By Bryan Levine, SunCoast Sports
TAMPA — The Tampa Bay Rays are filled with competition for Opening Day roster spots, but few are as intriguing as the battle for catcher.
As the offseason began to come to a close, it appeared as if Curt Casali and Luke Maile were guaranteed to be the Rays’ back stops once the season started, but the team’s front office had other ideas.
All-star catcher Wilson Ramos was signed to a two-year, $12.5 million deal in December, and the Rays traded for Jesus Sucre from the Seattle Mariners in the beginning of February.
That has significantly increased the competition at the position, but it hasn’t changed the mindset for either Casali or Maile.
“It has no bearing on how I go about my business,” Casali said. “I’ve done this for four years now. Catcher competition. Catcher competition. That’s how it works. I could blame myself for having an opportunity and not running with it the way I had planned on, and that’s why there’s another catcher competition.”
Maile had similar thoughts.
“It’s not like you see that they’re adding somebody and you start working hard,” Maile said. “You’re always doing your thing. It’s a business and you understand it. There’s no reason and no benefit of taking things personally. I just want to be in a position where I take the decision out of their hands.”
When it comes to the competition, let’s factor Ramos out of the mix. He’s recovering from offseason knee surgery and isn’t expected to be ready – likely in the designated hitter role to start – until the very end of May or beginning of June.
This potentially means that whoever the No. 2 catcher on the roster is, he might not remain there very long. Again, that’s another aspect to the competition the players try not to pay attention to.
“I just go out and play. I’m not going to sell myself short and say I’m just trying to hold down the fort until (Ramos) comes back,” Maile said. “We’re very excited to have him. He’s a great player, but I just want to do what I do, and give somebody a tough decision, hopefully.”
By all indications, it’s Casali who will take that No. 1 spot, with Sucre and Maile battling for the backup role.
Neither Maile nor Sucre have proven themselves much offensively in the big leagues. Maile, in just 161 career plate appearances, is a .214 hitter with a .252 on-base percentage and 10 extra base hits. For Sucre, he has a lifetime 264 plate appearances, batting .209, adding a .246 on-base percentage and 12 extra-base hits.
They’ve both impressed so far this spring. Maile entered Tuesday’s game against the New York Yankees batting .500 with four RBI. Sucre has mashed a couple of home runs in his at-bats.
“They’ve each done some good things this spring,” manager Kevin Cash said. “Luke Maile has really stood out. You can tell he’s worked on his offensive approach and he’s barreled up a lot of balls. Curt has swung the bat well. Sucre is sort of the unknown, but he’s hit well, and the pitchers have really enjoyed working with him.”
Each game Sucre has been behind the plate, Rays pitchers have praised his abilities to call a game. Sucre takes pride in his defensive abilities.
“A lot of people say I’m not that good at hitting, but all I worry about is catching and trying to help out the pitchers,” Sucre said. “For me, if the pitcher is doing good, that’s my job. I believe hitting, for me, is a plus. If I’m doing well behind the plate, that’s what I worry about.”
While the trio are rivals in some ways, at the end of the day, they’re teammates who act like professionals when it comes to their relationships.
“It’s not difficult, at least not for me,” Maile said. “There are certainly parts that can be a little bit awkward, but at the end of the day, we do this for a living.”
Whether or not one of the three of them don’t make the 25-man roster to begin the season doesn’t mean they won’t play for the Rays at some point this season. Injuries are part of the game, and players struggle, leaving a need for replacements.