Fans are understandably frustrated with the offense the Rays have received from the catcher position throughout the history of the franchise. Free agent catcher Jason Castro is one of the better options available on the market, and a sensible choice for the Rays, should they want to finally sign an established backstop.
Why does Jason Castro fit?
You can begin the argument for Castro around offense.
The Rays already have a good hitting option against left handed pitching in Curt Casali. Casali hit .230/.305/.432 and 101 wRC+ in 82 PA against southpaws. In his career he’s put up a 106 wRC+ against left handed pitchers and put up a solid season defensively in 2016 with +3.0 FRAA (Framing Runs Above Average via BaseballProspectus.com).
A left handed bat to face off against right handed pitching is the ideal platoon candidate for Casali, which would be the lion's share of plate appearances. Castro has the potential to meet that need.
Castro’s bat is far from great, but it's an average bat for the position, and combined with his plus defense, would greatly improve the Rays catching in 2017.
Jason Castro’s Bat
Statistics courtesy of Baseball Prospectus, for use of framing numbers.
VORP = Value Over Replace Player (in runs)
FRAA = Framing Runs Above Average
WARP = Wins Above Replacement Player
Jason Castro’s offense compares favorably with the catcher’s offensive production in the league that is typically in the upper 80s wrC+. He’s been around average with the bat, but that would be a big step forward compared to the 66, 65, and 55 wRC+ the Rays have received out of the position over the last three seasons.
Castro has big splits vs right handed pitchers. Due to the nature of the position a platoon at catcher is an ideal situation when you don’t have one of the absolute studs in Jonathan Lucroy or Buster Posey.
Castro’s hard hit rate has increased the last three years at 32.4%, 36.5%, and 37.4%. This would fit with the Rays love of hard contact even if it does comes with a strikeout rate that has hovered around 30% in recent years.
Jason Castro’s Glove
His glove by traditional standards is somewhere near average. Over the last three years he has a combined 0 DRS split as -2, 4, and -2. Last year he caught 23.7% of stolen base attempts which is in line with his 26.1% career rate as being just under league average that typically resides in the upper 20%s.
The real value in Castro’s glove is as a pitch framer where he has been among the best in the recent past. Over the past three seasons he has put up +9.3 (2014), +11.5 (2015), and +16.9 framing runs (2016 - third highest overall at the major league level).
The Rays have long been one of the teams that were in front of the catcher framing valuation, ever since they signed Jose Molina to be a starting catcher, even though he had never received that much playing time. After playing several years for the Astros, a similarly minded organization, Castro may too be a candidate who might be undervalued on the market for his framing.
Many experts expect Castro to get just a reasonable contract on the free agent market. MLBTradeRumors.com writers predict he will receive a 2/$15MM deal as the 29th ranked free agent.
Why will Castro not sign with the Rays?
With the injury to Wilson Ramos, Jason Castro can be argued to be the best catcher that will be available in 2017. The Rays are not a big spender in free agency and have rarely taken the plunge for multi-year deals.
The only times they have in the Rays era have been for Pat Burrell, James Loney, and Grant Balfour. They have all ended poorly for the Rays. Tampa Bay did recently nab the best free agent infielder available when they signed Asdrubal Cabrera two seasons ago, but that was not a hefty free agent deal.
Dan Szymborski’s ESPN Insider($) article ZiPS projects Castro as the 16th ranked free agent and is worth 2/$25.4MM, which does not appear to account for Castro’s framing, arguably his best attribute. If GMs value Castro this much it will likely price Castro out of the Rays price range.
We don’t know the monetary value of the offers, but it’s reported he has three offers from AL teams:
Sources: Catching market heating up. Jason Castro sitting on offers from at least three AL teams. He's in top tier with Ramos and Wieters.— Jeff Passan (@JeffPassan) November 11, 2016
What should the Rays offer?
The Rays should be in play as Jason Castro would represent a big upgrade in the only position where the Rays can get a significant return on improving to average. The Rays should be comfortable giving the 29 year old catcher a contract offer similar to James Loney’s 3/$21MM deal the Rays signed after the 2013 season.
Given Castro's abilities behind the plate, and the opportunity for him to stay hot against right handed pitching, anything up to 3/$30MM is reasonable, and could be a steal for a guy that could give you 2 WARP (again, Baseball Prospectus wins) in a position of need.
If the Rays aren’t able to sign Castro, they will have to turn to the trade market to get any meaningful upgrade.