.Tampa Bay Rays Potential Catcher Targets
As is seemingly the case just about every offseason, the Tampa Bay Rays are in the market for a catcher. They wasted little time addressing their need at the position last offseason, making a deal with the Seattle Mariners in early November to acquire Mike Zunino.
At least, they thought they were addressing their need with that trade. Zunino was a disaster. Travis d’Arnaud, acquired from the Los Angeles Dodgers in May, played well and eventually became the starter, but he’s now a free agent.
Zunino is under team control for 2020. The Rays may opt to non-tender him. If they don’t then they will pay him something around his estimated $4.9-million price tag. This is his final year of arbitration. Even if they keep him around, it’s difficult to imagine he’ll enter next season as the starter after his offense severely declined for a second straight year.
The Rays may make an effort to re-sign d’Arnaud, but they’ll also do their due diligence and explore other options. These are some of the other catchers the Rays may take a look at this offseason.
Yasmani Grandal is easily the top catcher available in free agency. A switch hitter with power and patience, Grandal slashed .246/.380/.468 with 28 home runs and 77 RBI in 153 games for the Milwaukee Brewers in 2019.
The 31-year-old has proven to be durable despite playing the game’s most physically demanding position. He has played in at least 115 games in every season since 2014. He’s also a terrific pitch framer, a trait the Rays have long valued. As an added bonus, he won’t cost any draft pick compensation to sign. Having received a qualifying offer from the Dodgers last year, Grandal wasn’t eligible to receive one again this year.
Grandal is a perfect fit for the Rays. It’s just difficult to believe, given their typical spending habits, that they’ll make a competitive offer for him. The $30 million they signed Charlie Morton for last offseason was the most they’ve ever given a free agent. It might take twice that, if not more, to sign Grandal. So let’s call this a pipe dream and move on to some more realistic options.
Robinson Chirinos made his MLB debut with the Rays back in 2011, and a return to his original team could be possible.
Chirinos hit .238/.347/.443 with 17 homers and 58 RBI in 114 games for the Houston Astros in 2019. The 35-year-old seems likely to sign for something similar to the one-year, $5.75-million contract he got last offseason. This makes Chirinos a much more affordable option.
Tampa Bay could also explore a reunion with another former Ray, Stephen Vogt. A two-time All-Star with the Oakland Athletics, Vogt missed all of 2018 with a shoulder injury, then revived his career on the other side of the bay this past season as a member of the San Francisco Giants. In 99 games he hit .263/.314/.490 with 10 homers, 36 extra-base hits, and 40 RBI.
That performance likely earned the 35-year-old a Major League contract this offseason, but probably nothing too expensive. The question is: Do the Rays believe in Stephen Vogt?
Jason Castro has never gotten back to the level he performed at in his All-Star 2013 season, but he’s coming off the best season he’s had since then. After injuries limited him to just 19 games in 2018, Castro returned to hit .232/.332/.435 with 13 homers and 30 RBI in 79 games for the Minnesota Twins.
Castro is also a strong pitch framer, and the Rays showed interest in him when he was a free agent after the 2016 season before he ultimately signed a three-year, $24.5-million contract with the Twins. It won’t be surprising if the Rays again express interest in the 32-year-old this time around.
While it’s always fun to discuss what new additions teams could make, most Rays fans will probably be happy if they just end up re-signing d’Arnaud.
In the 92 games he played for the Rays in 2019, d’Arnaud slashed .263/.323/.459 with 16 homers and 67 RBI. He led all MLB catchers in the latter category from his debut with the Rays on May 11 to the end of the season. That reflects the knack that the 30-year-old had for coming through with clutch hits. Especially his three-homer game at Yankee Stadium on July 15. The capper was a go-ahead three-run shot off Aroldis Chapman with the Rays down to their final strike in the top of the ninth inning. This was one of the most memorable individual performances in franchise history.
The relationship between d’Arnaud and the Rays proved to be a mutually beneficial one. Reuniting with hitting coach Chad Mottola, with whom d’Arnaud already had a relationship from their days in the Toronto Blue Jays organization, helped get his career back on track after being designated for assignment by the New York Mets in April and then discarded by the Dodgers after just one at-bat.
No one can blame d’Arnaud if he signs with whichever team offers him the most financial security. Especially after his career looked to be on life support earlier this year. If the Rays aren’t that going to be that team, they’d better have a backup plan.