On November 6th, 2017, the Rays outrighted Curt Casali to the minors and off their 40-man roster and he subsequently elected to become a free agent and signed late with the Los Angeles Angels. On the same date, Mike McKenry and Justin O’Conner also elected to become a free agents, leaving the depth at catcher extremely thin among the top of the minors system for the Rays.
Couple of catchers popping up in Rule 5 buzz: #Rays 2013 first-round pick Nick Ciuffo & #Rockies No. 15 prospect Dom Nunez. @JonathanMayo discusses. : https://t.co/6WDnCtyF5i pic.twitter.com/lvHUfWnLxF— MLB Pipeline (@MLBPipeline) December 14, 2017
And that’s why we saw a few raised eyebrows when Nick Ciuffo was left exposed in the just completed Rule 5 draft. A number one pick to whom the Rays gave close to $2M to when signed post-draft in 2013, Ciuffo is one of their better catching prospects.
But — spoiler alert — he was not selected, despite outlets like Baseball America’s JJ Cooper ranking him as the 5th most likely to be selected, and the Rays gamble paid off.
Ciuffo gets to remain with the Rays and further prove that his already evident defensive abilities (he was named best defensive player in the Rays organization two years in a row) can be complemented by an improving approach at the plate. He’s been working extremely hard on improving his bat, spending time in Australia over one winter and working with Chad Mottola and Dan DeMent before the 2016 season.
And some of that off-season work seems to have paid dividends.
- 2016 (A+): 242 PA, 8 doubles, 0 triples, 0 HR, 3.7% BB%, 18.6% SO%
- 2017 (AA): 417 PA, 29 doubles, 1 triple, 7 HR, 10.1% BB%, 22.8% SO%
- 2016 (A+): 0.584 OPS, 0.035 ISO, .275 wOBA, 70 wRC+
- 2017 (AA): 0.704 OPS, 0.140 ISO, .322 wOBA, 102 wRC+
Ciuffo also was able to spread the ball around a little more, increasing his batted balls to center field from 17% in 2016 to 25% in 2017 and increased his FB% from 25% in 2016 to 35% in 2017. Those are both strong indicators that his bat has enough potential to play well beyond a back-up role when he reaches MLB.
Those are all encouraging improvements for him to build on going forward in 2018 - likely in Durham - and while there’s still a long road ahead for him, Ciuffo’s not too far from getting a shot with an MLB team. For now, we’re happy to see that his near-term future remains with the Rays.