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2019 Tampa Bay Rays Season Preview: Dreaming on Michael Perez and Nick Ciuffo

Everybody loves the backup quarterback.

MLB: Kansas City Royals at Tampa Bay Rays Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

There are three kinds of backup catchers in baseball. Of the first two kinds, the Rays have had plenty in recent years. First, there is Savvy-Veteran-Who-has-Seen-Better-Days-Man. (Oh, hey, is that Jose Molina?) Then there is the Prime-but-Mediocre-Man. (I see you over there, Bobby Wilson). But the third kind, the Young! and Interesting!-Kid? All apologies to Curt Casali, but it’s probably been since the great Nevin Ashley/Ashley Ashley days that we’ve had one of those around these parts.

But this year is different. This year, the Rays have Young! and Interesting! in spades behind the man behind the dish. Which is fun because, while the Rays didn’t trade for Mike Zunino to watch him ride the pine, it’s always nice to have somebody to dream on.

Michael Perez

MLB: Tampa Bay Rays at Baltimore Orioles
That’s a sexy looking backup catcher
Evan Habeeb-USA TODAY Sports

Drafted in the 5th round by the Diamondbacks in 2011, the San Juan, Puerto Rico native enjoyed a solid debut. An impressive 2012 season in Rookie ball with Missoula landed Perez the 12th ranked spot in Arizona’s top 20 prospects from Baseball America, and even placed him as the 7th overall prospect in all the Pioneer League. He showed off a strong arm and defense that some scouts likened to Miguel Montero, along with a bat that squared up the ball well and showed some pop,

A broken hamate in 2013 slowed his progress; the more talented pitchers in the higher minors who exposed his free swinging ways stalled it altogether in the ensuing years. It wasn’t until 2017 with AA Jackson that he found his footing again before truly breaking out in 2018 with AAA Reno, where the “twitchy little catching prospect” was enjoying a .284/.342/.417 triple slash line season before the Rays acquired him for Matt Andriese in a late July deal.

Tampa Bay was comfortable enough with Perez — and interested enough to see what he could do with more playing time — that they handed him the catching position when they sent Wilson Ramos to the Phillies in a trade deadline deal for a bucket of international slot moneyballs. Unfortunately, an August hamstring injury cut short those plans. Still, he managed to put up solid-if-unspectacular 89 wRC+ during his aborted tryout, collecting his first big league homer and some key hits.

He also left an impression with his defense, especially his blocking.

“He’s got good hands,’’ third-base/catching coach Matt Quatraro told the Times. “And, to use the technical term, he’s blocked the crap out of the ball.”

Still just 26, Perez is the clear backup to offseason acquisition Mike Zunino. Though Steamer and ZIPS project Perez to put up just a 77 and 68 wRC+ respectively, his lefty bat should be a nice complement to the right handed hitting Zunino and allow for more favorable matchups.

And who knows what dreams may come?

Nick Ciuffo

If one good thing came out of the Perez injury, it was that it gave the Rays an opportunity to see what 2013 first round pick Nick Ciuffo could do at the highest level.

MLB: Oakland Athletics at Tampa Bay Rays Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

The 24 year old prospect has not had the smoothest ride to the Show. Hit twice with “drug of abuse” suspensions — including a 50 game ban to start 2018 — his bat did not develop as the Rays had hoped. Though he was still consistently ranked as a top 20 Rays prospect by Baseball America, this was based mostly on of his improved defense, and the dream that his lefty stroke would someday unlock.

His premature audition in ‘18 suggested that he was not ready for prime time yet, as evidenced by his .189/.262/.297 line, but the young catcher still flashed promise at the highest level, playing adequate defense and framing at a rate near league average.

Ciuffo also got his first big league homer out of the way — with his mom in attendance no less.

Absent an injury, it is doubtful that Nick Ciuffo will be in the bigs this season. Nor should he be. He needs to build on his mostly successful 2018 Durham season, where he put up a 90 wRC+ in 60 games after his suspension and prior to his call up. But if worse comes to worst, it will be nice to know that the Rays have a someone who is not the fourth kind of back up catcher: late prime, not really savvy, can only dream of being mediocre, but somebody has to throw the ball back to the pitcher dammit. (Have fun in Texas, Adam Moore.)