PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. -- Francisco Mejía believes he’s a better player than he’s shown so far in the big leagues. It’s not just that he was recently, as manager Kevin Cash noted Monday, “basically the best catching prospect in baseball.” For Mejía, the belief runs deeper than that.
The 25-year-old catcher’s father, Fremio, passed away in January 2020. He had been there for Mejía throughout his young career, answering his son’s phone calls before games and calling back afterward to talk about how he felt. Mejía said he knows his father is still watching, which only adds to his motivation to be great.
“I have goals that I want to be able to achieve and continue on and become a good player,” Mejía said through interpreter Manny Navarro. “It’s a goal of mine to continue to become as good as I can for him.”
The Rays believe Mejía, acquired from the Padres in the Blake Snell trade, will benefit from a change of scenery. And the switch-hitter seems like a natural fit on their roster with veteran, right-handed-hitting catcher Mike Zunino. There’s no doubting his raw talent, as he ranked among MLB Pipeline’s Top 40 Prospects each year from 2017-19, peaking at No. 11 in ’18. And he’s still young enough to ease some of the concern that he hasn’t put it all together at the highest level yet.
Cash said third-base coach Rodney Linares, who watched the catcher play in the Dominican Winter League, offered glowing reports about Mejía's arm strength behind the plate and his potential at the plate. Tampa Bay expects the finer points of his defensive game -- which lagged behind his offensive development as a prospect -- will further improve with help from field coordinator Paul Hoover and catching coordinator Tomas Francisco.
And the Rays aren't too worried about his bat, even though Mejía went just 3-for-39 with the Padres last season. He hit .265/.316/.438 in 244 plate appearances for San Diego in 2019, and he was a .295 hitter with an .810 OPS in the Minors. This is the same player who put together a 50-game hitting streak in the Minors.
“From what we’ve heard: Good guy, quiet guy, likes to work and likes to hit,” Cash said. “We won’t get in the way of the hitting.”
Still, Cash stressed the importance of patience with Mejía as he joins a new organization and works to learn an almost entirely unfamiliar staff of pitchers. Mejía did his part, he said, studying Rays pitchers after the trade went down and re-watching the World Series to see how Zunino handled their top arms. The overall goal, he said, is simply to be more consistent offensively and defensively.
“I think I still have a lot more in the tank. I was a good player [in the Minors], but I think I still have a lot of opportunity and a lot of room to grow and become a better player,” Mejía said. “I’ve had a lot of opportunities. Now, it’s time to capitalize and take advantage of these kinds of opportunities.”
Full squad ready
The Rays will hold their first full-squad workout on Tuesday morning at Charlotte Sports Park, adding the full complement of position players -- many of whom have already been around the past few days -- to the pitchers and catchers already in camp.
They will meet as a full team, although that will be different this year with the COVID-19 health and safety protocols in place. Rather than meeting in their clubhouse or cafeteria, the Rays will gather everyone in the stadium and have people speak from on top of the dugout. The messages will be brief, Cash said, and they’ll probably reassemble with a smaller roster closer to Opening Day.
Cash said he was encouraged by his early looks at Tampa Bay’s position players in camp, saying they looked to be in midseason form during batting practice on Sunday. He was particularly impressed by outfielder Austin Meadows, who’s coming off a year derailed by COVID-19 and injuries.
“Meadows looks awesome. He had a really rough season last year with injuries and COVID,” Cash said. “Really proud of Austin for working really hard this offseason. We can see that.”
Minor League staffs set
The Rays announced their Minor League coaching and medical staffs on Monday, shuffling around some personnel to fit within the structure of the newly reorganized player development system.
Three managers are set to change roles. Jeff Smith will manage the Rays’ Class A Advanced Bowling Green affiliate after managing Class A Advanced Charlotte last season. After managing the Bowling Green club last year, manager Blake Butera has been assigned to Class A Charleston. And manager Rafael Valenzuela will now oversee the Rookie-level Gulf Coast League Rays after managing Class A Short-Season Hudson Valley a year ago. Morgan Ensberg will return to manage Double-A Montgomery, and Brady Williams is back to lead the Triple-A Durham field staff.
Additionally, the Rays hired coach Ronnie Richardson, an assistant coach at Hillsborough Community College from 2017-20 and manager of the Northwoods League’s Wisconsin Woodchucks the past two years, and added him to the GCL staff.
The Rays will have four full-season Minor League affiliates and seven overall this year: Triple-A Durham, Double-A Montgomery, Class A Advanced Bowling Green and Class A Charleston, plus the Rookie-level GCL Rays and two Rookie-level Dominican Summer League teams.
American League Champions Club unveiled
The Rays are offering special gifts, experiences and events to fans through the newly announced American League Champions Club, a membership program available for $199 to the general public and $149 for those with a “Season Membership Plan.”
Among other things, the club will offer its members exclusive Zoom sessions with Cash and general manager Erik Neander, photo opportunities with the AL championship trophy at Tropicana Field, an AL championship replica ring and trophy, a Randy Arozarena AL Championship Series MVP audio bobblehead and a commemorative wooden coaster.
“Going to the World Series in 2020 brought some much-needed joy and excitement to Rays fans,” Rays vice president of marketing and creative services Eric Weisberg said in a statement. “We’re excited to celebrate that success with the people who cheered us on throughout the year and carry that magic into the new season.”
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