The Tampa Bay Rays enter spring training with their situation behind the plate seemingly set.
At one point during the offseason, the only catcher on the Rays 40-man roster was catching prospect Ronaldo Hernandez. However, this situation was soon rectified as the team re-signed Mike Zunino. At the start of the offseason, the Rays declined their $3.5M option, instead paying a $1M to buyout.
However, in December, the Rays inked a new deal with Zunino paying him $2M for the 2021 season with a club option for $4M in 2022, with a $1M buyout.
Then, the Rays traded Blake Snell to the San Diego Padres and brought in former prized catching prospect, Francisco Mejia.
Thus, the Rays catching situation became clear with Zunino and Mejia expected to split the main catching duties.
Last season during the pandemic afflicted season, Zunino hit just .147/.238/.360 with 4 HR registering a 44.0 K% over 84 plate appearances, performing at exactly replacement level (0.0 fWAR).
Mejia managed to post worse numbers than Zunino, as he hit just .077/.143/.179 with 1 HR over 42 plate appearances and accrued -0.4 fWAR. Once a very highly touted offensively- gifted catching prospect, Mejia has not been able to translate his minor league prowess to the big leagues thus far with a career wRC+ of 75, although he did hit .265/.316/.438 during the 2019 season.
Defensively, using ‘Catcher Defensive Adjustment’ or CDA, a metric developed by Baseball Prospectus that is a slight alteration to their ‘Fiedling Runs Above Average’ or FRAA metric, Mejia and Zunino were among the worst defensive backstops in all of baseball. Of the 99 qualifying catchers, Zunino comes in at 89th with -1.7 CDA, while Mejia put up -0.5 CDA and came in at 71st.
However, Zunino did have an excellent defensive season in 2019 as he posted 9.9 CDA, which was the 10th best among qualifying catchers while Mejia still struggled with -1.3 CDA at 89th overall.
Meanwhile, the Rays have also brought in several prospect or non-roster catcher on minor league deals with invites to spring training: Chris Betts, Blake Hunt, Joseph Odom, Rene Pinto, Kevan Smith, and Brett Sullivan. One catcher who will not be in camp with the Rays is a former top prospect within the system as the Rays traded Ronaldo Hernandez to the Boston Red Sox.
These players will serve as catchers during the spring and then they’ll be sorted out through the Rays minor league system following the completion of the Grapefruit League.
So during spring training, there won’t be much of a battle watch for behind the plate, other than to decide who will get the majority of playing time. The majority of the catchers in camp will be competing for the starting catching job in Durham, and thus becoming the primary backup incase either Zunino or Mejia go down with injury or just play abysmally.
Kevan Smith is currently the leading candidate for that role, having played on the Rays active roster over various points last season before being being designated for assignment.
The Rays are banking on recovery seasons from Zunino and Mejia, with the hopes that they are able to rebound offensively and defensively.