Over the past two years, the Rays starting catcher position has been a virtual black hole at the bottom of the team's line-up, with Jose Molina and Rene Rivera embarrassing Tampa Bay from the batter's box in consecutive years.
In 2014, Molina put up the worst offensive season in team history, a mere 21 wRC+ over 80 games. Not to be outdone, Rivera put up just 33 wRC+ over 110 games before losing his starting job in the second half. The only bright spot about last year's catching situation was when Curt Casali came up from Durham and mashed 10 home runs in just over 110 plate appearances.
The Rays hadn't seen that kind of power since Kelly Shoppach put up 11 homers over more than double the amount of opportunities. Casali also produced 1.1 fWAR, tying him for 7th most in team history in a single-season for a catcher. Of course, that kind of production isn't likely to be consistently output by Casali, but it showed how nice it would be if the Rays actually had a solid hitting backstop.
Entering the off-season, it seemed like Rivera was an obvious choice to be non-tendered, with him effectively losing his roster spot in September; however, the Rays surprisingly retained him. Tampa Bay not only offered him arbitration, but then proceeded to make that move even more questionable as they acquired former Angels top prospect Hank Conger.
Photo credit: Jonathan Dyer-USA TODAY Sports
Conger is an amazing framer and possesses plus-power, but has failed to produce a strong breakout season in the majors. Conger was twice one of the top 100 prospects in baseball and was mainstay at the top of the Angels' organization but has since moved on to the Astros, whom the Rays acquired him from in December. Conger was actually decent last year, but baserunners ran wild on him as he failed to catch them at an historic rate, allowing 42 stolen bases and nailing just one runner.
So, as they Rays get set to begin their month long stretch of spring training games, the question is this; which catchers will the Rays have on their opening day roster?
If you were to check out each catcher over the past season, you would have seen the gaudy home run power of Curt Casali, but also would have seen his struggles behind the plate. Anytime he would come up for an appearance, you knew there was a chance he would launch the ball somewhere into the bleachers. That, or he would probably strikeout. In just about two months though, he showed how badly the Rays had missed a decent hitting catcher.
Then again, Rivera shows exactly why fans loved Casali in the lineup so much. He was the equivalent of a decent hitting pitcher, struggling to get on base and inability to work counts as he flailed at anything near the zone struggling to make decent contact and always seemingly being up in the worst situations. However, he actually wasn't bad in the defensive department, continuing to rely on his calling card of pitch framing. Despite a shaky start in the running department, he settled down and began to nail pretty much any runner who dared to test his arm.
The same can not be said for Hank Conger, who threw out runners at the lowest rate in major league history. Conger falls in the middle between Rivera and Casali as he provides a decent bat -- not quite as good as Casali, but much better than Rivera -- while his defense outshines Casali's, but buried by Rivera.
If you were to look at the various projection systems for the three backstops, it's pretty much a tossup, with the exception of Conger, who one system in particular absolutely loves. In overall value, they rank all three about the same, with Rivera getting the worst projections of the trio despite his stellar defense.
So, how do these three look with opening day just over a month away?
Photo credit: Jonathan Dyer-USA TODAY Sports
In my opinion, Conger is a lock for the opening day roster, as he has shown he can handle major league pitching and actually mashed against right handers last year, pretty much meaning he'll be on the long side of the platoon at catcher for the Rays. He can hit from both sides of the plate, giving the team their first switch hitting catcher since Jose Lobaton, and adding even more flexibility to Kevin Cash's mid-game tinkering when necessary.
It should be noted that Conger does have an option remaining should the Rays decide to send him to Durham at some point.
Casali has limited big league experience, but showed he can more than hold his own against major league pitching. However, we don't know how he'd adjust once pitchers get acclimated to him. If he makes the opening day roster, then Rivera is likely to be released, leaving the Rays high and dry in the depth department, as Luke Maile is the only other back-up, back-up. If Rivera makes the opening day roster instead, the Rays would instead have an optioned catcher who can quickly takeover, so consider that incentive to retain Rene.
However, another deterrent to Rivera making the roster is the fact that he'd be owed $1.7 million, something the Rays would be on the hook for that if they decide to cut him later on. If released before opening day, the Rays would only have to payout $250 K.
There is the possibility of Rivera making it through waivers, but it's doubtful that a team will pass up a player of Rivera's defensive caliber on the waiver wire. It's worth noting that over the off-season, Rivera revamped his swing hoping to rebound from his horrific 2015. It remains to be seen how effective change will be.
My personal prediction:
- Hank Conger is the opening day catcher and will see most of the playing time.
- Rene Rivera narrowly beats out Casali, but is designated for assignment after his poor production continues.
- Casali mashes in Durham and forces his way back onto the roster in May