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If it’s December, the Rays must be shopping for catchers

John Romano | The Rays have had six different catchers on opening day in the last seven seasons. There’s a pretty good chance there will be someone new in 2021.
Mike Zunino, right, hit four homers in 19 postseason games for the Rays in 2020, but his lack of production in the regular season means he will have to take a pay cut if he's going to remain in Tampa Bay in 2021.
Mike Zunino, right, hit four homers in 19 postseason games for the Rays in 2020, but his lack of production in the regular season means he will have to take a pay cut if he's going to remain in Tampa Bay in 2021. [ DENIS POROY | Special to the Times ]
Published Dec. 1, 2020
Updated Dec. 2, 2020

ST. PETERSBURG — There’s something endearing about Tampa Bay’s quest for catching. Like a romantic who refuses to give up on love.

The Rays trade for catchers, purchase catchers, sign catchers and occasionally draft catchers. Since July of 2018, they have used 10 different catchers in regular-season games.

And yet, 24 hours ahead of Wednesday night’s deadline for tendering contracts to arbitration-eligible players, the Rays have only one catcher remaining on their 40-man roster. And he’s a minor-leaguer who isn’t expected to reach Tampa Bay before 2022.

Why the churn?

Mostly, it’s a reflection of the position itself. Good-hitting catchers are a rare commodity, and so half the league is seemingly looking for a better version every offseason. Keeping catchers healthy can be another issue, as the Rays discovered in 2019.

But in Tampa Bay’s case, there’s also the ever-present issue of finances. Even when the Rays find a catcher they like, they often let him go a year or two later because he’s gotten too expensive. That’s why Wilson Ramos was making $10.25 million for the Mets and Travis d’Arnaud was hitting .321 in Atlanta last season.

Which brings us back to the question of the day:

What are the Rays going to do in 2021?

They recently declined Mike Zunino’s option, they lost Michael Perez on waivers and Kevan Smith opted for free agency, which means Tampa Bay needs to find at least two catchers before the opening of spring training in two months.

That process could begin in earnest later Wednesday.

Basically, the Rays have three options, and they’ll probably take advantage of two of them. They can re-sign Zunino at a much lower salary than the $4.5 million option he had for 2021. They can look for a catcher in a trade. Or they can sign a free agent, and that pool is expected to get more attractive when teams decline to offer arbitration to borderline candidates on Wednesday.

It’s true that, after hitting .161 with 13 homers in 118 games the past two seasons, it’s hard to imagine the Tampa Bay fan base getting too excited at the idea of a third opening day with Zunino in the lineup. But the truth is, he’d be exactly the type of player the Rays would normally seek in the free-agent market. He’s a talented catcher who has fallen on hard times and might out-produce his contract in the right situation.

The question is how much leverage Zunino, 29, will have in the free-agent market, and how much he might cost Tampa Bay. Right now, there is one elite catcher (J.T. Realmuto), a couple of big names on the downhill side (Yadier Molina and Ramos), and a few other veterans (Robinson Chirinos, Francisco Cervelli, Kurt Suzuki, James McCann) who might attract attention.

The Rays are not likely to have interest in that group. Tampa Bay has always valued defense ahead of offense at catcher (as well as centerfield), and there are a few players who might fit their needs as well as their payroll.

Tyler Flowers lost his starting job to d’Arnaud in Atlanta and hit the free-agent market after he made a pro-rated portion of a $6 million salary in 2020. Flowers isn’t the hitter he was when he averaged .256 with 11 homers a year from 2014-17, but he’s still an elite defensive catcher and one of the best pitch-framers in MLB, according to StatCast and Baseball Prospectus evaluations.

If the Rays get lucky, the Indians will non-tender Austin Hedges and turn him into a free agent on Wednesday. Acquired from the Padres in the Mike Clevinger deal in August, Hedges is also one of the top defensive catchers based on advanced metrics. He’s in line for a $3 million contract if he goes to arbitration, but that might be too rich to be a backup for the Indians, who have already picked up the $5.5 million option for 2021 on starting catcher Roberto Perez.

Two lefthanded-hitting catchers might also be non-tendered (Colorado’s Tony Wolters and Milwaukee’s Omar Narvaez), which would make for a better platoon, but neither is as strong defensively.

The point is, the Rays will probably get serious about catcher shopping in the next 24 hours.

Once more, it’s their season of hope.

• • •

As for their own arbitration-eligible players, the Rays have decisions on seven players: Jose Alvarado, Yonny Chirinos, Ji-Man Choi, Tyler Glasnow, Manuel Margot, Joey Wendle and Ryan Yarbrough. The Rays would seem likely to offer arbitration to most, if not all, seven players.

Chirinos is coming off surgery, so there’s a chance the Rays might non-tender him and try to re-sign him at a lower price. Alvarado is coming off a shaky season, but with an arbitration salary around $1 million he would not be a huge risk for Tampa Bay.

Also, righthanded pitcher Nick Bitsko, who was the Rays top pick in the 2020 draft, had surgery Tuesday on his right shoulder to repair a labrum issue. He will miss part of the 2021 season with his return date determined by rehab.

John Romano can be reached at jromano@tampabay.com. Folow @romano_tbtimes.