The deadline for MLB teams to non-tender pre-arbitration and arbitration-eligible players came and went on Wednesday night, with the Tampa Bay Rays not only tendering contracts to all of their players, but included acquiring catcher Hank Conger.
Many intriguing free agents entered the market last night, of which there will be much to parse, but another catcher caught my eye as well: the now-former Chicago White Sox catcher Tyler Flowers, who represents an intriguing target for the Rays.
The Rays shook-up their picture behind the plate last season, releasing Jose Molina, dealing away Ryan Hanigan, and adding Rene Rivera and Bobby Wilson. Their attempts to solidify the position did not work, however, as Rays catchers went on to slash just .202/.239/.361 with a 64 wRC+ on the year and were worth a measly 0.6 fWAR as a unit.
The root of the problem came with 2015's presumed starter Rivera, who was the only Ray with a realistic chance of getting non-tendered prior to Wednesday's deadline. The 32-year-old spent 2014 with the San Diego Padres, who sent him to the Rays in the Wil Myers deal after he hit .252/.319/.432 with a 113 wRC+ and 3.0 fWAR that year.
That is even more shocking when you consider the torrid small-sample performances from Curt Casali and J.P. Arencibia, who posted a 144 and a 152 wRC+ over 113 and 73 respective plate appearances.Casali is still around, but Arencibia was released. We can pencil Casali into the lineup moving forward, but we have no evidence thus far that the Rays consider Casali to be a starting catcher, nor has Conger been one.
Rivera disappointed greatly, hitting a Molina-esque .178/.213/.275 with a 33 wRC+ en route to being a well-below-replacement-level player. Rivera followed Molina in the model of a frame-first catcher who was thrusted into a starting role, but the results weren't there in the same way Molina kept his starting position.
The Rays elected to tender Rivera a contract nonetheless, but that does not necessarily mean he will stick around. Arbitration contracts are not fully guaranteed, and if a team releases a player signed to an arbitration contract, they will owe him just 30 days termination pay if he is released more than 16 days before the start of the season or 45 days termination pay if released 16 days or closer. Thus, the Rays could still get rid of Rivera, and that is where Flowers comes in.
Rene will make the Flowers grow
Flowers was nothing special last season, but he was better than Rivera, hitting .239/.295/.356 with a 78 wRC+ and posting a 0.4 fWAR. Those numbers were more or less right in line with his career .223/.289/.376 triple slash and 83 wRC+. A career 33.3 percent strikeout rate shows that making consistent contact is not his best trait, but he will also show off some power at times as shown by his .152 career ISO.
Defensively, Flowers is good enough to get the job done. Defensive Runs Saved (DRS) says he has been worth 11 runs above the league-average catcher in his career, although last year he regress to two runs below average. What DRS does not take into account, however, is Flowers' pitch framing, which vastly improved last season.
While he had been average or slightly below in years past, Flowers was worth 22.5 runs above average on framing alone in 2015 according to StatCorner, which ranked him second in all of baseball. Flowers may not be the sexiest pick-up, but he seems to be an upgrade over Rivera.
While Rivera's 2014 was better than any single season Flowers has put together, Flowers has better career numbers at the plate compared to Rivera's career .211/.258/.331 and 62 wRC+. DRS does give Rivera a slight defensive edge at 12 runs saved above average in 2378 career innings compared to Flowers' 11 in 3294 frames, but this difference is fairly minute.
While their career numbers may not be too terribly different, 2015 was a different story. As the below comparison shows, Flowers outplayed Rivera by a decent margin.
Even after tendering a contract to Rivera and adding Hank Conger in a trade with the Houston Astors, that does not mean that the Rays catching picture is complete.
As of right now, the team will seemingly either go with a tandem of Conger and Casali or Conger and Rivera. The latter might actually make sense as the Rays could send Casali back to Triple-A to be a quality third option rather than getting rid of Rivera and relying on Luke Maile as the first in line in the event of an injury.
Flowers could still represent an upgrade in that situation as the team could ink him and put him in a tandem with Conger while releasing Rivera and putting Casali at Triple-A.
Acquiring Conger bolstered the Rays catching corps, but the club is not necessarily done adding there. Flowers may not be the sexiest acquisition or the world's best fit, but he could still help out the club, and they should at least do their homework on him.