ST. PETERSBURG -- While speculation runs rampant about who will play where for the Rays next season, the catching spot, ironically, appears rock solid.
For years, Tampa Bay's biggest void could be found behind the plate. Heading into the 2018 season, the team has two reliable backstops in Wilson Ramos and Jesus Sucre. Not only can they handle the catching duties, but they can also provide a little offense.
Both joined the Rays last season via different paths. Ramos came as a free agent who finished his 2016 season with a right knee injury that required surgery. The subsequent recovery period allowed Tampa Bay to ink Ramos to a below-market two-year, $12.5 million deal.
Ramos did not begin playing for the Rays until June, and slowly but surely, the veteran catcher began to show why he is so valued. In his first season with Tampa Bay, he hit .260 with 11 home runs and 35 RBIs, and he finished strong, hitting .317 with five home runs and 16 RBIs in September.
If the Rays are not in contention by the non-waiver Trade Deadline this season, there should be plenty of suitors standing in line to make a deal for Ramos.
The Rays acquired Sucre in a trade with the Mariners just before Spring Training last season, and he made the club, primarily because Tampa Bay's pitchers liked throwing to him. Playing in 63 games, he hit .256 with seven home runs and 29 RBIs.
Looking to the farm, the next two catchers in the pecking order are Nick Ciuffo and Brett Sullivan.
The Rays drafted Ciuffo, 22, in the first round of the 2013 Draft (21st overall). In five Minor League seasons, Tampa Bay's No. 27 prospect per MLB Pipeline has hit .248 with 12 homers and 134 RBIs while playing solid defense. He played for Double-A Montgomery last season, where he hit .245 with seven home runs and 42 RBIs.
The Rays took a risk by not protecting Ciuffo during the Rule 5 Draft, meaning any team could have selected him, but they would have had to keep him on their active Major League roster for the length of the 2018 season. Tampa Bay was more than pleased when no team selected him.
"We said when we left him off that it was a calculated gamble," Rays senior vice president of baseball operations Chaim Bloom said. "We like Nick, and we think Nick is a Major League prospect. We were just taking a gamble that it wasn't his time yet, and we were hoping to be able to keep him here and give him an opportunity in our system to keep progressing. He did make strides this year, and we're really happy that we were able to keep him, and [we're] looking forward to giving him more opportunity next year."
Ciuffo's defense is ahead of his offense at this point, but that is not a bad thing for a catcher, whose first priority is those duties performed behind the plate. He'll be the catcher at Triple-A Durham.
Sullivan entered the organization as a third baseman, and he was converted to a catcher prior to the 2016 season. Farm director Mitch Lukevics said that for any player to make the conversion to catcher, he must have mental toughness, which he believes Sullivan has.
Since moving to catcher, Sullivan has continued to hit while polishing raw tools behind the plate. Last season, he hit .301 with eight home runs and 67 RBIs at Class A Advanced Charlotte before finishing the year with Montgomery, where he hit .272 with seven RBIs in 24 games. Sullivan is earmarked to begin the 2018 season as Montgomery's backstop.
Both Ciuffo and Sullivan will continue to refine their catching skills under the watchful eye of highly touted Minor League catching instructor Paul Hoover.