Recently, I’ve been asked frequently about how much depth the Rays have at each position, so I thought it would be a great time to dive in. With the caveat that many minor leaguers haven’t played in a significant period of time, we’ll touch on as many notable options at each position, starting with one the Rays worked hard to address this offseason: catchers.
UPPER LEVELS DEPTH (AA and AAA)
The first thing to note is fairly obvious – how many options does one team need behind the plate? In part due to the loss of a season, and in part due to position shift, Rays have many options to fill the catcher position. In no certain order (stats from @Fangraphs):
Kevan Smith (NRI) 32 yrs old, RHB
With limited playing time in 2020, Smith proved to be very effective when needed. He’s been a little banged up this spring, but managed five hits in his eight at-bats, showing once again that the bat does play well. A great luxury to have in AAA if that’s where he begins the 2021 season.
Rene Pinto (NRI) 24 yrs old, RHB
Spent all of 2019 in AA (surprisingly) and continued to build up his defensive profile. Pinto’s bat has generally been noted as more talented than his defensive abilities, but that difference has evened out over his last two seasons of playing time. Most notably, he’s really cut down on passed balls (just five in 2019) and managed an impressive 44% caught stealing percentage.
Brett Sullivan (NRI) 27 yrs old, LHB
Just as with Pinto above, Sullivan spent all of 2019 in AA. The difference? He only caught 14 games and played 61 of them in LF. His speed (stole 21 bases) is well above what you’d expect from a catcher, providing some positional flexibility. Also notable is that he played over 60 games at 3B in 2015, providing even more positional flexibility if the Rays want to test him there again in the future. He also got some work in LIDOM this winter and he has five hits in 23 AB this spring.
Expect Sullivan to keep getting playing time in OF/C, which could allow the Durham Bulls to carry three viable catchers. I was shocked that he wasn’t taken in R5 draft, but I am happy the Rays get another year to see what he can manage.
Joseph Odom (NRI) 29 yrs old, RHB
While with the Mariners, Odom got similar playing time in 2020 than Smith did with Rays, albeit with less success at the plate. He has a very high strike out percentage so he’s a catcher that’s definitely considered to be a defensive catcher first. Despite not being noted for having a great arm, he is however, noted for his receiving and game calling abilities. As we’ve seen with Jeff Mathis, sometimes that’s all a team really needs from their catcher to provide quality playing time.
Blake Hunt 22 yrs old, RHB
One of the many intriguing pieces that the Rays received in the Blake Snell deal, is Blake Hunt. Hunt has the makings of a bulk load MLB catcher as he has no real weakness (aside from speed) and so many highly rated tools. Experts have him landing on some Top 100 lists at some point in 2021. He managed a 50% caught stealing percentage in 2019, his receiving gets high praise, and his makeup continues to receive high remarks.
Although I’m a very big fan of Francisco Mejia’s long-term potential overall, it wouldn’t surprise me to see him and Hunt sharing time behind the plate for the Rays by 2023.
Chris Betts 24 yrs old, LHB
Betts has some of the best power in the Rays system and his overall approach at the plate is excellent. He walks more than you’d think for a power hitter and if he starts spraying the ball to all fields, that would be major boost to his overall production.
Behind the plate, 2019 was huge for him as it gave him much of the experience he’d missed after unfortunate injuries slowed his progress. Due to the power profile, many have 1B & DH pegged as alternatives or complementary positions to get him playing time in MLB initially, but a solid 2021 season defensively could be enough to really elevate his standing both among Rays’ top prospects and as a potential catcher in the MLB.
Jonathan Embry 24 yrs old, LHB
Taken in the 10th round of the 2019 draft, most fans likely haven’t heard much about Embry. He has decent speed, and he played a lot of OF pre-draft, but he gets solid receiving grades. His approach at the plate seems advanced for the level he played in 2019 and he has a solid defensive profile, which is part of the reason he’s been included at this level. There’s a chance he begins at the A+ level, but keep an eye on Embry as he could exceed expectations.
Ford Proctor 24 yrs old, LHB
Rays fans likely remember Proctor as 2B/SS prospect, but he’s added catcher to the repertoire in hopes of it adding to his chances of earning a shot in The Show. That transition seemed to go very well in the ABL, so it will be interesting to see how that translates to the AA (or A+) for 2021.
LOWER LEVELS DEPTH (A+ & BELOW)
Logan Driscoll 23 yrs old, LHB
Driscoll split time between RF and C in 2019, so he continues the trend of catchers with versatility. He posted a very solid line of .268/.340/.458 with 9.3 BB%, 14.2 SO%, and .190 ISO. It’s also intriguing that he hit the ball to opposite fields over 40% of the time, which bodes well for maintaining high average as he climbs the minors ladder. Likely slated to challenge A+ in 2021, he’s one of many very interesting Padres’ products within the Rays’ system.
Heriberto Hernandez 21 yrs old, RHB
Potentially splitting time with Driscoll in A+, or at A level, will be Hernandez, who is the center piece the Rays got in return in the recent Nate Lowe trade. With power to spare and a surprisingly versatile defensive profile, he could skyrocket through the system quicker than you think.
Defensively in 2019, Hernandez manned C 11 times, 1B 13 times, and RF 19 times. The focus will likely to remain developing him behind the plate and first base to maximize his playing time (at-bats) and positional versatility. Offensively, the sky’s the limit for Hernandez, and I’m actually surprised the Rangers dealt him. His overall line in 2019 was .345/.436/.635 as he obliterated balls all season long. A heavy pull profile exists, and that’s something the Rays likely look to address going forward.
Roberto Alvarez 21 yrs old, RHB
Alvarez shared time with Betts in 2019 and really worked hard on solidifying both his defensive and offensive sides of the game. Despite being young for the level at the time, he worked high quality at-bats the majority of the time and limited his strike out percentage to 17%. He also spent time in the ABL, giving him a lot of positive experience.
Michael Berglund 23 yrs old, LHB
You can find out some great info on Berglund here. He spent the majority of 2019 on IL but should be ready to play full season ball for the first time. Noted for having a really interesting package of tools to work with, and a great makeup, he’s one of four really intriguing backstops that Rays fans are about to get a lot more information about in 2021. Here are the other four…
Luis Leon 22 yrs old, SHB
Really looking forward to getting some video on Leon who was primarily a 2B/SS/3B before the Rays put him behind the plate in 2019. Normally, you’d think such a position change would lead to a drop in performance at the plate, but Leon hit an impressive .341/.382/.509 with a solid .168 ISO and 143 wRC+ as a switch-hitter.
It’ll be interesting to see if his work behind the plate was good enough to warrant a move up to A ball. He threw out nine of 28 base runners and allowed seven past balls in 2019. When we look at how Ford Proctor worked his way into a similar profile at the upper levels, we could anticipate Leon also seeing time at numerous positions in 2021.
Jonathan Aranda 22 yrs old, LHB
The Rays are really trying anything and everything to build up super utility types, aren’t they? Aranda joins Proctor and Leon in being an infielder (primarily 2B in his case) who is taking on the catching position. He is an above-average contact hitter who sprays the ball the other way often, over 40%, and he’s been getting some playing action in winter ball in Mexico during the offseason.
The extra time playing in winter should help Aranda in 2021 and his positional versatility could allow him to find a role on the A ball and above teams.
Kevin Melendez 21 yrs old, RHB
Taken in the 12th round of the 2018 draft, Melendez received a solid $125K signing bonus and he last played in Princeton. His bat has shown a lot of swing and miss so far, but he does get a significant number of fly balls, providing hopes that added power could result in a significant increase of extra base hits.
Nigel Calmes 21 yrs old, RHB
A product of Aruba, Calmes should be on your radar as someone to look into mid-season. You can learn more about him here. While he’s only played in the DSL so far, he has a cannon of an arm and could make a significant leap forward this year. He is likely to land in the GCL to start the season and more power at the plate might allow him to move up through the minor leagues quicker than expected.
The Rays have come full circle when it comes to adding catching talents. First, they tried to draft guys for the role with high picks & bonuses. Then, they switched gears to free agency, before delving into the trade market and position changes. Now that they’ve increased the talent levels behind the plate throughout the organization, it’s easy to see at least a few of these pan out and provide average to above-average performances both behind the plate and with the bat.
In short, with an aggressive approach to adding catching talents, the Rays are in a great position.