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MLB Trade Deadline: Should the Rays trade for a catcher?

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Mike Zunino’s recent injury would make a catcher an obvious target

Seattle Mariners v San Diego Padres
General Manager A.J. Preller of the San Diego Padres makes a call after a game between the Seattle Mariners and the San Diego Padres was postponed at PETCO Park on August 26, 2020
Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

Today is the MLB Trade Deadline, and the Rays have until 4:00 EST to fill their missing pieces.

Already this season the Rays have acquired two relief pitchers and an outfielder, while sending out the designated hitter. Here are stories on each of those deals:

Among those four deals, the Phillips-Fox flog is the only swap made so far that wasn’t DFA fodder. Speaking of which, the Rays have also designated LHP Anthony Banda, which means a trade for him is likely, unless he goes unclaimed.

You can catch up on all our MLB Trade Deadline coverage, including trade candidates and trade analysis here.

As for what the Rays might still need, the answer should have been a backstop, but the San Diego Padres have gone and gobbled up the two big catcher trade targets yesterday, one expensive and one not.

First the interesting one:

Padres receive: C/UTIL Austin Nola, RHP Austin Adams, RHP Dan Altavilla
Mariners receive: OF Taylor Trammell, INF Ty France, C Luis Torrens, RHP Andres Munoz.

Nola, age-30, was a minor league signing by the Mariners that blossomed into one of the best hitting backstops around, and the pitchers were relievers the Mariners did not have real need for. Adams had a recent knee injury and was an eighth round pick with low expectations. Altavilla has five years of experience with mixed results. Neither should move the needle.

Nola, meanwhile, was superfluous to the Mariners, who have Tom Murphy returning from injury and Cal Raleigh in the minors. Turning Nola into much more is an incredible turn of events for Seattle. And, good lord Padres, what have you done to get those pieces? Let’s come up with the Rays comparison:

Trammell is a range 50-75 top prospect in baseball, The Rays have a batter outfield prospect than Trammell in Josh Lowe, so think Xavier Edwards in terms of rankings, who we have as the Rays No. 6 prospect. If you think the power will come for Trammell, though, he’s more in the 20-50 range on MLB lists, which is Vidal Brujan territory, our No. 3 ranked prospect.

France is a bat-first infielder with solid power that has the ability to pop in the majors, although it’s not clear if it can be sustained. This is akin from a Rays roster perspective to 3B Kevin Padlo, our No. 15 prospect for the Rays.

Torrens fills the need for the Mariners at backstop in the swap and is functionally a backup, like the Rays have in Michael Perez. He was forced to the majors when the Padres nabbed him off the Yankees roster in the Rule 5 draft, and is still only 24. We ranked Perez the Rays No. 24 prospect last off season.

Munoz is a bit tougher to nail down, he’s young and was aggressively moved through the Padres system. He has an elite reliever projection but it comes with high variance due to some development needed. If this were Tampa Bay, a similar arm might be Joel Peguero, who has power stuff but is on a slower development path. We had him the No. 45 prospect. Then again, Munoz is a Tommy John guy, so it could be less.

It’s not clear the Rays were ever serious players for Nola, but it’s interesting to see what the Trade Deadline cost can be for an age-30 backstop who happens to be performing. It’s a shockingly expensive deal, but that’s what scarcity does. There are not many catchers available to be traded this year.

But there was another, and the Padres got him too.

Now the simpler trade:

Padres receive: C Jason Castro
Angels receive: RHP Gerardo Reyes

Castro is on an expiring contract, is a veteran who should be able to step into a new setting well thanks to his experience, and happens to be hitting well this season. If the Padres only made this catching move — particularly with Austin Hedges and Francisco Mejia in tow — it would have been a reasonable move.

Reyes, once upon a time, was a Rays prospect, an undrafted free agent that was flipped to the Padres in the Wil Myers deal. He ended up performing well through the minors and cracked the major leagues in 2019, but hasn’t appeared yet in 2020.

From a stuff perspective, he had a similar starting point to Rays prospect Neraldo Catalina. From a value perspective, Double-A RHP Paul Campbell might be a better comp. Both arms were outside the Top-50 this off season.

If the Angels wanted an arm ready for the majors, it’s perhaps LHP D.J. Snelton from the Alternate Site, a pitcher up to 99 with the fastball that the Rays signed out of an independent league but has yet to join the 2020 major league side.

The Rays inability to win this trade is a possible indicator that the team is not looking for a change at backstop, even though the oblique injury to primary catcher Mike Zunino would seem to indicate the opposite is true.

Concluding Thoughts

If the Rays were looking to deal for a catcher, there’s not much left out on the market.

Among teams that are willing to make trades, one interesting candidate might be Austin Hedges, who is Top-3 on the Baseball Prospectus catcher defense leaderboard, but is now on a crowded catching roster... because he was the Padres primary catcher before all this went down!

Hedges has two more years of arbitration before reaching free agency in 2023, and while he’s atrocious in the batter’s box (career 62 wRC+), his exit velocity is at least trending in the right direction (up 4 mph on average). He was flipped to the Cleveland Indians in the happening-now Mike Clevinger deal, but I’d call and see if they really need him?

Another candidate could be Rangers backstop Jose Trevino, who Texas seems unlikely to move as he is not arbitration eligible until 2023 and they do need a catcher even if they’re selling. As the Nola trade shows, catchers can be expensive.

It’s at a moment like this I must pause and consider that the Rays really could have used a catcher like Travis d’Arnaud, who Tampa Bay lost a bidding war for when he signed with the Atlanta Braves for two years at $8 million each season. He is the No. 2 catcher on the defense leaderboard and boasts a 129 wRC+ this season. For the Rays, that’s a whiff.

If I had to venture a guess, I’m not sure the Rays make a deal at this point, given the trade cost. Then again, why have baseball’s best farm system (and the third lowest payroll in baseball) unless you plan of taking advantage of such things?