By Bryan Levine, SunCoast Sports
PORT CHARLOTTE — Tampa Bay Rays director of minor league operations Mitch Lukevics called prospect Nick Ciuffo one day in early January.
Lukevics never calls Ciuffo, so in the mind of the catcher, it only meant one thing.
“I got the call when I was working out and I thought I was in trouble because Mitch has never called me before,” Ciuffo said Wednesday during the second day of workouts for Rays pitchers and catchers. “He left a message. I called him right back after. Then I called my dad first thing. I think my dad was more excited than I was.”
The phone call was actually an invitation for Ciuffo to join the Tampa Bay Rays for spring training — the first time in Ciuffo’s career.
A little over five months ago, Ciuffo was a catcher for the Charlotte Stone Crabs, the Rays’ Class A-advanced affiliate, and now he’s training with the big club.
“Nick Ciuffo, I saw him in the fall league and he performed really well out there,” Manager Kevin Cash said. “He seems to be in a good spot and we like a lot of thing about him.”
Walking in the clubhouse for the first time as a Ray instead of a Stone Crab was a new experience for Ciuffo.
“In minor league camp, when you get here, you have to unpack all of your stuff and hang it up,” Ciueffo said. “When you come here, they’re like ‘what do you want in your locker?’ When I got here all my New Balance stuff and batting gloves were already in my locker. … I tried to hang up my stuff, and they were like ‘No. No. No. We’ll do it for you.’”
Ciuffo isn’t the only player who finished the season with the Stone Crabs in 2016 and received an invite to camp. Fellow catcher Jonah Heim and pitcher Jose Alvarado also are in attendance.
Heim is in a similar position as Ciuffo. Not in that they’re both backstops, but they’re both 22-year-olds in their first big-league camps doing everything they can to absorb knowledge from players with more experience.
“I just want to get a lot of good information and enjoy what I’m doing here,” Heim said. “I talk to all the catchers about how they set up and the little things about catching. It’s a great opportunity to talk to people who’ve been in the big leagues and have had success with it.”
Neither Ciuffo nor Heim will likely find themselves on the Rays 25-man roster to begin the season, as five catchers with big-league experience are above them on the depth chart. That, however, won’t stop them from soaking it all in.
Wilson Ramos reported to camp early Wednesday afternoon, about a day and a half after the rest of his pitching and catching teammates. Ramos was late after needing to attend to some family matters.
“I was back there helping out with my wife. Especially for her, the language is a difficulty,” Ramos said. “With my daughter in schoo, I was just trying make sure I could help out with my daughter’s schooling, and make arrangements that way when I came here I didn’t have any worries that I was leaving behind.”
Ramos, who is recovering from a torn ACL, isn’t expected to be ready for Opening Day, In fact, Cash says the catcher likely won’t even play during the spring. He could be ready to be a designated hitter in May.
Only three of 23 position players still haven’t reported to camp. Those three are Evan Longoria, Logan Morrison and Rickie Weeks. They still have time, though. Position players aren’t expected to be in camp until Friday.
Pitchers Chris Archer, Brad Boxberger and Alex Colome threw their first bullpen sessions on Wednesday. They all threw roughly 25 pitches in the session.
Rays prospect Jose De Leon didn’t throw Wednesday morning. According to Cash, the right-hander tweaked something in his mid-back, and they wanted to be “super cautious.” Cash expects De Leon to return Wednesday. Erasmo Ramirez also didn’t throw on Wednesday due to a left hamstring injury. His setback isn’t believed to be serious, either.
After Tuesday’s workouts, Cash said he liked what he saw out of pitcher Kevin Gadea. On Wednesday, it was Boxberger who was noticed by the manager.
Said Cash: “I thought Box looked really good. You can tell Box worked hard this offseason,” season. I’m really impressed with the guys that have come back and there was a lot of hard work put in managing their bodies or physiques. You can tell that people spent some quality time in the weight room, or cardio, or conditioning. But Box, as far his bullpen, looked really good today.”