Jackson could have what Rays are looking for in a backup catcher

February 17th, 2024

PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. -- didn’t get much of an opportunity to make a mark for the Rays last year. Acquired from the Brewers before the Trade Deadline, he played 14 games for Triple-A Durham then missed the final month of the season due to a right shoulder injury.

But Jackson enjoyed his time with the organization, his fourth team in the past three seasons, so much so that he extended his Minor League contract rather than testing the free-agent field. And the Rays liked what they saw enough to bring him back as likely the top internal candidate for their backup catcher job behind René Pinto.

Jackson went to work Saturday morning at Charlotte Sports Park, catching a handful of bullpen sessions with the likes of Pete Fairbanks and Naoyuki Uwasawa. This is an important time for the 28-year-old backstop, who’s in camp as a non-roster invitee, as Tampa Bay evaluates its options behind the plate and looks to see how well the catchers handle the pitchers.

At this point, Jackson said he’s dedicating his energy toward getting pitchers prepared for the season rather than overthinking his own opportunity to carve out a spot. But considering how much emphasis the Rays place on their catchers’ defense, the two could go hand in hand.

“That’s something that, honestly, it’s obviously there. But that’s not something that you’re focused on. Our main focus is to get the pitchers ready,” Jackson said. “Get them where they need to be, and then when the time comes, whatever happens, happens.

“Definitely excited to be back. It’s a great place to be. Really enjoyed the short time that I was here last year, and I’m obviously looking to just build on that.”

The Rays clearly like Jackson, as they gave up right-hander Evan McKendry to get him last August and didn’t add any Major League catchers over the offseason. They’re hoping that Jackson, like Pinto, will benefit from the kind of regular playing time that has eluded him to this point.

“Any time you can get into something comfortable and you can get going, get your feet under you, it allows you to sit back and take a little bit of pressure off you,” Jackson said. “That’s something that’s greatly appreciated, so now it’s just about getting ready and seeing what’s to come.”

Jackson, the sixth overall pick by the Mariners in the 2014 MLB Draft, was once a Top 100 prospect but has played in only 66 Major League games, with 52 of those coming in ’21. During those stints, he compiled a .141/.243/.227 batting line with 89 strikeouts in 185 big league plate appearances.

But Jackson’s hit better in Triple-A, and he batted .284/.347/.556 with 16 homers in 59 games between Triple-A Nashville and Durham in 2023 before his season came to an early end. Jackson declined to get into the details of his shoulder injury, but he said he is fully healthy and ready to go this spring.

“He’s a big, strong guy,” manager Kevin Cash said. “Offensively, it’s like all the tools are there. Are consistent reps going to help him? Defensively, by the way we view catchers, we’re pretty high on him. We think our pitchers are going to like throwing to him. He’s built like one of those old-school, real big, blocky catchers. He’s wide, but he has the hands to go with it.”

Around the horn
• Cash and Jackson were both impressed by Fairbanks’ bullpen session on Saturday.

“He’s phenomenal,” Jackson said after catching Fairbanks for the first time. “I’ve faced him before. That’s a whole ‘nother world stepping in the box against him, so it’s definitely nice to be on the other side of it.”

• Starters Aaron Civale and Zack Littell also threw in the bullpen on Saturday. Lefty Tyler Alexander and non-roster right-hander Jacob Waguespack, who are being built up to compete along with right-hander Chris Devenski for a hybrid, multi-inning bullpen role, also got on the mound during Saturday’s workout.

• With rain in the forecast, the Rays are closing Sunday’s workout at Charlotte Sports Park to fans. It should be a relatively light day of on-field activity anyway, as position players are scheduled to report and undergo their physicals.