Catcher Curt Casali surprised the Rays last year by hitting ten home runs in the 38 games he played for the Rays before a hamstring injury ended his season in August. While 38 games is a small sample size, it was hard for Rays fans not to feel some small bit of optimism that the team might finally have a starting catcher who could actually hit.
You have to go back to 2011 to find a Rays catcher who hit more than ten homers over a season. In 2011 Kelly Shoppach slammed 11, and it took Shoppach 87 games to reach that number. He must have been swinging only for the fences (or the stands, if you recall the number of bats he sent hurling into foul territory), since his average didn’t pass the Mendoza line (Shoppach hit .176 for the season).
After Shoppach’s slugging in 2011, you wold have to go back to Toby Hall’s 2003 season to find a catcher who cracked more than ten home runs. Hall hit 12 during that season, in 130 games.
That history says more about the quality of the Rays’ catchers than it does about Casali. But then, Casali has always flown a little below the radar. Of course, no one is projecting Casali to hit 40 home runs in 2016. For one thing, Casali’s season high in the minors was ten. Still, Casali's 2015 home run total is remarkable, and certainly stands out among Rays' catchers' performances.
Casali was a three sport athlete at New Canaan High School in Connecticut. He graduated in 2007 and attended Vanderbilt University on a baseball scholarship, where he was a teammate of David Price. Casali’s team made it to the College World Series in 2011, but did not win.
The Tigers picked him in the 10th round in 2011, and the Rays traded for him in 2013 for eventual major league pitcher Kyle Lobstein. Casali’s play at the A/AA level immediately validated their scouting, as Casali not only hit his minor league season high in homers with ten, but batted .316/.404/.488 in 2013.
Once Casali advanced to Triple-A Durham he started to hit more like a catcher, batting slightly below league average (95 wRC+) heading into his first promotion. He didn’t impress anyone with the bat when the club called him to the majors in 2014, but his ability to work well with pitchers was in evidence.
In 2015, the Rays went with Rene Rivera and minor league invite Bobby Wilson to start the season. Neither provided any offense, and Casali (who was also struggling offensively in Durham) received his call-up in June.
He hit his first home run in his third game, and continued to mash well above expectations (144 wRC+!) until he injured his leg rounding the bases after hitting home run number ten on August 25. He finished the year with a .238/.304/.594 slash line for his 38 games. His .594 slugging percentage would have led the American League in 2015 (Mike Trout’s was .590) had Casali been eligible for the slugging crown.
You would think that Rays’ management would be eager to give Casali a chance to see if he could improve in 2016.
Of course, they are probably worried about the major league depth, with the release of Wilson and the putrid showing of last year's offense from Rene Rivera, so they traded for respected framer Hank Conger -- a catcher who hit one more homer than Casali last year over 40 more games. These two players make for an interesting comparison.
Conger performed better defensively than Casali, but not by much. Both were in positive territory with Framing Runs. Conger reached 3.6 Framing Runs, but played a little more than twice as many games as Casali.
Casali reached 1.7 framing runs in his games. However according to Baseball Prospectus, when you include blocking runs and throwing runs, Casali's Total Runs saved were just one-tenth of a run less than Conger's, 1.7 to Conger's 1.8.
Baseball Prospectus projects Conger to have a much better defensive year than Casali in 2016. They project Casali at -4.1 Total Runs and Conger at 7.3. That's a significant difference. However, projections are difficult given the small sample size of Casali's major league games, and I wouldn't be surprised if Casali's defense in 2016 was much better than projected.
Offensive Projections: Baseball Prospectus projects Casali to hit close to what he hit in 2015, but with over 411 plate appearances;
The home run total they project for Casali would be the second highest in a season for any catcher in Rays history. John Flaherty owns the record with 14 in 1999. His 1.5 WARP is slightly higher than the 1.3 projected for Conger, and significantly better than the 0.3 projected for Rene Rivera.
Conger and Casali both have options remaining. But if Rivera's new swing doesn’t hit (or if the vet gets traded), Casali and Conger would make an attractive and alliterative catching tandem.
Read More:The Rays position battle at Catcher
Pitchers and catchers have just reported, and there are still more moves the Rays may make before spring training is over. If Casali can sustain his hot bat in 2016, the Rays will find a place for him to play.