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December 4, 2013

Transaction Analysis

The Rays Add Bell and Hanigan, Double Down on Catcher Defense

by R.J. Anderson and Ben Lindbergh



IN THIS ISSUE

American League
National League

TAMPA BAY RAYS
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Acquired C-R Ryan Hanigan from the Reds; acquired RHP Heath Bell and cash from the Diamondbacks for RHP Justin Choate and a player to be named later; signed Hanigan to a three-year extension worth $10.75 million with a club option for 2017 worth $3.75 million. [12/3]

There is, and always has been, a lot to like about Hanigan. First, the framing: Hanigan takes receiving seriously, and it shows up in the stats, as he consistently rates among baseball’s best backstops. Although an oblique strain and a wrist sprain limited him to only 72 games last season, Max Marchi’s model still credits him with 13.3 receiving runs saved. I wrote about the Rays’ faith in framing when Jose Molina re-signed, and I won’t rehash that here, but it’s no surprise that they (and the Yankees) have long had their eyes on Hanigan.

Then there’s the arm: Hanigan threw out 47.5 percent of attempted basestealers from 2012-13, leading the National League in both seasons. His career caught stealing rate sits at 40 percent, third only to Yadier Molina and Henry Blanco among active catchers (so, soon to be second). David Ross and the elder Molina round out the top five.

And then there’s the bat, which—unlike Molina’s—has its appeal. Hanigan has little power, but he’s a disciplined hitter who’s had more walks than strikeouts for six straight seasons, an anachronistic feat in a low-contact era. His 12.0 percent career walk rate is tied for 16th among active players with a minimum of 1500 plate appearances. Last season, Hanigan had the lowest BABIP in baseball, despite a batted-ball breakdown in line with his career rates; even so, the free passes boosted his OBP to .306, in line with the .309 NL average for catchers. If Hanigan’s bat rebounds—and the Rays’ willingness to grant him a lengthy extension suggests that they believe the BABIP was a blip—he’s going to be well worth the commitment.

Hanigan broke in with the Reds as Ross’ caddy, and when Ross was released, Cincinnati never really removed the reins, signing Ramon Hernandez and grooming their own internal options to succeed him. With Yasmani Grandal and Devin Mesoraco nipping at his heels, Hanigan’s role with the Reds was never secure, but at age 33, he’s finally found some stability, with the younger Jose Lobaton likely headed to another team. With Molina already in house, Hanigan’s addition makes Tampa Bay best in show when it comes to catch-and-throw skills, and it will cost them only $4.5 million next season to put the two together. Between Tropicana Field’s tendency to suppress scoring and Molinigan’s ability to burke balls and steals, the Rays’ staff is about to be spoiled. —Ben Lindbergh

The Rays are responsible for $5.5 million of Bell's remaining salary, making him a somewhat expensive upside play by their standards. Were Bell a free agent, value-seekers would likely point to his 4.50 strikeout-to-walk ratio last season, or his uncharacteristically high home-run rate as reasons to believe he can bounce back. His role with the Rays is unclear at this point, though he has a $9 million option that vests with 55 games finished. Odds are, the Rays will keep him away from that mark. —R.J. Anderson

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