Solving Catcher | The Process Report

Solving Catcher

Whether the Rays were planning to trade Wilson Ramos or not, the untimely injury to the venerable slugger has left the team in a fairly large bind. With all available resources thrown into having enough pitching the team has been left with only Jesus Sucre on the 40-man roster in addition to the Buffalo. That means the team will need to add either Nick Ciuffo, or more likely Adam Moore, to the 40-man roster. This should be fairly easy with Chaz Roe being a good candidate to move to the 60-day disabled list. The problem here is that the team still has an outside chance at the second wild card, and while Adam Moore is probably a heckuva guy, he isn’t going to come close to giving the team what they would need in order to entertain hope a wee bit longer. With Ramos three to six weeks away and possibly traded upon return the team should be looking outward to plug this enormous hole.

The traditional storyline is that the Rays are looking to cut payroll anyway they can. It’s lazy, it’s effective, it’s not completely untrue. In the run-up to this July 31st trade deadline the Rays have an opportunity to buy a contract that helps them fill a hole this year and next from a divisional rival who probably wants to get out from under that money. The player I’m referring to is Russell Martin who in the fall of 2014 signed a mammoth deal for $82M over the next five years. Baseball Prospectus has clocked him at exactly 10 WARP over the life of the deal with much of that coming in the first two years. He has now settled in as something like a one to two WARP player with the bat being the main issue as his blocking, throwing, and framing runs are all average or better. He knows how to handle a staff and how to get through a season, but the bat has completely fallen apart with a triple-slash of .179/.328/.285. However, let’s see what the database has to say:

For the season he is ranked in the low-600s for all players with his -3.5 xwRAA with a 95.1 xwRC+. That’s a below average hitter, but fairly close to what to expect from a catcher. You can also see some names of similarly ranked players who have at least 150 PA. While we can see he is walking a ton to drive that high on-base percentage it is on his balls in play where we see a large departure from expectations. It’s not that he’s scorching it, either, but that he’s not even getting to the modest production he should be expecting. This could be due to being too pull-heavy or perhaps he is playing through an injury, which might explain why over 40% of his plate appearances are ending up with a walk to first or back to the bench. If that is the case then it stands to reason that an injury would be healed by next season when he could give the team better production with the stick.

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Breaking this out by pitcher handedness you can see that the strikeout and walk rates are fairly similar, and equally proliferate. His balls in play against lefties are a good deal stronger, and in conjunction with the non-ball in play stuff leaves him looking like an above average hitter against those opposite-handers. He’s not doing much damage against righties with actual production much more in line with expectations. The inference here is that he’s getting robbed a bit versus lefties that should improve going forward and that he’s probably not an option to automatically get every righty if a decent platoon option is available. We can see these snapshots of the whole season, but how has this thing evolved for him? Let’s start with actual and true production over the course of the season:

It would be generous to say he has spent a lot of time as an above average hitter. Heck, his observed results show only two small shark fins popping above before going back down to cause mayhem and destruction. His expected results are nearly universally better than observed so underperformance might be more likely to occur going forward compared to a batter with more variation who might just be getting bit by statistical lice. You can see that the better expected production has come of late, but might have just been a couple of well-struck balls run together. It certainly didn’t bleed into his actual results. So the bat isn’t anything to write home about if we think the ball in play stays subpar. Before totally writing that off let’s take a look at his spray chart:

He has a couple no-doubt dingers, and a rash of doubles in the 20 to 40 degree launch band that just didn’t have quite enough juice to get into the nitro zone. He also hits the ball on the ground a ton, especially at most of his higher velocities. Those are double play balls with nobody on and easy put outs when they’re empty. You don’t see many low, slow liners that get over the infield and in front of the outfielder as indicated by the green swoosh on the left of the chart. I’d guess there is a lot of miss in his swing right now so that he’s either hitting it hard or not at all. Let’s take a look at the strikeout and walk performance:

The walks have been there all year with particular pickup over the more recent term, while the strikeouts have oscillated a bit. At two separate times he flirted with 30+% strikeout rate that is hard to stomach without wonderful power in accompaniment, but alas we have seen precious little of that throughout this endeavor. The encouraging thing is that the strikeout rate is back down to a seasonal low, and has prolonged at that level for a good deal of time. He’s still working counts, and able to walk enough to offset the lack of production on balls in play. Cutting the strikeout rate further below the average would pay some dividends, especially if the ball in play regression does end up coming.

This looks like a lukewarm candidate for a trade proposal, but other better looking players are likely to cost more if they’re available at all. With Toronto’s slide out of contention this year and a promising young replacement, Danny Jansen, on the horizon perhaps the Blue Jays would be inclined to not need all that much coming back if a team like the Rays was willing to eat some of the money. With roughly $26M owed from the team to the player for the last two months of this season and then all of the next one perhaps Mark Shapiro et. al. would rather have the liquidity in the short term that comes with Tampa Bay taking on, say, half of the remaining payout. Consider, Tampa Bay owes Wilson Ramos roughly $5M through the rest of the season, and if a trade cannot be worked out then they will almost certainly extend a qualifying offer at north of $18M for one season. What does the outcome tree look like here?

A) Wilson Ramos accepts qualifying offer, Rays retain his services for 2019 at ~$18M

B) Wilson Ramos declines qualifying offer,

– Signs with other team, TB get either early 30’s or mid-70’s pick depending on if he gets more or less than $50M

– With compensation looming over his signing he is greeted by a cold market leading to three-year deal with TB.

C) Team trades Wilson Ramos for best available return prior to August 31 waiver trade deadline.

In each of these scenarios the team will need a frontline catcher for the next month. In two of the four the Rays need a new catcher next year. Having Russell Martin in tow allows for several advantages chiefly among them allowing the team to not kill Jesus Sucre over the coming weeks and to not implode their longshot chances by watching someone that is incapable of playing the position everyday be asked to do it on a daily basis. Depending on how much money the Rays would be taking on in a hypothetical deal you can see that Martin is a less expensive alternative in most scenarios. The team would again have to trawl free agency for 2020 and beyond, but perhaps by then an internal suitor will present himself. However, by going this course they also won’t be saddled with a long term contract at a position where rapid attrition is the norm.

The plan: Get Toronto to pay $3M this year and $5M next year on Russell Martin leaving the Rays on the hook for around $3-4M this year and around $15M next year. With a projected payroll somewhere around $30-40M next year Tampa Bay is well-situated to throw money at one of their few glaring problems. By taking on the majority of the money on what looks like an underwater asset the Rays should not have to send back a relatively lot of talent. Enough to entice the Blue Jays to not just keep him in their pocket, but not so much that an incredibly deep system would feel the loss of one fine prospect. The folks running Toronto do not envision an extended rebuild, but have to realize that expending a few of their remaining chips will help further their timeline. If that guy is someone like Chih-Wei Hu or Ryan Boldt then let’s get this done.

The unfurl: Let’s say this goes through at the first deadline. That gives the Rays a month of potentially having three catchers. The first probably two weeks of that stretch will have Wilson Ramos on the disabled list and on a rehab stint. Is it possible the team could carry Russell Martin and Wilson Ramos for a couple of weeks with Jesus Sucre getting some much-needed R&R on the DL? Maybe you find someone to give you what you want for Ramos prior to the second deadline so you only have the two. That’s fine, too. If not then once rosters expand in September you can carry all three, which would help the team get even more creative in their deployment of players over that last month. Whether they are playing for anything or not. The club would still get the benefits of extending the qualifying offer including the higher likelihood of being able to sign a two to three year deal at more favorable terms. Catcher has long been a weakness, but the team has the opportunity to keep it the biggest strength it has ever been. Martin being able to move around to other positions surely intrigues the Rays, and Kevin Cash’s affinity for smart, hard-working catchers should help goose a little more juice. The important thing is that the team would have remarkable flexibility to go in any number of directions going forward.

There is an opportunity for the Rays to press an advantage they have rarely seen in their past that could leave them with a handful of decisions to come while continuing to put a competitive, fun bunch on the field. The loss of Wilson Ramos, whether temporarily to the disabled list or more permanent via trade, will create a massive hole that the team will need to fill externally. There may be nothing here at all, but it shouldn’t take a whole lot for the Rays to be able to work with a divisional rival on a deal that helps both clubs.



3 Comments

  1. Rick Watson wrote:

    It seems like the Ramos injury simply moved the Rays catcher dilemma forward about 11 days because had he stayed healthy he almost certainly would have been traded by July 31. Even at the low payroll starting point for next year it seems highly unlikely the Rays would take on as much as $15 million for Russell Martin next year. I would expect in the short term they will bring up Ciuffo. By all accounts he is solid defensively. I could see a more or less 50/50 split between he and Sucre. Ciuffo’s splits are pretty large so he would play against some RHP and Sucre would face all LHP and some RHP.

  2. Dave wrote:

    The Rays are not going to go into next season with a 30, 40, or probably not even a 50 million payroll. As un-Raylike as it seems, that would mean that they will need to spend money. Catcher is the one glaring position that seems to warrant that loot. Every infielder in the organization is crosstraining in the outfield and we’ve got pitchers coming out of our ears.

    • Jason Hanselman wrote:

      I agree, Dave. I’d rather that commitment be for as short a term as possible for a position where guys fall off a cliff out of nowhere. It’s really dang hard to be a starting catcher in MLB. The team cannot go into next year without a good one. Michael Perez has looked as good as could be expected so far and makes an ideal platoon partner at C. I’m not sure if he can hold up to the rigors of a full season so would prefer to have a vet that can help guide him and then pass the torch by the end of the season.

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