The Rays have made it a point in recent years to bring in many high-end catching prospects, spending much of their prospect budget and draft selections on that position in the process. In face, 2016 represented only the 2nd time since 2010 that the Rays didn’t select a catcher in one of the top 8 rounds of the draft.
In 2015, the Rays spent their 2nd rd selection (52nd overall) on Chris Betts and signed him for $1,482,500. In 2014, they selected Mac James in the 6th rd and gave him $175,000. In 2013, it was Nick Ciuffo who led the way as he was taken in the 1st rd (21st overall) and handed $1,972,200 for signing. In 2012, it was Luke Maile (8th rd) who received $133,200, and in 2010 it was Justin O’Conner who received $1,025,000 after being selected in the 1st rd, 31st overall.
Simultaneously, the Rays were very busy on the international market, signing David Rodriguez for $600,000 and Eric Maria for $300,000 in 2012, Rafelin Lorenzo for $250,000, Alexander Alvarez for $150,000 and Rene Pinto for $100,000 in 2013, and Gioser Tejeda for $250,000 in 2015.
Overall, that represents over $6,437,900 of investments through 11 players since 2010. The rewards for those significant investments are just starting to come in with Luke Maile earning playing time, but the more significant pieces are seemingly about to have a major impact on the Rays future behind the plate.
With that in mind, let’s kick off the top Rays catching prospects pre-2017.
The first catcher on our results, placing 6th, is a 2016 acquisition from the Orioles...
#6: Jonah Heim | 21 - HiA | 6’3” 190 lbs
2016 Stats (O’s A+): 88 G | 329 PA | 7 HR | 30 R | 10 BB% | 15.5 SO% | .301 wOBA% | 80 wRC+
2016 Stats (Rays A+): 14 G | 47 PA | 1 HR | 4 R | 4.3 BB% | 23.4 SO% | .267 wOBA% | 65 wRC+
Although he isn’t likely to be a known commodity to non-Rays fans, Heim has earned enough confidence within the organization to earn a non-roster invite to spring training. That is his second such invite after the Orioles invited him to their 2016 spring training. Obtained in the Steve Pearce trade with the Orioles, the 2013 4th rd selection has worked his way from the GCL through HiA.
What made 2016 the most interesting season yet for Heim’s progress is that he more than doubled his workload, exceeding the 100 G mark for the first time as a pro. Now that he’s received more regular playing time, it’s interesting to get a better look at how his bat progressed through the season.
Heim had his best stretch of the season in May, when he hit .243/.341/.459, good enough for an impressive .801 OPS. Although a tiny sample size (85 PA), it was the first time his bat showed some real life since he was drafted, so it was an encouraging sign. He hit 4 HR, drove in 13 RBI, and walked 11 times while only striking out 13 times that month. All good signs.
The obvious issue is the remainder of the year, where his bat seemed to struggle. However, his performance vs LHP (.244/.340/.444) for the season provides hope that he can be a viable backup used most when facing Southpaws.
Defensively, where it matters most for Catchers, is where Heim earns most of his praise. He consistently achieves good pop times (2.0), has a plus arm and good blocking skills. In 2016, he caught 32% of would be base stealers overall (36% CS while with Charlotte).
The following really says it all in reference to Heims’ receiving skills:
He entered this season ranked by Baseball America as the Best Defensive Catcher and the No. 15 prospect in the Orioles organization. He was ranked by MLB.com as the No. 13 prospect in the Orioles organization in their midseason update.
That’s what made him a good enough return for the Rays to deal Pearce. In all honesty, if the bat showed close to the same life that it showed us in May of 2016 for the remainder of the season, Heim could have moved up this list substantially. He just happens to have been acquired by a team that is extremely deep at catcher and spent a whole lot of money and high draft picks to get there.
Here’s a good look at what the switch hitting Heim:
Heim could easily finish the 2017 within the top 4 catchers of this system if his bat can come alive as it did in May of ‘16, possibly reaching the top 3.
Next up is my personal favourite Rays prospect, along with Jesus Sanchez...
#5: Rene Pinto | 20 - Rk | 5’10” 180 lbs
Signed: for $100,000 in 2013
2016 GCL Stats: 22 G | 88 PA | 2 HR | 9 R | 4.5 BB% | 23.9 SO% | .287 wOBA% | 80 wRC+
2016 Appy Stats: 18 G | 73 PA | 6 HR | 13 R | 4.1 BB% | 23.3 SO% | .439 wOBA% | 168 wRC+
Let’s start off Pinto’s coverage by saying that he and Heim were only apart by 1 point, and so were essentially tied in this ranking.
Full disclaimer: Before we dive into his Appy league performance, the sample size of information for Pinto remains fairly small. While we’re certainly excited about what he’s shown, we do need to see him in a full season of work before ranking him any higher on this list.
Having said that, 2016 was also his first season on U.S. soil and he succeeded tremendously, so despite the small sample size we’re very excited about his progress so far. What makes Pinto so intriguing is his electric bat and ceiling in terms of complete package. How electric is his bat? Extremely.
In early August 2016, after what looked like a slow season at the plate in the GCL, Pinto was moved to the Appy league when an injury necessitated his promotion, and his bat caught fire. During his first Appy league game, hitting 9th, he hit a solo HR off NYY prospect Raynel Espinal (23) who didn’t allow any other runs through 5 IP.
And he didn’t slow down from there later on in the month:
In fact, is he had spent the entire season in the Appy league (240ish ABs) and performed as well as he did in a short span, his pro-rated performance would have seen him lead the league in Doubles (24), HRs (21), and OPS (1.019). His ISO while there was a very impressive .368, and his 168 wRC+ really tells the tale.
How does his Appy league performance compare to some of the better known prospects in the league?
Let’s just have a little fun and compare his performance in the Appy league to that of #9 Rays prospect per BA, Jesus Sanchez, mostly since he was promoted from the GCL to the same Appy league team only 2 weeks later:
- Sanchez (18) 49 PA: 3 HR 4 DBL | .347 / .385 / .612 / .997 | ISO .265, 170 wRC+
- Pinto (19) 73 PA: 6 HR 7 DBL | .309 / .342 / .676 / 1.019 | ISO .368, 168 wRC+
For a young catcher like Pinto to outperform such a highly thought of prospect in terms of OPS and ISO and achieve almost exactly the same wRC+ and yet get so little recognition in comparison is surprising. Particularly when their circumstances are so similar and he plays the harder position to handle.
Ok, so the bat may peak your interest, now what about the defensive abilities?
Here’s a short video showing Pinto tagging out someone trying to score just to kick this portion off, showing off his concentration and quickness:
Overall, his current defensive abilities resemble those of fellow Rays C prospects, Brett Sullivan and Chris Betts, as illustrated by DRB’s Bradley Neveu here.
The areas of the game Pinto needs to improve most going forward include limiting Passed Balls (13 in 2016), hitting vs LHP (.188/.235/.750), cutting down on his strike outs (23%) if possible and improving his walk rate (4%). Of course he’ll also continue to work on his overall game calling abilities - as with all young catchers.
Remember Rene Pinto’s name. You may see it in BA’s next Rays top 10 list if he continues to perform so well, and it’ll be very interesting to see where the Rays see him beginning the 2017 season.
Next up is a convert who some believe has the tools to compete behind the plate...
#4: Brett Sullivan | 22 - LoA | 6’1” 195 lbs
Scouting grades: Hit: 45 | Power: 55 | Run: 50 | Arm: 55 | Field: 45 | Overall: 45
2016 Stats: 118 G | 501 PA | 13 HR | 75 R | 4.8 BB% | 14 SO% | .344 wOBA% | 118 wRC+
Converting from 3B duties to catching at 22 years old isn’t easy to do, but that’s exactly what the Rays asked of Sullivan in 2016. As the story goes....
“Bowling Green manager Reinaldo Ruiz said the Tampa Bay organization was looking for catchers in the organization who could supply offensive punch. When the Rays decided to convert players to catcher, Sullivan's name shot to the top of the list.”
The former part of that statement is interesting when we reflect on Rene Pinto’s success and consider the coming focus on Chris Betts, but let’s move on with Sully.
What was evident before the move is that Sullivan’s bat had some promise. What he needed to find was a position that fit him defensively. While he played well and learned a lot behind the plate in 2016, he shone most in throwing runners out with a 38% CS rate.
Some of the areas that still need some serious work behind the plate include the PB (22), receiving abilities, and improving his game calling as he studies up on how to attack hitters. Overall, his defensive abilities have received some praise and hold a lot of promise.
What about his offensive abilities? Apparently, being a catcher has helped Sullivan in that department.
"Being a catcher has helped me be a smarter hitter," Sullivan said. "It helps me know that in certain counts, a pitcher might throw a certain pitch, because I know that's what I'm thinking when I'm behind the plate."
I find it harder to gage how much emphasis on his offensive stats when he was learning a new position at the time, particularly one as demanding as catcher. Here’s what we do know.
While he doesn’t strike out a whole lot (14%), he also doesn’t draw many walks (4%). He can hit the ball to all fields and does have average to slightly above-average power. I’m not sure if he just wore down after catching so many games, but his stats show some regression as the season wore on.
Sullivan managed .297/.328/.484 in the first half of the season, and hit .271/.302/.398 in the second half. The dog days of summer may be to blame, or maybe it’s the dreaded slump after he won the Midwest League Home Run Derby:
Regardless of how he performed in the first half or the second half of the season offensively, the 2016 season was one that had Sullivan concentrating on becoming an effective catcher for a full season.
With character and work ethic that both draw a tremendous amount of praise within the organization, Sullivan is expected to continue to succeed going forward and will get a real test (expected to be in Charlotte) for the 2017 season. If he can take another step in the right direction, he has enough of a high ceiling to be viewed as a potential regular catcher.
And since he may continue to move up ahead of Pinto and Betts, there’ll be no shortage of pressure or competition for him to use as motivation.
Next up is a catcher who needed some extra pre-2016, went to Australia to get it, and benefitted a great deal from it....
#3: Nick Ciuffo | 21 - HiA | 6’1” 205 lbs
Scouting grades: Hit: 20-45+ | Power: 20-45+ | Throws: 60-60 | Field: 45-50+
2016 Stats: 59 G | 242 PA | 0 HR | 16 R | 3.7 BB% | 18.6 SO% | .275 wOBA% | 70 wRC+
The Rays spent a 1st round selection on Ciuffo because he had the complete package. Good bat projections, outstanding receiving skills, and strong accurate arm and release. Since then, despite already being a great prospect from the start, he’s come a long way, ultimately named the Defensive Player of the Year in the Rays system for 2016.
After making it through the GCL, Appy league, and Midwest League, Ciuffo headed to the ABL and was doing great while facing much more experienced competition. An injury to one of his fingers forced him out for a while, but that experience set him up for a great first half of the 2016 season, his first at the High A level.
That and the work he put in while at Hudson Valley of course. As he puts it:
“I’ve been working with Chad Mottola a lot and Dan DeMent and all the hitting coaches we have. I think I’m really close to kind of tapping into the hitter I’m going to be for the next five years or 10 years or whatever it’s going to be.’’
His performance in the first half of the season was good enough to put him in the FSL all-star game, which he missed due to another finger injury - his pinky this time. At that point, he had managed 6 doubles and a line of .289/.306/.325. While on the surface that doesn’t seem like a substantial line, it was a big step for him since he was facing pitchers that used a lot more off-speed stuff than he’d ever faced to this point, and it was well ahead of the .259/.279/.432 he hit in 2015 (aside from the slugging).
On the defensive side of things, Ciuffo was steady as ever and really showed off his receiving skills all season long. Here’s a decent video showing the steady glove:
There’s also a reason Fangraphs have his throws rated at 60 on the scouting scale. Consider this little fact: Ciuffo threw out 27 of 46 runners in base stealing attempts. That’s good for a 59% CS rate, which is an improvement on his 50% CS rate overall through 1622 innings. Simply put - Nick Ciuffo shuts down running games.
Ciuffo also made some gains in the PB category, almost cutting them in half (7 PB vs 12 PB), and lowered his errors from 11 to 8. All-in-all, Ciuffo proved that he could be a rock behind the plate and help his pitchers out with his receiving and throwing abilities, while cutting mistakes significantly.
If he had remained healthy all year long, there’s a good chance that Ciuffo could have made his improvements at the plate look more significant than we can currently see. Now headed for Montgomery and the more challenging AA environment, his bat will really be tested.
Ciuffo will get every chance to make it work, and with defensive abilities to be a regular catcher on any MLB team, the question is now has become when will he get his first chance to show off his skills in The Show, not whether he’ll get that shot or not.
And to think such an outstanding catching prospect stands 3rd on our list, makes you wonder what makes the next two any better, doesn’t it?
Up next, Davo’s a go-go....
#2: David Rodriguez | 20 - LoA | 6’1” 215 lbs
Signed for: $600,000 out of Venezuela
Scouting grades: Hit: 20-50 | Power: 20-45 | Throws: 55-55 | Field: 40-50
2016 LoA Stats: 112 G | 472 PA | 9 HR | 54 R | 9.3 BB% | 18.6 SO% | .317 wOBA% | 100 wRC+
2016 ABL Stats (on-going): 19 G | 77 AB | 6 DBL | 6 HR | 7 BB | 14 SO | slash of .442/.494/.753
Age: 19. B-T: R-R. Ht.: 5-11. Wt.: 200. Signed: Venezuela, 2012.
The Rays started diving into the international pool post-2010 and it’s about to pay off, big time. One of those payoffs will be David Rodriguez, who has the complete package behind the plate. He can hit well, he can catch well, he has makeup that coaches covet, and pitchers praise his abilities.
Offensively speaking, Rodriguez had his best season before coming to the U.S., in 2013, when he hit 12 HRs in 260 AB while catching in the VSL. He hit .329/.409/.540 there and made the jump to the GCL for 2014.
For the three seasons on U.S. soil, he’s improved many parts of his hitting. He proved to have an ability to work counts and have great ABs, increasing his BB rate from 6.2% in 2014 to 9.3% in 2016. He simultaneously lowered his SO rate from 21.2% to 18.6%. This despite his being 1.5 years younger than the average age of those in the MWL.
And as this video shows, Rodriguez has enough power to turn on an inside pitch:
One point I’d like to add to his offensive performance in 2016 is that it was his first full season behind the plate, where he likely wore down some. After catching 45 games in 2015, he caught 112 games in 2016. And if we cut the season to July 1st and thereafter, we get the following:
Apr - Jul 1st: 237 AB | 64 H | 7 DBL | 1 TR | 6 HR | 25 BB | 50 SO | .270 BA
Jul 3rd - End year: 190 AB | 40 H | 9 DBL | 3 HR | 19 BB | 39 SO | .211 BA
With more experience and the conditioning of a full season behind him, Rodriguez should be able to maintain a more consistent performance at the plate in 2017 and may be close to displaying more of his hitting potential as he continues to mature.
Defensively speaking, Rodriguez has a cannon of an arm and he knows how to use it. Throwing out 56% of would be base stealers in 2016, and was steadfast overall with a .977 fldg%. To put that into perspective, it was identical to Justin O’Conner’s CS rate when he was catching for Bowling Green in 2013. The differences? Rodriguez did so 2 years younger, allowed half the Passed Balls (11 compared to 22 for O’Conner), and this despite catching 7 more games.
In short, Rodriguez is an above-average catcher defensively speaking, with a defensive ceiling that only Ciuffo can match or exceed on this list.
The 2017 season will be another test for Rodriguez and we will see whether the improvements at the plate continue. In my personal opinion, he has the best chance to be the future Yadier Molina style catcher the Rays covet so badly and would have him atop this list as a result.
He may be passing the Bowling Green torch to the next catcher on our list, a catcher who could use that full season experience.....
#1: Chris Betts | 19 - SS | 6’2” 215 lbs
Scouting grades: Hit: 50 | Power: 55 | Run: 20 | Arm: 50 | Field: 45 | Overall: 45
2016 Appy Stats: 23 G | 90 PA | 0 HR | 2 R | 18.9 BB% | 25.6 SO% | .292 wOBA% | 83 wRC+
On the surface, it would seem odd to have catchers of such high quality as David Rodriguez and Nick Ciuffo ranked behind Chris Betts. To be completely honest, my list had him second in the system behind Rodriguez, but I can see the reason in why most hold him in such high regard despite a difficult road since he was drafted.
The talented catcher had TJ surgery post-draft, something that wasn’t much of a surprise and was the main reason he fell to the Rays in the 2nd round of the 2015 draft. Despite the surgery, when the 2015 season ended and catching prospect rankings were made for 2016, Betts landed squarely among the best, 11th overall, when ranked by BA’s J.J. Cooper.
Once he rehabbed and was deemed ready to roll, Betts made his debut in the GCL and alternated between C and DH. In all, he caught 10 of his 16 games in the league, and hit safely in 9 of them.
What was most impressive, however, was his willingness to take a walk, working the count toward 10 walks, good enough for an 18.2% walk rate. For someone drafted out of high school who sat out so long, he displayed a lot more patience than you might expect.
From there, you could say that the Rays were extremely aggressive in promoting him to the A level, where he joined the Hudson Valley Renegades. The first half of August was a real struggle for Betts. He only managed 1 hit through his first 10 games of the month, committed 3 errors, and struck out 10 times in 33 ABs.
But that’s when Betts displayed his relentlessness and worked his way through the slump. For the second half of August, he turned it on, managing 9 hits in 12 games, 4 of which were doubles, walked 10 times and struck out 12 times in 45 ABs.
These signs were an encouraging improvement that is also reflected in the last 14 games he played, where he hit .227/.404/.318. He was able to contribute well enough offensively speaking to keep himself squarely in our thoughts as a potentially potent offensive catcher.
After all, being able to manage a .722 OPS as a 19 year old who sat out so long with a significant injury is impressive. Doing so against the best competition you’ve ever seen while learning to catch at a high level is even more impressive.
Speaking of which, how were the reviews of Betts’ catching abilities?
Statistically speaking, he threw out 30% of would be base stealers while in HV and showed good receiving skills. And while he does have to cut down his errors and PB (8 of each in 27 games at C), he has the potential to remain behind the plate.
As MLB.com’s profile tells us:
When healthy, his arm strength is his best defensive tool, though he'll need to shorten his arm stroke and clean up his transfer skills. Once Betts recovers from his surgery, a true evaluation of his defensive skills can be made.
The second portion of that statement is the focus here, since we won’t really know how good a catching ceiling Betts really has until the 2017 season is in the books. Expected to get a shot at making the Bowling Green team, he’s going to be fully recovered from the surgery and able to perform at full strength and with some pro background to work with.
Should Chris Betts figure it out behind the plate and make the most of his hitting potential, he has a higher ceiling of any catcher on this list. While he may always lag slightly behind both Rodriguez and Ciuffo defensively, his bat’s ability to significantly exceed their production is what makes him the most intriguing Rays catching prospect and places him atop our C rankings.
To finish this piece on an exciting tone, enjoy a short video - albeit old one - of Betts and his easy and powerful LH stroke at the Under Armour All American Home Run Derby in 2014. It’s a great reminder of why Betts is so highly thought of as a catching prospect with power. Enjoy!
Honorable Mention: Justin O’Conner | 24 - AAA | 6’0” 190 lbs
Scouting Grades: Hit: 40 | Power: 50 | Run: 35 | Arm: 80 | Field: 55 | Overall: 45
2016 Stats: Did not play
Justin O’Conner had a major league projection until back injuries flared up, resulting in multiple surgeries in 2016. His 80-grade arm is a carrying tool, and even though he was removed from the 40-man roster, he’s been retained by the Rays in the system.
If his career get’s back on track, he’s a valuable asset for the Rays, and we wish him all the best in his recovery.