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Inside the Rays’ ‘healthy competition’ for backup catcher job

Decisions, decisions: Michael Perez has familiarity, Chris Herrmann experience, Kevan Smith the potential to be a hit.
Tampa Bay Rays catcher Michael Perez initially won the backup job last season, but an injury dealt him to the minors.
Tampa Bay Rays catcher Michael Perez initially won the backup job last season, but an injury dealt him to the minors. [ Times (2019) ]
Published Mar. 11, 2020

PORT CHARLOTTE — Many of the roster decisions the Rays have to make over the next few weeks will be nuanced, layered and inter-related.

How Blake Snell’s elbow feels and when he is likely to make his first start will factor into how many pitchers they carry to open the season ... which will determine how many spots they’ll have on the bench ... which will impact, based on skill-set, who gets one.

But there is at least one pretty much straight-forward, more-or-less old-fashioned baseball decision coming, as they will pick from three candidates for the backup catcher’s job.

“You want healthy competition," manager Kevin Cash said. “I think that’s what we have."

The battle between Michael Perez, Chris Herrmann and Kevan Smith has been interesting to watch because each offers a somewhat different resume.

Related: How MLB's new pitching rule could be a game-changer for Rays

“They all have attributes that we like," Cash said. “It seems like everyone is kind of putting their best foot forward."

If that continues, the decision could be even tougher, assuming the Rays don’t get to the end of camp and bring in someone from the outside to be the backup, or time-sharer, with Mike Zunino.

What will matter most? Catching? Hitting? Throwing? Game calling?

“All of the above," Cash said. “We talk that the results don’t specifically matter in spring, (but) the thicker the competition, you have to value them to some degree. We feel like we have a pretty good sense of all these guys."

If the Rays put a premium on defense, as usual, that could favor Perez, who is the best receiver and thrower in the group, and the most athletic behind the plate.

If it’s a lefty bat to better pair with the righty-hitting Zunino? Then Perez or Herrmann.

The potential for the most offense? Smith. Big-league experience, and versatility to play elsewhere on the field? Hermann. Familiarity with Rays pitchers? Perez.

Roster and contract status is also a factor.

Perez is on the 40-man roster, so he is a cleaner fit. But he has options and could be sent to the minors, which, under certain scenarios, would allow the Rays to better stockpile depth.

Herrmann and Smith are on minor-league deals, meaning to add either the Rays would have to drop or trade someone to create space on the 40-man roster (and potentially two slots if they also were to add a non-roster veteran reliever, such as Aaron Loup).

But while Herrmann and Smith agreed when signing to play at Triple-A Durham, interest from another team to have them in the majors could be an issue. The Rays likely would either have to keep them or work out a deal to let them go. Herrmann has a contract clause to ask the Rays to check around before the end of spring (and a June 1 out clause), and Smith has a similar ask-around window in June.

Smith said they are all in it together.

“I think what the public and the media kind of skew is that we’re all coming in here getting after one another," he said. “I saw Cash called it a 'healthy competition’ and it is. None of us are coming in here creating enemies. We’re all here to make each other better. We’re all here to be part of this team with the ultimate goal to win a World Series."

Sounds good for now. Here is a look at the three:

Chris Herrmann, 32

Chris Herrmann, who was with Oakland last year, has had only one full season in the majors.
Chris Herrmann, who was with Oakland last year, has had only one full season in the majors. [ JIM MONE | Associated Press ]

Breakdown: Lefty hitter would be a good complement to the right-handed Zunino. … Offers versatility of playing first base and corner outfield. … Has spent parts of eight seasons in the majors, but only one full season (2017 with Arizona). … Released last September by Oakland. … Career .205 average, .626 OPS, 27 percent caught stealing rate.

Michael Perez, 27

Breakdown: Won the backup job last spring, but was sidelined by injury for second straight season, then sent to minors. … Has made only 37 big-league starts. … Has familiarity with pitchers and methods since being acquired in July 2018. … Spent most of the winter working out in Tampa to get stronger. … Perception that performance has yet to reach potential. … Thrown out 25 percent of attempted base-stealers.

Kevan Smith, 31

Tampa Bay Rays catcher Kevan Smith, center, works out with Mike Zunino during the start of spring training in Port Charlotte.
Tampa Bay Rays catcher Kevan Smith, center, works out with Mike Zunino during the start of spring training in Port Charlotte. [ OCTAVIO JONES | Times ]

Breakdown: Has played parts of four seasons in the majors with White Sox and Angels. … Righty hitter with career .272 average and .698 OPS; .304./.784 vs. lefties. … At 6-foot-4, 230 pounds, the former Pitt quarterback provides a big target, but overall defense is a question. … Has thrown out only 14 percent of attempted base-stealers. … Injuries have been an issue, with three IL stints in 2019.