- Eric Karabell, ESPN.com Senior Writer
This is a team seemingly loaded with leadoff possibilities, including speedy options who don't necessarily get on base (I'm talking to you, B.J. Upton). It's not just that a catcher was leading off, which is rare enough, but this isn't someone with the track record of a Russell Martin, the only other backstop who has led off a game this season. This is a rookie catcher, a marginal prospect at best, batting first for baseball's best team and thriving with a homer, five RBIs and a stolen base Sunday.
Forgive me for acting surprised; I was the guy touting Kelly Shoppach in deep leagues before the season. I thought he'd beat out Dioner Navarro and return to his 20-homer ways. Instead, Shoppach got hurt and Navarro was awful, and that opened the door for Jaso, an on-base machine in the minor leagues who has busted into the top 20 among catchers on ESPN's Player Rater despite limited playing time. Well, his opportunities aren't limited anymore; this is a true feel-good story. I didn't expect to see the 26-year-old Jaso listed as one of the Rays' top prospects when I checked out Baseball America, but to see him ranked sixth at catcher alone, and not even close to the top 30 overall, proves just how surprising his .307 batting average and .888 OPS in the major leagues are. Jaso is fifth among rookies in RBIs, but the reason for his success is his plate discipline, with 19 walks against only 11 strikeouts.
Those are the numbers that led to Jaso leading off twice this weekend instead of Upton, a noted hacker having another disappointing campaign. When shortstop Jason Bartlett hit the disabled list because of a sore right hamstring last week, I thought we'd be discussing Reid Brignac and his emerging value. Frankly, I thought he would get the chance to lead off. Instead, it's a rookie catcher.
Normally rookies don't walk and avoid strikeouts at a rate like this. We've discussed Detroit Tigers center fielder Austin Jackson fanning at a high pace and how it will curtail his batting average at some point. Atlanta Braves right fielder Jason Heyward went 0-for-5 with five strikeouts at Dodger Stadium this weekend. Jaso is averaging 4.07 pitches per plate appearance, which bodes well for his batting average staying in the .300 range.
Shoppach returned to the Rays on Friday in Bartlett's roster spot, giving the team three catchers, at least for the time being. I can't imagine that will continue, but Jaso has appeared at designated hitter three times, including Sunday's start. A left-handed hitter, Jaso is hitting .337 with power against right-handed pitchers and just .167 against lefties, so I would expect to see a Jaso-Shoppach platoon (Shoppach generally destroys southpaws). What does that mean if you own Navarro, a 26-year-old switch hitter who batted .295 in 2008? It means you don't want him. I bet the Rays are desperately trying to find a trade partner for him.
I wouldn't call Jaso a clear top-10 fantasy catcher yet; he still has only 101 career at-bats, and we need to see a bit more from a guy who hit .265 with five home runs in 328 at-bats for Triple-A Durham a year ago. He simply wasn't supposed to be this good. However, because Maddon is smart enough to avoid using Jaso against lefties and he has buoyed his value by leading him off against right-handers, the rookie catcher is worth starting in two-catcher leagues. He should be safe in batting average. Plus, if you're starting one of these catchers in standard (10-team) formats and you need batting average help, I'd part ways with Yadier Molina, Bengie Molina, John Buck, Geovany Soto, Ivan Rodriguez, A.J. Pierzynski, Chris Iannetta and any of the Arizona Diamondbacks catchers to get Jaso. Hey, if Maddon likes him this much, I do, too.