ST. PETERSBURG — The past few weeks have sure been a pain for the Rays.
Assorted injuries have sidelined ace Blake Snell and now top winner Tyler Glasnow, frontline outfielder Austin Meadows, do-everything infielder Joey Wendle and, in a bizarre coincidence, their top catchers, Mike Zunino and Michael Perez, both within a cruel 24-hour period.
Finding quality catching has seemed to be an ongoing and often unfulfilled quest for the Rays, at least since the early glory days of having John Flaherty and Toby Hall holding squatter’s rights behind the dish.
On Saturday, just-acquired Travis d’Arnaud became the 40th to assume the position for the Rays, with MLB-debuting rookie Anthony Bemboom in line to become No. 41 after Nick Ciuffo was sent back down on a list that literally runs from A (J.P. Arencibia) to Z (Gregg Zaun). Also, that includes current manager Kevin Cash and field coordinator Paul Hoover.
It has been kind of like the Mets were with third baseman and the Orioles post-Brooks, the Tigers and closers, the Mariners in leftfield, the D’backs at second base, and other positions around the game that never seem well-staffed.
The Rays have tried trading for catchers, more than a dozen times. They’ve signed them as free agents, everything from minor-league deals to big bucks for Wilson Ramos. They’ve spent high picks to draft their own, though are most known for not drafting a certain one in 2008 — cough, Buster Posey, cough.
And all without much sustained success.
They’ve also given away a few who didn’t fit their framework. Stephen Vogt was dumped to create a roster spot in spring 2013 and turned into an All-Star with Oakland. Robinson Chirinos, John Jaso and Jose Lobaton are among others who went on to start elsewhere.
The Rays for a while were putting an extreme emphasis on pitch framing, and the residual benefit of “stolen” strikes, valuing the left hand as much as the right, which is how Jose Molina managed to stick around for three-plus years and make nearly $8 million.
While the emphasis is always on serving the pitchers in terms of receiving the ball, game-calling and controlling the running game, the Rays have seemingly adjusted over the past few years and also tried to get more offense from their catchers.
In a way, that’s what made Zunino and Perez, who were both acquired in trades within the past year, among their more dynamic duos.
Both did a lot well behind the plate and were somewhat complementary at it, Zunino a right-hander with big power in somewhat of an all-or-nothing approach, and Perez a lefty with a bit more consistent style.
Their hope is that Perez, who has an oblique strain, will miss only 2-3 weeks, though that seems optimistic. Zunino, with what was termed a significant strain of his left quad, is looking at four to five weeks.
“We lost two big ones,” Cash said Friday. “With what Mikey and Zunino have done, it has a lot of impact on a lot of players on our team.
“For all the credit our pitchers get, a lot of that should be directed at the catching corps, and they’ve played a big role. We’re going to have to have some guys who are not as familiar with our pitchers really come in here and get a crash course in understanding prioritizing the pitching staff. Not necessarily the opposition, the hitters and what they are, but let’s focus on the pitching staff and what our guys do and make sure we’re getting the most out of them.”
And, given the different styles and strengths of the Rays staff, that isn’t necessarily easy. “We’ve got some guys,” Cash said, “that are not the easiest to catch.”
Travis d’Arnaud on Saturday became the 40th player to catch for the Rays in their 22-season history. Here are the first 39, listed by games played at catcher with their baseball-reference.com WAR while with the Rays:
Player Games WAR
Toby Hall 578 5.7
John Flaherty 467 0.3
Dioner Navarro 442 1.9
Jose Molina 278 -0.7
Mike DiFelice 249 1.4
John Jaso 181 4.0
Jose Lobaton 176 1.2
Curt Casali 150 2.0
Kelly Shoppach 142 0.9
Wilson Ramos 135 1.9
Jesus Sucre 132 0.1
Rene Rivera 107 -2.0
Josh Paul 87 0.2
Ryan Hanigan 79 1.5
Shawn Riggans 59 -0.1
Derek Norris 53 -0.1
Bobby Wilson 52 -0.2
Luke Maile 52 0.2
Brook Fordyce 51 -0.7
Hank Conger 47 -0.5
Javier Valentin 42 -0.2
Chris Gimenez 40 0.5
Michael Perez 39 0.6
Michel Hernandez 39 -0.2
Gregg Zaun 29 0.3
Mike Zunino 26 0.8
Pete LaForest 25 -0.8
J.P. Arencibia 23 0.7
Raul Casanova 23 0.2
Robinson Chirinos 19 0.2
Nick Ciuffo 19 -0.3
Charles Johnson 19 0.1
Kevin Cash 13 0.0
Adam Moore 8 0.0
Ali Solis 8 -0.2
Stephen Vogt 7 -0.6
Paul Hoover 6 -0.2
Tim Laker 3 -0.1
Robert Fick 3 -1.3
A well-aged debut
When catcher Anthony Bemboom gets in a game, he will — at 29 years and 113 days as of Saturday — become the oldest position player to make his major-league debut for the Rays. He will top Akinori Iwamura, who came over from Japan and debuted on opening day 2007 at 28 years, 52 days.
The last U.S. born position player older than Bemboom to make his debut anywhere in the majors was former Rays farmhand Nevin Ashley, who was 31.026 with the Brewers in 2015.
The Rays have had seven pitchers older than Bemboom make their MLB debut, most recently knuckleballer Eddie Gamboa, at 31.256, in 2016, and most famously Jim Morris in 1999 at 35.242, which seemed like something worthy of a Disney movie.
• With an average attendance for the 15 games that weren’t opening day or against the Red Sox and Yankees of just over 10,000 (and the last nine under), the Rays need to at least try something different. Maybe, as some teams offer, the monthly pass, where for a set fee fans can attend as many games as they like, with seats assigned as they enter? Or what the equally surprisingly successful Twins did last week, offering a flash sale of $5 tickets for their 11 remaining May home games and selling out 31,000 tickets (about 2,800 per game) in 48 hours. Rays execs say they’re discussing a number of ideas.
• It might be a race to see which of the seven former Rays players/staffers now managing gets fired first, with Dave Martinez (Nationals) seemingly slightly “ahead’ of Mickey Callaway (Mets). And don’t discount Gabe Kapler (Phillies) if they fade again. Rocco Baldelli is off to a great start with the Twins, Charlie Montoyo will have time with the Jays, and Joe Maddon has cooled the Chicago chatter with the Cubs playing well. And that Kevin Cash guy is doing okay with the Rays.
Baseball America’s mock draft has the Rays taking Elon College right-hander George Kirby with the No. 22 pick next month; mlb.com has them on righty Brennan Malone from Bradenton’s IMG Academy. … The Rays are among the teams keeping in touch with somehow-still-a-free-agent closer Craig Kimbrel. … If shortstop continues to be a problem, and if the Indians fade, could Francisco Lindor, controllable through 2021, become a trade option for Rays? … Tampa native and former Ray Fred McGriff is among the inductees to the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum Hall of Fame. … The Rays cut the first hour off the pregame party at The Outfielder and Ballpark & Rec, which now opens three hours before first pitch. Gates are still open just 90 minutes before. … Among ways to frame the low attendance for the Diamondbacks series (8,663 high crowd), the total of 24,846 was less than the Brewers drew on a Tuesday (school) night versus Washington. Also, the Rays’ Triple-A Durham Bulls have played before larger crowds seven times. … Happy Mother’s Day, especially to all the moms who introduced their kids to baseball, as Justine did to me.