Backup catcher a 'healthy competition' for Rays

March 3rd, 2020

NORTH PORT, Fla. -- We know Mike Zunino will be the Rays' Opening Day catcher. But with the opener a little more than three weeks away, the team will have to make a decision regarding the second catcher spot on the 26-man roster.

Improving at the position was a priority for general manager Erik Neander and the Rays, though the team didn’t make any splashy moves over the offseason. Tampa Bay came to terms with Zunino on a new deal, but lost Travis d’Arnaud, who signed a two-year deal with the Braves.

But perhaps more importantly, the team agreed to Minor League deals with Kevan Smith and Chris Herrmann, creating what manager Kevin Cash is calling a “healthy competition” with Michael Perez.

The timetable to make a decision could be affected by the construction of the contracts of Smith and Herrmann, but the Rays would like to wait until the end of the spring to make a decision.

Let’s take a better look at the options:

Of the three catchers competing for the job, Perez, 27, has the most experience with the pitching staff, which should help his case. Perez was acquired in a July 2018 trade with the D-backs and immediately made his Major League debut with the Rays. Perez was on the Opening Day roster last season, but various injuries landed him on the injured list.

This season, the key for Perez will be to stay healthy.

“Mikey is a very talented player that I don’t think has yet to reach his full potential,” Cash said. “But from a catching standpoint, he’s as athletic as anybody. We gotta try and keep him on the field a little bit more consistently, and with the bat, he’s got such a simple swing that should play.”

Perez, who hits from the left side, showed significant improvement at the plate last season. Once healthy, Perez hit 13 home runs with Triple-A Durham in just 54 games. Perez has carried that into Spring Training, having already hit two home runs.

Smith has impressed throughout camp, especially with his big build behind the plate. While Smith isn’t known for his defense, Rays pitchers have mentioned that they like throwing to him because he presents a big target.

Smith, who spent the 2019 season with the Angels and also played three seasons with the White Sox, hit five home runs with the Halos in 191 at-bats. Aside from the uptick in home runs, Smith also finished with an average exit velocity of 89.4 mph and a .294 expected batting average, both career highs.

“[Tampa Bay] showed so much interest and I was excited,” Smith said. “I knew a lot of these guys just coming up through the Minors and playing against them in the big leagues. Just really looking forward to this chance and just taking it in stride.”

If the Rays decide to go with experience and a bit more versatility, then Herrmann could be the choice. Herrmann has played in parts of eight seasons with the Twins, D-backs, Mariners and A’s. Like Perez, Herrmann also hits from the left side. But perhaps his biggest attribute is that he also has experience playing corner outfield, if needed.

“I’ve got all my gloves,” Herrmann said. “My outfield glove, my first-base glove, my catcher’s mitt. I’ll be ready to go wherever they need me to.”

Herrmann, Smith and Perez are all hoping to make the Opening Day roster, but they all said that they’re trying to help each other improve and learn as well. Having veteran catchers like Smith and Herrmann around should help Perez, and Perez’s knowledge of the pitching staff should help his two main competitors.

“I’m here to have fun and I’m going to be here to support each and every one of my teammates,” Herrmann said. “I wish nothing but the best for everybody and I want everyone to stay healthy, because that’s what this is all about.”