Rays keep striking out in search for catcher

An alternate history would have Tampa Bay drafting Buster Posey (illustrated here if he were a Ray) first in 2008 — and possibly winning a World Series title or two or three.
An alternate history would have Tampa Bay drafting Buster Posey (illustrated here if he were a Ray) first in 2008 — and possibly winning a World Series title or two or three.
Published May 8, 2016


It's definitely not fresh, and probably not fair, to assign the Rays' seemingly ceaseless search for a standout frontline catcher to the 2008 draft decision to take Tim Beckham over Buster Posey with the first pick. • Maybe Posey would have had issues getting to the majors. Maybe Posey would not have developed into a league MVP. Or maybe those three World Series championship banners Posey helped the Giants win would be hanging at the Trop. • As old as that narrative seems, it's hard to start anywhere else, at least for the recent version — as the Devil Rays' era behind the plate wasn't much better — of this never-ending quest. • "To me, there's no draft miss like the Posey miss in the last decade," Baseball America editor-in-chief John Manuel said. • "He arguably is the most important player in San Francisco Giants history, and that franchise has had Willie Mays and Barry Bonds. But they never won before Buster. Anyway, no one with the Rays ever has admitted it, but it feels like the organization has been trying to make up for it ever since."

It certainly looks that way. The Rays have tried making trades, signing free agents and spending high-round draft picks, and they've sampled a variety of different skill sets, from game-callers to pitch-framers to strong throwers to even a couple of big swingers, without much success in finding one worthy of squatter's rights.

"It's a demanding position, and it's very rare to find a player who checks all the boxes," Rays baseball operations president Matt Silverman said. "Historically we've placed more emphasis on the defensive and game-calling aspects of the position, but our approach has evolved some in today's run-scoring environment."

The black hole would seem even more glaring for the Rays, given the emphasis they put on pitching and defense — of which the catcher is a vital part — in their blueprint for success.

"Historically in baseball you win with pitching, right?" asked Blue Jays manager John Gibbons, a former big-league catcher. "If that's the case, this guy is as much a part of the pitching staff as anyone."

The catcher, in essence, has more impact on the game than any other player since he is involved in every pitch his team throws — plus the four times he gets to the plate.

Those boxes Silverman referred to can run six deep.

Catchers are measured by how they call a game and run the pitching staff, block pitches in the dirt, throw to the bases to control the running game, handle other fielding plays such as bunts and tags and, more recently, how well they "frame" pitches to steal extra strikes.

And that's without even factoring in their hitting.

"People don't realize how hard it is to be an everyday catcher," said Curt Casali, the Rays' current starter. "I'm finding out firsthand what it's like to go through that grind. There's a lot of wear and tear on your legs and your arm. And I literally feel on the verge of my brain being fried by the end of the game."

So how valuable can a good one be?

"I don't really know how you would actually quantify that," Rays pitching coach Jim Hickey said. "I know the ability to turn borderline pitches into strikes in the case of a good framer can be a colossal difference in a single game and over the course of a season. And that's just in simply receiving the ball.

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"If you're talking about an elite-level catcher, that's somebody that can almost shut down the running game. Obviously that becomes gigantic as well. … And then you're talking about a guy that can produce offensively as well.

"I don't know the answer to the question of how valuable he is. But I would imagine somebody along the lines of Buster Posey, or some of the other really good ones, that guy can be overwhelmingly impactful. If (Gold Glove centerfielder) Kevin Kiermaier saved 42 runs last year, would he be more valuable than that guy? I guess the value is more of a question for the metrics guys. I'd like to find out."

Inventory an issue

To be fair, the Rays are far from alone in looking for a frontline backstop.

After Posey, St. Louis' Yadier Molina, Kansas City's Salvador Perez and maybe recent, though not necessarily current, versions of Milwaukee's Jonathan Lucroy, Toronto's Russell Martin and the Yankees' Brian McCann, there aren't many obvious standouts around the majors.

"Nearly every team is looking for that frontline catcher," Silverman said. "And there's a constant focus on maintaining depth at the position given the toll it can take on a player."

So why is it so hard to find one guy who can do it all well?

"I don't have a good answer as to why you don't see many complete catchers," said Rays manager Kevin Cash, who spent 12 pro years behind the plate. "Everybody is always constantly searching."

There isn't a great inventory because many of the better amateur players don't want to take on the physical and mental challenges of the position.

"It seems like it's always hard to find catchers, though it feels like the industry as a whole is at a lower point than usual," said draft and prospects expert Jim Callis. "It's such a tough position. Players really have to buy into catching and even if they do, it takes such a physical toll and has such a negative effect on a catcher's offense."

There is an attrition rate, as some get hurt and others who excel offensively, such as Minnesota's Joe Mauer, get moved to other positions to extend their longevity. Conversely, some tend to take until their late 20s to develop — such as Baltimore's Caleb Joseph — and teams aren't always patient, as the Rays, for example, weren't with Stephen Vogt.

And — somewhat chicken and egg — teams are more often going with tandems to maximize matchups rather than allowing one player the chance to blossom into that everyday guy.

"They're just hard to find," Gibbons said.

Plus, teams are changing what they are looking for.

Manuel said scouts are always complaining anyway about how hard it is to find high-ceiling catchers at the high school and college level.

"What is important in a catcher seems to have changed," he said. "The profile used to prioritize arm strength No. 1, if not first then second. Now the running game is less of a factor and there's a premium on receiving. Basically the left arm is more important in some ways than the right arm. And there's more of a call for offense at every spot."

Gibbons sees it around the majors.

"When I was coming up, and even before that, my impression was that teams were looking for stellar defensive players, and if you got a guy who could hit, it was really a bonus," he said. "Then the game shifted to all offense and they wanted offense everywhere and would sacrifice defense. And I think that has caught up with the game now."

Pitch framing, and the residual benefit of "stolen" strikes, has been the big thing the past few years, which explains why the Rays kept Jose Molina around and were eager to bring in Hank Conger this year. But that benefit is diminishing as umpires are becoming both more aware of being suckered and more consistent in the "east-west" parameters of the strike zone.

Ongoing issue

Pegging passing on Posey as the primary problem is easy to do, but the Rays have basically been searching for a star catcher their entire 19 seasons.

In the early days under Chuck LaMar's general management, they relied primarily on John Flaherty and Mike DiFelice, then Toby Hall. Once the Andrew Friedman/Matt Silverman regime took over, it has been more of a shuffle, from Dioner Navarro as the leading man to John Jaso, Kelly Shoppach, Jose Molina, Rene Rivera and now Casali.

Overall, they've used 32 men behind the plate, literally from A (J.P. Arencibia) to Z (Gregg Zaun).

Individually, only one did well enough to earn All-Star recognition, Navarro in 2008. Collectively, they've been the worst-hitting catchers in the majors, ranking last from 1998-2016 in batting average and on-base plus slugging percentage.

Not drafting Posey (because they didn't think he would hit enough) was not their only bad decision regarding catchers, either. They basically gave away Vogt to create a roster spot at the end of spring 2013, and he became an All-Star with Oakland. They also gave up on or traded away Jaso, Robinson Chirinos and Jose Lobaton, all of whom went on to at least start, if not star, elsewhere.

Trying to play catch-up

The Rays have tried a lot of ways to find catchers.

They have made 13 trades to get one, including projected starters Navarro (who went from All-Star back to the minors then was let go), Shoppach (who lasted two seasons), Ryan Hanigan (who was traded after one year) and Rivera (who was released after one). Also, both of their current catchers — Casali was acquired as a minor-leaguer from Detroit for pitcher Kyle Lobstein, Conger from Houston for cash.

They signed a dozen free agents, most to minor-league deals, but also Molina, whom they paid $4.75 million to catch for three seasons — then $2.75 million to not play for them in 2015.

But as with other positions, the financially limited Rays' most likely opportunity to procure an impact player is to draft and develop them. But that hasn't worked out too well, either.

Since passing on Posey, the Rays have drafted 33 catchers — including at least one in the top nine rounds each June, and three first- or second-rounders in the past six years — and spent in excess of $7 million in signing bonuses. (They have also tried converting some from other positions, such as 2015 draftee Brett Sullivan.)

Their net return at the big-league level, to this point, has been the nine games started last September by Luke Maile, who is currently back at Triple A.

"Obviously," farm director Mitch Lukevics said, "not as good as you want. … Catching is one of the most difficult positions to develop."

The Rays have made most of their investment in high-schoolers, which Orioles manager Buck Showalter said has for years been considered "the graveyard" of the draft overall.

Justin O'Conner, a 2010 first-round pick with a tremendous arm, has yet to get above the Double-A level due to a series of injuries. Nick Ciuffo, a 2013 first-rounder, has progressed well defensively but hasn't hit much, playing at advanced Class A Charlotte in his fourth pro season, with a career on-base plus slugging percentage of .599. Chris Betts, a second-round pick last year, needed Tommy John elbow surgery and may by the end of this summer play his first minor-league game.

"It doesn't look," Callis said, "like Tampa Bay should call off its search for a catcher yet."

Marc Topkin can be reached at Follow @TBTimes_Rays.