While reading the excellent piece on the catching prospects in the Tampa Bay organization by my colleague, John Gregg, I noticed the Rays don't have a catcher ready to step in and contribute on championship level like the St. Louis Cardinals had with Yadier Molina and the Texas Rangers had with Mike Napoli.Andrew Friedman, the Rays Executive Vice President of Baseball Operations, had an opportunity to snatch Napoli from the Angels last offseason as reported by Stan McNeal and Friedman is not going to let any opportunity for a quality catcher get by this time. He's just not wired that way.
So, with the decision not to pick up the option on catcher Kelly Shoppach, Friedman's search for an upgrade has accelerated. By declining the option on the six-year veteran, Friedman must now determine how the Rays' catching landscape will be in 2012.
Shoppach hit a paltry .176 in 2011, but had 11 home runs in 253 plate appearances.
John Jaso had a stat line of .224/.298/.324 with 15 doubles, but his defense wasn't anything to write home about.
The two rookies called up this season, Robinson Chirinos and Jose Lobaton, failed to meet expectations with Chirinos posting a .218/.283/,309 line and Lobaton compiling a .118/.231/.147 line, albeit in limited action. Time will still tell whether these two will contribute on the big league level, but the Rays need a viable option now.
Napoli led all catchers who had 200 or more at-bats with a .320 average, 30 home runs and an astounding 1.046 OPS. Napoli was instrumental in the playoffs for the Rangers, batting .350 in the World Series and tying the record for most multi-base hit games with Mickey Mantle.
Molina ranked just below Napoli with a .305 average, 14 home runs, and 65 RBIs. In the playoffs, the 29-year-old catcher batted .299 with 12 RBIs and seven runs in helping the Cardinals win their 11th World Series title.
While it may seem unrealistic a chance to secure the services of a high-caliber catcher like Molina or Napoli, it should not seem so unfathomable considering the Rays entertained the notion of getting Napoli. Friedman recently said the team will approach the offseason like the six previous ones under Stuart Sternberg and this could bode well for the Rays bringing in an upgrade at catcher, either via free agency or a trade.
"I think the one thing we've learned about Stu is that things change," Friedman said. "He likes to say markets change. Things change. Before we got (reliever) Rafael Soriano (in December 2009), he said there's going to be no $7 million closer coming, and five days later there was. "I'd expect that (the salary) would have some flexibility up and down, depending on how things shake out and what presents itself from a player-procurement standpoint in terms of what we can get, what it means in terms of our other guys and how it fits. But we're going to be a really talented team next year. We've proven time and time again it's not necessarily about the payroll numbers, it's about the talent we have. It's easy to use it an excuse, but the two of us refuse to do so."
It's clear the Rays need a catcher who can significantly increase the offensive output from that position as well as handle the management of the young pitching staff. Friedman said he wanted to "maintain the caliber of defense" and "add offense."
With this in mind, the best option via free agency appears to be Ramon Hernandez, the 35-year-old catcher who batted .273 with seven homers, 27 doubles and 37 RBIs last season with the Reds. Over the past three years, Hernandez ranks first among the 12 remaining free agent catchers with a .761 OPS and third on the defensive side in throwing out runners with a 35.54% caught stealing rate.
As a veteran who would be entering his 14th full season in the Majors, Hernandez, who has a .266 batting average, .749 OPS, and 723 RBIs in his career, would bring the type of leadership the pitchers need. He would also bring the experience both Chirinos and Lobaton could lean on as they continue to develop.
The only drawback is Hernandez is a Type A free agent and he would be due a raise over his $3 M salary if he accepts arbitration. For that, the Rays would have to give up a second-round pick.
Another free agent option could come in the name of Molina as in Jose Molina, who made $1.2 mil with the Blue Jays last season after batting .281 with a .342 obp, .415 SLG, and .757 OPS in 171 at-bats. The middle brother of the Molinas has a career .241 batting average in 12 Major League seasons, but possesses a meager .630 OPS.
A more intriguing option which could result in a better all-around catcher would be offering up a pitcher via a trade.
According to MLB Trade Rumors, Wade Davis seems likely to be dealt for an outfielder or catcher during this offseason. Nick Carardo of the Boston Globe also cited a source saying Davis, and not James Shields, "is the pitcher (the Rays) will likely end up dealing for an outfielder or catcher."
Torrealba, who signed a two-year deal with the Rangers worth $6.25 million in the off-season last year, isn't thrilled about being relegated to a backup role to Napoli and the Rangers have made it clear they intend to look for suitors.
The 32-year-old, who batted .273 with seven homers and 37 RBIs in 2011, saw his time dip throughout the season as Napoli proved his worth. Torrealba ultimately did not play in 13 September games after batting .398 with 10 RBIs over 20 games at the end of July and beginning of August that included a 12-game hitting streak. Torrealba, who has a .273 career batting average with five teams over 11 seasons, expressed frustration about not being a regular catcher and he would relish the opportunity as the main guy for the Rays. The Rangers need a pitcher, both in the bullpen and as a starter.
Davis, who went 11-10 with a 4.45 ERA in 29 starts in the 2011 campaign, could be the barganing chip as a starter as the Rangers look to replace C.J. Wilson, who seems certain to leave as a free agent. Davis could also be used to fill the Rangers' need in the bullpen as 26-year-old righthander looked impressive in two relief appearances during the Division Series against the Rangers with one strikeout, one walk and one hit over 2 1/3 scoreless innings.
Torrealba, who had a .312 batting average and a .823 OPS with the Padres over the 2010 campaign in pitcher-friendly Petco Park, would bring a consistency to the catcher position that the Rays have lacked as an organization. Over the past three seasons, Torrealba has a .276 batting average in 934 at-bats. Better yet, the Venezuelan-native has performed admirably behind the plate, throwing out 37% of would-be base-stealers in 2010 and 33% in 2011, north of his career mark of 30%.
If the Rays wanted to avoid trading Davis within the American League and with a team they have lost to in the past two postseasons, Friedman could look at the Washington Nationals, who saw Wilson Ramos emerge as a budding star after the 24-year-old catcher hit 15 home runs and 22 doubles and had 52 RBIs in 389 at-bats over the 2011 campaign. With the Nationals having a slew of prospects as options, including the slugger and top prospect Derek Norris, the development of Ramos left Jesus Flores on the outside looking in.
Flores, who was once a top-of-the-line prospect for the Mets, was finally healthy this season after two years recovering from a torn labrum in his shoulder. Stuck behind Ramos and Ivan Rodriguez, though, the 27-year-old had just 18 hits in 86 at-bats in 30 games in 2011. But the Venezuelan-native, who batted .260 with 16 homers, 30 doubles and 99 RBIs over two-plus seasons before his injury in 2009, seems to be showing his true colors in the current Venezuelan League. Flores leads the league with a .397 average and a 1.018 OPS after having hit five doubles and three homers with 14 RBIs in 73 at-bats over 18 games.
Friedman, who is known for acquiring bargains that turn into gems, could get Flores on the cheap without getting rid of Davis after Flores made $750,000 last season. Davis could then be converted into a hard-throwing set-up man for Kyle Farnsworth and eventually be groomed as a closer.
Based in St. Petersburg, Fla., Chris Girandola has been a sports journalist for over eight years. After receiving his Master of Arts in Journalism and Media Studies from the University of South Florida St. Petersburg, Girandola took his talents to New York, where he worked as an associate reporter for MLB.com covering the New York Mets. Following this stint, Girandola was hired as a regular contributor for Major League Baseball Advanced Media. His credits also include the Associated Press, St. Petersburg Times, Naples News, Florida Football Magazine, Kentucky Basketball Magazine, and Tampa Bay Business Journal. Girandola has also dabbled in collegiate athletics as a member of the St. Mary's College basketball team and is a coach for high school hoops.