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Rays catching on with trio of promising backstops in minors

PORT CHARLOTTE — The list of catchers drafted, or primarily developed, by the Rays who have gone on to have even a modicum of success in the major leagues is relatively short.

Using a 4.5 WAR as the bar and at least four years in the Tampa Bay system as the framework, there has been Toby Hall (1997), John Jaso (2003) and Stephen Vogt (2007) from the draft; Omar Narvaez (2008)) as an international signee; and Curt Casali (2013), acquired in trade as a minor leaguer.

And, of course, there has to be an obligatory mention of the franchise catcher they could have had if — rather than using the first pick in the 2008 draft on Tim Beckham — they had chosen Buster Posey (and his career 44.8 WAR for the Giants).

But, finally, the Rays seem to be catching on to something.

The first month of spring camp was a showcase for three promising youngish catchers — Logan Driscoll, Dom Keegan and Kenny Piper — who are headed back to the minors but have the potential to make an impact in the majors.

“Definitely the deepest group of catchers since I’ve been here,” said 10th-year manager, and former catcher, Kevin Cash.

Driscoll, acquired from San Diego in the February 2020 deal for Manuel Margot, is furthest along.

The 26-year-old finished last season at Triple-A Durham and looks to be the Bulls starter this season. Given his markedly improved performance behind the plate and, if he can make more contact, decent work at it, Driscoll should be a call-up candidate if starter Rene Pinto or expected backup Alex Jackson were to be sidelined for an extended period.

Keegan, 23, was a 2022 fourth-round pick from college powerhouse Vanderbilt, where he played primarily first base and made loud noises with his bat, which he has continued at the low end of the minors and the Arizona Fall League. MLB.com ranks him the Rays’ No. 6 prospect.

Piper, 25, is already a success story just getting drafted out of Columbia College, an NAIA school in Missouri (thanks to the scouting work of Matt Alison). He has proven worthy of his 2021 18th-round selection, hitting 20 homers last season between High A Bowling Green and Double-A Montgomery, and showing off an extremely strong arm.

“It’s really special to me and for the organization having those type of guys,” said Tomas Francisco, the current big-league, and former minor-league, catching coach. “Those three guys have been working really hard in the minor leagues. They’re all special, especially behind the plate.”

All three feel good about what they have done so far but know they have to do more to get to the majors and to stay.

Each credits the Rays for developing them, specifically in emphasizing what has been a somewhat industry-wide trend of putting a knee down when receiving the ball, which the Rays have been teaching since 2019. That helps with framing pitches and quickening throws, and also keeping the catchers healthier by reducing strain on their knees. Current minor-league catching coordinator Jeff Smith has had a hand in that, and their overall defensive improvement.

Driscoll said the change in setup was a huge key to his progress.

“They put me on a knee right away to kind of allow me to learn the catching moves and do them consistently, and it’s kind of changed the path of my career, at least defensively, for sure,” Driscoll said. “It kind of just opened my eyes to how the game was going to be.”

Keegan said the Rays made it clear before the draft they wanted him to go behind the plate full time, and having grown up in New England catching he was up for the challenge.

“The transition over here to being a catcher was smoother than I thought,” he said. “They really invested a lot of time and effort into me being a catcher, so that really helped. To see them put in the effort just made me want to become better.”

Though Piper, 25, dominated at the small-college level, hitting .356 with a 1.105 OPS over four years, he had a lot to adjust to as the only Cougar playing pro ball.

“There was a learning curve, for sure. It took me a little bit,” he said. “I played competitive summer ball where I got to see velocity, but it was definitely different coming into pro ball and seeing 95 (mph) every single day.

“At Columbia, a really good starter was probably sitting upper-80s. So to come and get to see really, really competitive guys day in and day out, I had to make some adjustments. I still have a lot to learn, but I’ve figured a lot out since then.”

So, too, have the Rays.

After drafting catchers, and paying seven figure bonuses, in the first or second round three times from 2010-15, they have found other, better ways, to build needed depth, which showed well this spring.

“Very well,” Cash said. “Very excited about how they performed, and just their overall talent.”

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