Rays Kick Off Trade Season By Acquiring a Catcher from the A's

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Rays Kick Off Trade Season By Acquiring a Catcher from the A’s

Chicago Cubs

With Mike Zunino on the shelf for a still(?) undetermined length of time with a shoulder issue, the Tampa Bay Rays decided to jump the market and acquire a catcher today. It’s not a major deal, but given how closely we’re going to be watching the catching market (i.e., because of a very likely eventual Willson Contreras trade), I think this is notable.

A’s catcher Christian Bethancourt is head to Tampa:

On the season in part-time duty, Bethancourt is hitting an almost exactly league-average .249/.298/.385/99 wRC+, and playing his typical slightly-better-than-average defense behind the plate. The 30-year-old catcher is still pre-arbitration because he’s been so up-and-down in his career (including a stint in Korea, and a stretch from 2018 through 2021 where he did not appear in MLB). This is a very cheap and useful player the Rays have added. As they do.

With the Rays, Bethancourt could wind up the primary starter, depending on what happens with Francisco Mejia’s mediocre run in taking over for Zunino. Otherwise, it’s a timeshare where the Rays will optimize the match-ups, and probably unlock some more from Bethancourt, who has always been very talented, but who has never put it all together.

In return, the A’s get Stevenson and Fernandez, neither of whom was seen as a top 30 prospect in an exceptionally deep Rays system. Fernandez, 22, has mostly moved into a starting role this year at Low-A, where he’s had a lot of success, but given the age, you’d probably want to see him rising swiftly if he were going to stay a significant prospect. Stevenson, 25, has always hit in the minors, though his production upon reaching Double-A last year and Triple-A this year trended toward league average. Still, he’s fast enough and plays defense well in center field, so you could see him as a near-term bench option for the A’s, who seem to do quite well with guys like that.

My very quick eyeball suggests this was a light return for the A’s, especially in a market-jumping trade for a borderline-starter-caliber catcher. I have to guess that Bethancourt’s four years away from MLB made it a little hard to “buy” his production in a limited sample, and maybe I’m underestimating the return prospects. It’s possible Fernandez, who is pitching competitively for the first time since 2019, has had a big uptick in stuff this year. The public rankings and the stats/age/level don’t always tell you the whole story.

The Rays likely would’ve been mentioned as a possible landing spot for Willson Contreras later this month – they had been mentioned before as a speculative suitor back in June – though it just seems really out of their norm to pay a premium prospect package for a rental at a position where they have historically valued defense/game-calling/framing over offense. This trade probably dings the market ever-so-slightly for Contreras, but probably not enough to be noticeable yet. There are still, and will be, a number of teams looking for a substantial upgrade behind the plate and at DH.

As far as the trade package being suggestive of anything, I tend to think Contreras and Bethancourt are in such different tiers of impact that you can’t take much away from it. The question with Contreras is going to be about whether a team out there values the addition of his bat enough to outweigh the whole staff having to adjust to a new catcher and all that tricky midseason stuff. I go back and forth on whether we should expect the offers to be in the range of Rizzo/Bryant/Báez last year, or slightly less (because of that issue), or slightly more (because of the scarcity of top bats behind the plate). I’m not sure I’m going to land on the answer before the Trade Deadline.

Speaking of the Trade Deadline, we are raising funds for Make-A-Wish this month in advance of me going nuts for the Blogathon on August 1 and 2. Please check it out!

Author: Brett Taylor

Brett Taylor is the Editor and Lead Cubs Writer at Bleacher Nation, and you can find him on Twitter at @BleacherNation and @Brett_A_Taylor.