Rays heat up hot stove by swinging three-team deal

Baseball’s hot stove heated up for the Tampa Bay Rays on Tuesday — less than a week before the winter meetings — and a new catcher and reliever will find themselves at Tropicana Field come Opening Day.

Tampa Bay traded for catcher Ryan Hanigan, formerly of the Cincinnati Reds, and reliever Heath Bell, formerly of the Arizona Diamondbacks, in a three-team deal as part of what’s shaping up to be a busy month for Rays brass. The moves address two areas Andrew Friedman, the Rays’ executive vice present of baseball operations, anticipated focusing on entering the offseason. Both have interesting potential impacts.

Hanigan’s arrival appears to be the most intriguing. A day after the Rays agreed to a two-year, $4.5 million deal with Jose Molina, Hanigan figures to become the Rays’ primary catcher next season. Since Brayan Pena signed a two-year deal with the Reds in November, it seemed likely that Hanigan would become an attractive trade piece for Cincinnati.

Judging by Hanigan’s expected salary with Tampa Bay, the Rays thought so as well. The 33-year-old native of Washington, D.C., receives a three-year, $10.75 million contract extension covering the next three seasons, plus a club option for 2017. Given the deal’s longevity, it’s clear the Rays were eager to secure his services, which include some versatility.

“Ryan Hanigan is a tremendously talented defensive catcher,” Friedman said. “We also like what he can do in the batter’s box, especially against left-handed pitching.”

One of the largest knocks on the Molina-Jose Lobaton duo behind home plate last season was their struggle to throw out runners. Hanigan offers a proven reputation in that category: He led MLB in caught-stealing percentage in each of the past two seasons, throwing out 45 percent of runners in 2013 and 48 percent in 2012.

As a hitter, Hanigan is serviceable. He owns a career .262 batting average and .359 on-base percentage. Two trips to the disabled list limited his production last season — he hit a career-low .198 with two home runs, 21 RBI and a .306 on-base percentage — but it appears the Rays are willing to bet Hanigan’s hardest days are behind him.

Hanigan’s signing brings up one question with an answer that remains elusive: What will become of Lobaton? For now, the promising 29-year-old remains part of the Rays, but it seems likely that he could become a trade piece if Tampa Bay chooses to explore that option.

Lobaton became a fan favorite and rising star throughout his own clubhouse with his ice cream-worthy dramatics toward the end of last season. There’s plenty to like about him: He hit a career-best .249 with seven home runs and 32 RBI last season, he grew with his craft and he appears to have the right combination of personality and work ethic to enjoy a sustainable major league career.

Despite uncertainty about Lobaton’s future, there’s also the possibility that all three catchers could enter spring training together in Port Charlotte, Fla. For now, though, it will be curious to track Lobaton’s status in the coming weeks.

Bell, meanwhile, could deliver part of the enhanced bullpen depth that the Rays have sought since late last season. There’s uncertainty whether closer Fernando Rodney, now a free agent, will return for a third season with Tampa Bay. Consequently, the Rays are smart to stockpile players like Bell to strengthen that area of need.

“I have an opportunity to pitch in the ninth inning, which is a good thing,” Bell told FOX Sports Arizona. “But I definitely have to go out and earn it. I can’t just show up in spring training, but I have a good chance to win a job.”

Bell, a 10-year veteran with a career 3.39 ERA, offers some interesting intangibles. He was at his best during his days with the San Diego Padres from 2009-11, when he earned a trip to the All-Star Game each year.

However, his stops with the Miami Marlins (2012) and Diamondbacks were largely forgettable. He posted a 5.09 ERA in 63 2/3 innings with the Marlins and a 4.11 ERA in 65 2/3 innings with the Diamondbacks, clear signs of a decline from his San Diego heyday.

Will Tampa Bay be kinder to him?

Yunel Escobar and James Loney were two examples of offseason signings last year who excelled when given a home in the Rays’ relaxed, loose environment. Expect Bell, who has 168 career saves, to compete for the ninth-inning role, and he should be given plenty of chances to show his ability in the spring.

Everyone will find out more about Hanigan and Bell in time. For the Rays, Tuesday was an active afternoon, with them sending right-handed pitching prospect Justin Choate and a player to be named later to Arizona, in addition to receiving cash considerations as part of the deal. This is sure to be a busy month, with additions and subtractions to come.

Prepare for more action.

You can follow Andrew Astleford on Twitter @aastleford or email him at aastleford@gmail.com.