Catching on at the top

This has not been a particularly good year for men behind the plate.  The RBI leaderboard for backstops is filled with journeymen, led by John Buck and Rob Barajas, with Miguel Olivo and Chris Snyder rounding out the Top 5.  Of the Top 12 Yahoo! ranked catchers heading into the season, eight of them have either succumbed to injury or disappointed greatly in their performance.   The current Top 12 based on performance thus far is an uninspiring list of limited upside, including guys like Ronny Paulino and Nick Hundley.  There is one guy on that list, however, whose name leaps out with intrigue, and that would be Rays’ under-the-radar rookie John Jaso.

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Jaso turned heads on Sunday to the point of whiplash, with a monster five-RBI outburst that included a double, a home run and a stolen base.  He boosted his average to .307 on the year with three long balls and 24 RBIs in just 101 at-bats.   This is all very impressive, but those numbers won’t get anyone much more excited than Paulino or Hundley.   Here’s the kicker: Jaso was batting leadoff on Sunday.  For the Rays.  The third highest-scoring team in baseball. 

With Jason Bartlett hurt (and proving 2009 to be a fluke prior to the injury), the Rays have been searching for a leadoff hitter.  So Joe Maddon decided to give his 26-year-old catcher a shot, and for good reason.  The guy can flat-out get on base.  Jaso had posted a .410 on-base percentage heading into Sunday, and it now sits at .423.  In 620 Minor League games, the former 12th round draft choice posted a .378 OBP along with a .290 average. 

While OBP is irrelevant in most fantasy leagues, it directly relates to runs scored, especially when a guy is batting atop a highly-potent lineup.  If Jaso can continue to put up anything close to those OBP numbers, he’s sure to stick at leadoff and score runs in bunches, with guys like Carl Crawford, Evan Longoria and Carlos Pena driving him in regularly.    

While the 97-RBI pace is a bit over the head of the lefty batsmen, Jaso did show flashes of respectable power in the Minors with highs of 14 homers and 71 runs driven in.  In 32 at-bats with runners in scoring position he’s batting an impressive .344.  Sunday’s show of speed was also impressive, but he’s probably not the next Jason Kendall, so don’t expect a ton in the stolen base department. 

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With Dioner Navarro batting .202 and Kelly Shoppach being, well, Kelly Shoppach, Jaso shouldn’t have much trouble wrestling away the Rays full-time catching role.  If his defense proves unsatisfactory behind the plate, he could also fill Tampa’s void at designated hitter, where he started on Sunday.  He may be on his way to a belated breakout season a la teammate Ben Zobist in 2009.  So if you’re sick of watching hyped prospects like Geovany Soto or Matt Wieters go 0-for-3 every day, why not give John Jaso a shot?

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