Entering the offseason the biggest hole to fill on the Tampa Bay Rays roster comes at catcher.
The Tampa Bay Rays could enter the season with their current roster and be in reasonably solid shape except the only two catchers on the 40 man roster are Michael Perez and Nick Ciuffo.
Combined the two have 124 plate appearances of major league experience. They both are left handed bats that are more defense over bat. They are both young and maybe they become the answer in the future, but having both on the opening day roster is not the answer for 2019.
Adding an experienced catcher to the mix, preferably a right handed one, would be beneficial.
Free Agent Market
Before we break down some offers, let’s first survey who is available:
Free Agent Catching Options Last 3 Years
As of this moment the Rays would start 2019 with a payroll sitting around $33MM. If the Rays payroll stays in the same ballpark it has for most of the last decade that would mean the Rays have $30-40MM to spend.
The Rays have money to spend in the short term with little money on the books, but the question will be how long can they go as arbitration raises will naturally increase the payroll moving forward.
What options are available for just cash?
Free Agent Catching Options Last 3 Years
The first thing that jumps off the page of available catcher is how many of them were Rays at some point of their career. 7 of the 18 catchers once donned a Rays uniform.
Yasmani Grandal is the runaway, best option available. In each of the three years he put up at least 5.4 WARP. Even if one doesn’t believe in the framing metrics, his 9.0 fWAR ranks third in the majors behind only JT Realmuto and Buster Posey. Much was made about Grandal’s blocking ability in the playoffs, and he has been a couple runs per year below average in blocking runs, but as a bonus Grandal is the youngest option on the board. He turns 30 later this month.
Wilson Ramos put up a 5.5 WARP season in 2016 before tearing his ACL in the final week of the season. The Rays pounced on a two year deal. Recovered, Ramos hit well for the Rays in the first half of 2018, winning the vote to be starting catcher in the All-Star Game. Ramos has hit very well the last three years, but his track record before that was very up and down. Ramos’s 2.4 WARP in 2018 was his third best year of his career behind his 2016 and 2011 seasons. He mashes left handed pitching, which pairs well with the Rays current pair of catchers on the 40 man roster.
Martin Maldonado and Jonathan Lucroy once formed the Milwaukee Brewers catching duo for most of the beginning of the decade. Maldonado has a history of being a very good defender, enough so that the Los Angeles Angels traded for Maldonado to get him more playing time before the 2017 season. Lucroy once was an impact bat and defender, but those days are long behind him. He bounced back for a four plus win season in 2016, but that’s the only time he’s been worth more than two wins since 2014. In 2018 he put up -0.8 WARP as his bat and defense declined. He has a reputation for working well with a staff. Neither is a terrible option as long as you believe there is some bounce back in the defense/bat from Lucroy, but he’s not the first or maybe even top five option. Due to Maldonado being the backup for most of his career, he only has 4,457 innings behind the plate while Lucroy has 8,494.2 innings behind the plate. Lucroy has much more wear and tear on his body.
Kurt Suzuki has broken out with the bat with the Atlanta Braves. He has put up a 116 wRC+ over the past two seasons. He gives back a few runs with the glove, but if you believe the late career breakout for the 35 year old catcher is real he’s a starting option.
Brian McCann once was Grandal. Before signing a lucrative five-year free agent contract with the New York Yankees McCann was a very good offensive catcher that also could play defense. 2018 was the first time McCann really wasn’t a useful major leaguer. He missed a couple of months after undergoing arthroscopic surgery in July. He came back in September and hit well in a small sample. McCann’s left handed bat doesn’t really fit with what the Rays already have in house even if you believe in a bounce back.
Jeff Mathis is the backup that has put up great numbers due to otherworldly defense, but Mathis doesn’t bring anything with the bat. Since 2014 Mathis has never gotten more than 218 plate appearances in a season. This signing would be like going back to having Jose Molina behind the plate. Sure he helps out the pitchers, but he makes you want to close your eyes whenever he comes to bat.
The rest of the options aren’t filling a number one catcher for a team looking to do much in 2019 for anything more than a minor league deal (sorry, Robinson Chirinos!).
It’s tough to know who will or won’t be available in the trade market. Some of these names have been out there more than others, but could be reasonably available.
Trade Option Catchers Last 3 Years
JT Realmuto might be the best catcher in the game right now. Realmuto turns 28 this winter. He can hit and is a speedster for a catcher. Realmuto’s 28.6 ft/s sprint speed would be tied for fourth on the Rays roster with Tommy Pham behind only Mallex Smith, Kevin Kieramier, and Austin Meadows. For a team that tries to string hits together having a speedy catcher could be the best fit. When you need 3 singles to score a runner from first, it can be tough to get them home. After the comments from Realmuto’s agent shooting down the idea of an extension it is assumed that the Marlins will trade him this winter.
Last year the asks were huge. Even though he’s down to two years remaining of team control the price probably hasn’t dropped that much. There will be a lot of teams interested in one of the best catchers in the game that is only expected to get $6.1MM in his second trip through arbitration. The Rays have enough prospects that they likely wouldn’t have to give up a name like Wander Franco, but think about any other prospect you really like and you probably need to give up two of them to really have a shot.
Francisco Cervelli is in the final year of an extension he signed with the Pittsburgh Pirates and will make $11.5MM in 2019. He can hit well for a catcher and defend. The Pirates might try to pull a Rays style move where they use the money to fill another hole while trading for a prospect since Elias Diaz put up a very good season last year. Cervelli has had trouble staying healthy (last year it was a concussion), so he would be a health risk, but that should also be reflected in the trade price. If he’s healthy he likely has a productive 2019.
Mike Zunino strikes out. That shouldn’t be expected to change. His 2018 wasn’t up to the standard he set in 2016-17. 84 wRC+ is about average for a catcher. Most of his poor 2018 results as a hitter can be explained by his 58 wRC+ vs LHP. In 2016-17 he put up a 137 wRC+ in both seasons against LHP. Last year he put up a 99 wRC+ against RHP. He’s not a guy who must be platooned, but the Rays would need him to bounce back against LHP to help out their left handed options behind the plate. Even with the down year at the plate he put up 1.3 WARP in 405 plate appearances, because he gets work done defensively. He’s one of the better options that might be reasonably available. Zunino is expected to make $4.2MM in his second trip through arbitration with two years of team control remaining.
Russell Martin is in his final season of a 5/$82MM deal he signed with the Toronto Blue Jays and scheduled to make $20MM in 2019. There hasn’t been real talk about Martin being available. The Blue Jays are likely going to be in a transition to their young guys. He’ll take a step back as they give Danny Jansen an opportunity to get all the playing time he can handle. Martin isn’t worth $20MM a year, but wouldn’t cost much to acquire either even if the Blue Jays pay it down some. Toronto might choose to keep him as a veteran presence and play him everywhere, including shortstop, again. And he might be the least available of the catchers listed.
Yan Gomes enters 2019 owed $7MM with team options in 2020 and 2021 worth $9MM and $11MM. Gomes had a disastrous 2016 where he put up a 30 wRC+ and -1.2 WARP. He has rebounded and put up 2.0 and 3.3 WARP the last two seasons. Gomes has hit LHP quite well with a 115 wRC+ including 121 and 125 wRC+ the past two seasons. He won’t cost nearly as much as Realmuto. He’s also not nearly as good as Realmuto, but Gomes might be the best of the trade options, even if he’s more costly than the average Rays player. Also of note: Kevin Cash was credited with “discovering” Gomes back in the day.
Salvador Perez has the reputation of being a great catcher. If one buys into the intangibles they probably think he’s very good. Perez has been one of the worst framers putting up -9.5, -10.0, and -9.9 framing runs the last three years according to Baseball Prospectus, but he hits above average for a catcher. He’s not a bad player, and he’s owed $36MM over the next three seasons. Even though he only turns 29 early next season there are a lot of miles on that body. He has caught 7,427 innings behind the plate in his major league career. The only catchers in either list with more innings behind the plate are Jonathan Lucroy, Kurt Suzuki, and Brian McCann. Perez is well liked in Kansas City and one of the few guys left from their World Series runs. The Royals haven’t publicly acknowledged that Perez is available and he might not even be available. It’s likely not worth the trouble anyway.
Who will the Rays pursue
It all comes down to what price the Rays are willing to pony up to fill their hole at catcher. If price is no object Grandal and Realmuto are by far the two best options on the table.
If Grandal’s price really came in at or around 3/$39MM like Jon Heyman’s expert or Kiley McDaniels at FanGraphs predict then there is no reason the Rays shouldn’t be involved and be very aggressive in trying to get one of the best catchers in the game for only some cash. The reality is I think he’s more likely to land a deal comparable to Brian McCann’s 5/$85MM deal or Russell Martin’s 5/$82MM deal. At four or five years it is more difficult to negotiate a contract underwater than most, so I don’t foresee the Rays being players at that level. Anything less and they should do everything they can to get it done.
Realmuto will cost a ton in trade. Craig Mish who covers the Marlins tweeted the expectations of the Marlins for Realmuto as follows:
Sources also indicate Marlins are asking price on Realmuto is a high end young pitching prospect and a position player. A potential two for one.— Craig Mish (@CraigMish) November 7, 2018
It will take two very good pieces that are more than likely at or very near the top of the Rays top five. The Rays have the depth that they could make this move if they believe Realmuto is the missing piece. If you really want Realmuto it would likely take Brendan McKay and Jesus Sanchez to really have a chance to win the bidding. It would move some wins to the present, but you’re getting a cost controlled catcher for the next two years.
The likely outcome is the Rays aren’t willing to win the bidding for Grandal or Realmuto. It’s the way to make the best 2019 Rays team, but the cost will likely be great to future teams.
The next best options are all clumped around league average that have some flaw in their game that limits them from being great.
- Ramos is available for only money and sounds like might be limited to something in the 3/$30-36MM range. The Rays can afford the money. It’s whether they want to gamble on his health at this point.
- Cervelli is good when healthy, but has just as many health question marks as Ramos. He might not even be available.
- Zunino strikes out a lot, but is a good defender. He won’t be a black hole offensively even if he doesn’t produce more than he did last year with the bat.
- Gomes is a good defender who has hit lefties well. He’s had one terrible season with others being in the middle.
- Suzuki has broken out with the bat, but will be 35 next season. He’s also a negative defender, but as long as he’s hitting he still is useful.
The team is good right now, so I would be more willing to be aggressive when you can, but Grandal and Realmuto do not appear to be realistic adds. After that tier, they settle on a good-but-not-great option that at least gives the Rays a solid option behind the plate. Here the Rays need to get something done.
There is no reason the Tampa Bay Rays should be forced to settle for less.