Chirinos reached the majors, only one prospect was projected to have a better WAR by Oliver in all of minor league baseball: fellow catcher and uber-prospect Jesus Montero.

To say Rays fans had high hopes is an understatement.

The Show

Chirinos was one step away from being a mainstay on the Rays roster, and represented the elusive catching prospect the Rays never seemed able to land. There were concerns that his arm wasn't quick enough to catch runners on the base paths, but that was the only thing holding him back. He had all the tools. This was a major league catcher.

Acquired by the Rays in the Matt Garza trade on January 7, 2011, Chirinos was slotted as the starting catcher for the AAA Durham Bulls until July 18th, when backup catcher John Jaso hit the disabled list with an oblique injury. Chirinos promptly notched his first major league hit that evening, and would play 20 games for the Rays.

True to form, he had trouble with base runners, but impressed at the plate with his defense and an excellent offensive series against Toronto in early August - which included a well placed RBI squeeze bunt, his first career homerun, and pinch hitting to tie and later win a game in extra innings:

He finished the series with five hits, two walks, and seven runs batted in over ten plate appearances.

Despite this relative success, Chirinos was optioned back to Durham on August 18th when Jaso returned from his injury ahead of schedule. He left Tampa Bay with hopes of taking the reins as the back up catcher in 2012.

That was before.

The Injury

In an interview with The Tribune's Roger Mooney, Chirinos was candid about the day everything went wrong.

According to Mooney, Chirinos doesn't remember who the batter was, or what team the Rays were playing. He doesn't even remember who he was catching for that day. The batter swung, the ball was tipped, and everything went black.

What would remain was a two inch dent in his catcher's mask, and a deep set concussion that would leave Chirinos unable to walk straight for six days - but for the moment, he would continue playing the game.

He was tended to on the field, but waived off trainers. He felt dizzy after he returned to the dugout, so he was sent for further tests. Chirinos walked to the clubhouse weakly, vomited twice, and an ambulance was called.

It was considered a victory in July, four months later, when Chirinos could ride his stationary bike in a controlled environment at the Rays complex in Port Charlotte with the TV on in the background. Before that, he was required to ride the bike - which faces a white wall in the clubhouse - with the lights off. After workouts, his wife Haday would drive him 45 minutes north every day for vision therapy.

The Recovery

The Rays sent Chirinos to a concussion expert, Dr. Mickey Collins of the University of Pittsburg (who treated a similar injury to Baltimore's Brian Roberts) four times last season, with hopes that Chirinos would regain the ability to coordinate the movement of his hands with his mind.

After that, perhaps the lights and sounds of a baseball game.

Chirinos did not have a history of concussions, or even head injuries. Other foul tips had surely hit his mask before, but there were no childhood incidents to speak of and only one professionally. While in the Cubs minor league system, Chirinos once took a hit-by-pitch to the helmet, but there were no signs of brain injury. In the end, there was nothing and no one to blame for a freak accident.

Before he began the vision therapy prescribed by Dr. Collins, Mooney noted that it would take Chirinos twenty minutes of rest between exercises. He couldn't stand and close his eyes at the same time because he might lose his balance and fall over. He couldn't open his eyes if there were bright lights near by. He found it hard to speak quickly.

Friends in the clubhouse described his movements and speech as through Robinson was a zombie. In truth, he was a shell of his former athletic self, but he never lost his spirited attitude. When asked how he was, Chirinos was honest. He always seemed to respond by saying life was hard, but that he was praying. In one similar exchange, he told Marc Topkin that he often wonders, 'Why me?' - but added, "I guess God knows why things happen."

Leaning heavily on faith and family brought Chirinos through it all.

The Future

His final trip to see Dr. Collins was August 7th, and should be marked as one of the greatest days of Chirinos's life and career.

The dizzy spells were declared to have ended. Chirinos was able to go fishing with his four year old son David, watch TV with his family, walk without fear of losing his balance or flashing lights. And best of all: he was cleared to play baseball again.

On August 19th, barely five months after the devestating injury, Robinson Chirinos officially resumed throwing, hitting, and running. On November 2nd, the Rays removed him from the disabled list, and almost a year later, Robinson Chirinos is ready to begin playing professional baseball again.

There's questions as to whether Chirinos will continue to catch full time. Scott noted that Chirinos is the projected starting catcher for AAA Durham next season in his minor league lineup preview last week, but added one caveat: "Chirinos is listed as the catcher here, but I expect he's going to play all over the diamond."

Before converting to catcher in 2008, Chirinos split time between second base, shortstop and third base. Although he's only played catcher and first base since being acquired by the Rays before the 2011 season, it's not a stretch to see him wearing different kinds of gloves this year with how much the Rays emphasize versatility with position players.

While he did return to catching for the first time in winter ball this year, Chirinos also played second base for a few innings, which could be a sign. Chirinos has become a pretty solid defender behind the plate, despite his relative inexperience at catcher, but with his adequate athleticism and above average arm strength, he could be penciled in around the diamond or in a corner of the outfield to get his bat in the lineup throughout the season.

If all goes well, we could see Chirinos fill a utility role as a mid-season call up this year. His right-handed swing would certainly help balance out a lineup that added two more lefty bats in Kelly Johnson and James Loney this winter. Johnson's splits against righties and lefties throughout his career have been pretty even, but Loney's definitely has not.

Meanwhile, Chirinos has shown a bit of his own platoon split. Chirinos had 20 AAA plate appearances against lefties in 2010, and hit .529/.600/.824 (compared to .303/.378/.545 in 37 PA against righties). At AA that year, he hit .411/.485/.833 in 103 PA against lefties, and .286/.402/.484 against righties.

Those splits were on display at Durham in 2011, with a .837 OPS in 84 PA against lefties and .674 in 235 PA against righties. Such a right handed swing could really complement the lefty bats of Loney or Matt Joyce if either player is not up to the task of hitting southpaws in 2013. Keeping his bat in the lineup, while moving his defense around the diamond, could help the Rays and the health of Chirinos.

This year, Oliver has a more humble projection for Chirinos: .310 wOBA (a higher projection than other Rays backups Jose Lobaton and Chris Gimenez) and 1.7 WAR.

The fact he has a projection at all is a gift.

For more on Chirinos's recovery, you can read full stories in The Times and The Tribune. Thanks to Scott Grauer for his input on Chirinos's defensive profile and splits.