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Smith looks to earn Rays' backup catcher role

@juanctoribio
February 14, 2020

PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. -- After playing regularly with the Angels over the last two months of last season, Kevan Smith went into the offseason thinking that he had solidified a spot with the club heading into the 2020 season.

PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. -- After playing regularly with the Angels over the last two months of last season, Kevan Smith went into the offseason thinking that he had solidified a spot with the club heading into the 2020 season.

But as the winter progressed, the club notified Smith that he would be non-tendered as they looked to bolster their catching situation through the free-agent market. Smith said he thought it was possible, though he was still surprised with the decision.

“I felt like I bonded really well with that staff over there, made a lot of strides in the right direction and thought, ‘Man, I have a little security for my first offseason,’” Smith said. “We loved Anaheim, we love that organization, but all of our family is in Pennsylvania so we took the positives to it and knew it could be a big blessing in disguise.”

Part of the “blessing in disguise” for Smith was that he was going to be able to test the free-agent market for the first time in his career. His focus was looking for an organization that would give him a chance to compete in the Majors. The Rays were the team that showed the heaviest interest throughout the process and the two sides agreed on a Minor League deal with an invite to camp.

“[Tampa Bay] showed so much interest and I was excited,” Smith said. “I knew a lot of these guys just coming up through the Minors and playing against them in the big leagues. Just really looking forward to this chance and just taking it in stride.”

While Mike Zunino appears to be the starting catcher heading into the 2020 season, the Rays will be looking for someone to stabilize their backup catcher spot. Michael Perez was the Opening Day catcher in 2019, but has struggled to stay healthy, and Chris Herrmann was also brought in as a non-roster invitee in order to get even more depth.

“[Kevan’s] got Major League reps,” said Tampa Bay manager Kevin Cash. “He’s caught for the White Sox, for the Angels. It’s nice to have a guy that has enough under his belt and is confident enough to kind of been there, done that, through other camps.”

Of the group competing for the backup job, Smith has an edge on the offensive side. Despite dealing with multiple injuries, Smith showed improvement with the Halos last season, finishing with five home runs in 191 at-bats. Aside from the uptick in home runs, Smith also finished with an average exit velocity of 89.4 and a .294 expected batting average, both career highs.

As the Rays look to improve their offense, Smith’s ability to hit will certainly be a plus. But in order for Smith to solidify himself as a viable option, Tampa Bay would like to see him make some improvements behind the plate.

Last season, Smith finished in the 20th percentile in Pop Time and his framing ranked in the 1st percentile among qualifying catchers.

“He has shown the ability to hit,” Cash said. “We’re going to kind of crash course him on our pitchers, on our thoughts with catching, but he seems very, very receptive to everything.”

Juan Toribio covers the Rays for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @juanctoribio.