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Time for Tampa Bay Rays to shake off Navarro

ST. PETERSBURG — Somewhere in the Rays clubhouse is an empty box waiting to be filled with a man's broken dreams.

You see, the countdown to a roster move has just begun. Kelly Shoppach is heading out today for a rehab assignment, which means the Rays will likely have made plans to clear out someone's locker by the time the team returns for next week's home-stand.

Your leading candidates are both catchers. They are both 26. John Jaso is a rookie of the year contender, and Dioner Navarro is a former All-Star. The offense needs Jaso. The defense is better off with Navarro.

What would you do?

Because, no matter what anyone has you believe, it is not an open-and-shut case. Either answer is worthy of rebuttal.

Jaso is clearly superior as a hitter, just as Navarro is better with a catcher's mitt on his hand. So, ultimately, the solution comes down to a matter of degree. How much better is Navarro on defense? Or, if you prefer, how much worse is Jaso?

I don't know the exact answer, but I do know this:

The Rays are hurting for offense.

And that means Jaso needs to stay.

Yes, catcher is a critical position on defense. And, yes, some of Jaso's flaws have been more evident in recent days. But if the difference between Navarro and Jaso is noticeable, it is not quite epic.

Navarro is a fine catcher who has better instincts than a lot of people realize. He's more comfortable than Jaso behind the plate, and the pitchers probably have more confidence in him. If you want to argue Navarro's case, you could point out the staff has an ERA of 2.60 when he is catching and a 3.44 ERA with Jaso in a similar number of games.

But it is risky to read too much into a catcher's ERA. There are too many factors that go beyond his control. And if you think the rotation doesn't like throwing to Jaso, just remember he was the one calling pitches on three of Tampa Bay's four shutouts this season.

The bottom line is the Rays can take Navarro's glove off the field and still survive. I'm not sure you can say the same if you take Jaso's bat out of the lineup.

There is a reason manager Joe Maddon has been using Jaso in the middle of the batting order. It's because too many of his other hitters are failing, and Jaso has had the most disciplined plate approach for the past six weeks. He's the only guy on the team with more walks than strikeouts, and he has been driving in runs at a higher ratio than anyone else in the lineup.

Obviously, there is a chance Jaso's numbers will tumble. We've already seen them come down in the past week. But even if his bat continues to cool, it will still hold more value than what Navarro has been offering.

Because, heaven help you, there is no way to spin Navarro's offensive numbers. They have been far too ugly for far too long. You could, in fact, make a pretty strong argument that he has been the worst hitter in the majors since the start of the 2009 season.

Of the 228 players with at least 500 plate appearances in that span, Navarro is 226th in batting average. He's 226th in slugging percentage, and 225th in RBIs. And he's dead last in on-base percentage.

So what you have is a hitter who is not hitting for average, who is not hitting for power or driving in runs, who is not drawing walks and who doesn't have much speed. And that's about as close as you get to a wasted at-bat in this league.

On this day two years ago, Navarro was on his way to an All-Star season. He finished May with a .352 batting average and looked like one of the hot, young catchers in the game. But he has been in this slump for so long, it is difficult to even remember that version of Navarro. And you have reached the point where you wonder whether that Navarro will ever return again.

Maybe being sent to Triple-A Durham would be the slap in the face he needs. He's too young for the Rays to give up on him completely, but this season is too critical for Tampa Bay to waste many more at-bats waiting for him to rediscover his game.

Of course, there is another option. The Rays could carry three catchers, using Jaso as the left-handed designated hitter and dumping Hank Blalock. This move would not cost them any maneuverability because Blalock has logged little time in the field and the Rays already have other options to back up at first and third base. The downside is Blalock is not likely to return to Durham, and would be lost to waivers or a trade.

It's worth considering, but it's still robbing the Rays of potential offense. And I'm not sure they can afford that right now.

Navarro has been around here longer than most. Only Carl Crawford, James Shields and B.J. Upton have been with the big-league team longer. But this is not a question of loyalty. This is a matter of doing what's best for the organization.

And, right now, Navarro is not the right man for the job.

John Romano can be reached at (727) 893-8811.

Time for Tampa Bay Rays to shake off Navarro 05/30/10 [Last modified: Monday, May 31, 2010 9:31am]

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