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Which catchers might the Rays target on the free agent market?

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Could one of these catchers find themselves starting for the Rays next season?

Original photo by Kim Klement - USA TODAY Sports

With the departure of Travis d’Arnaud to free agency, the Rays have three catchers on the 40-man roster: Mike Zunino, Michael Perez and Ronaldo Hernandez. While they could get by with the former two as the tandem at the major league level, adding one more name is likely before the offseason is done — but how strong of a name can they land?

On the free agent market, the signing of Yasmani Grandal by the Chicago White Sox took the top catching name off of the board, but there are a handful of lower-tier catchers that are available and capable of taking the starting catcher position.

Two of the best available from that free agent group are worth taking a deeper look at, and one of them is a familiar face.

Jason Castro

MLB: Minnesota Twins at Tampa Bay Rays Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Jason Castro is one of the better defensive catchers available, consistently posting top-30 framing numbers while also being an above-average blocker. He missed most of 2018 with a torn meniscus, but came back in 2019 to play 80 games for the Twins as their backup catcher behind breakout backstop Mitch Garver.

Castro has had just one season in his nine-year career in which he has posted a negative Defensive Runs Above Average, and that was all the way back in 2012. Although it is half of the story as to why Castro is one of the top catching free agents, Castro’s bat took a jump forward last season.

Castro’s average exit velocity increased by 4.3 mph from 2018 to 2019, and although this could be partially attributed to the “juiced balls,” his ability to get on base has always remained consistently above-average among catchers.

Since 2016, .309 is the league-average OBP among catchers, and Castro has gotten on base at a .319 rate, deflated in large part by a .257 OBP in his injury-shortened 2018 season. Castro draws walks as well as anyone, walking 11.7% of the time since 2016 and averaging 10% throughout his career.

Steamer projects Castro’s production to take a dip in 2020 with a wRC+ of 88 — which would still be above 2019’s league-average rate among catchers of 85, but below his career average of 93 — while also expecting one of his best defensive seasons, roughly a two-win performance. Steamer also projects a massive dip for Castro in wOBA for 2020, but one that would still be higher than league-average.

Here’s Castro’s wOBA graphed over the leagues average performance at catcher:

The Rays have tried to sign Castro in the past when he was a free agent in 2016, after six seasons with the Astros, and likely may try again given his expectations for next season.

Castro should be an affordable yet productive option for the Rays in 2020 and he would take over as the starting catcher. MLB Trade Rumors predicts that Castro will sign for two years, making $5 million each year. Fangraphs’ crowd-sourcing averages two years at $6M per year for Castro. Both might come in lower than the other top name available.

Travis d’Arnaud

Divisional Series - Houston Astros v Tampa Bay Rays - Game Four Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

I promised a familiar face, didn’t I? While maybe not the flashiest signing, Travis d’Arnaud coming back for the 2020 season would signal the Rays betting on consistency in their playoff team over bringing a new player into the mix.

Travis d’Arnaud and Mike Zunino provided a good catching strategy for the Rays last season, with the offensively-strong d’Arnaud playing most games while the defensively-gifted Zunino backed him up, often in games — and that partnership could be a good tandem again in 2020.

d’Arnaud may not be the best defensive catcher available, but his offense tops the pack. Steamer projects d’Arnaud to put up a wOBA of .320 next season which would be the highest among catchers that are currently free agents.

His .328 wOBA with the Rays last season was 15th in baseball among catchers with at least 250 PA last season, tied with — you guessed it — Jason Castro. d’Arnaud has had an OBP of .300 or better in four of his past five full seasons, falling just short at .293 in a 2017 season where he put up a 92 wRC+.

d’Arnaud’s offensive profile is both more complex and more important to his case so here’s a deeper graphical representation:

d’Arnaud’s ability with bat was never in question, and while his defense is not a liability thanks to a strong ability to keep wild pitches in front of him, he’s not winning any Gold Gloves behind the dish anytime soon.

It should be also noted that d’Arnaud had a reputation with the Mets as an elite framer, and the numbers back that up for his time in New York, but they haven’t said the same story in his time with the Rays, grading out as an average framer in 2019.

MLB Trade Rumors projects a two-year deal for d’Arnaud at $7M per while Fangraphs’ crowd-sourcing has d’Arnaud getting $5M a year for two years. Mike Zunino’s $4.9M arbitration projection could make this a $10M+ catching duo, but one that compliments each other well.

If Zunino sticks around for 2020 (some have speculated the cost-cutting Rays may remove his contract from the roster), it will be interesting to see if the Rays pursue either name.

Whether the Rays sign Castro, d’Arnaud, a different free agent or even someone via trade, there are plenty of options to pick from to be next season’s starting catcher, none of which should come from internally.