ST. PETERSBURG -- Catching is such a critical position to the success of any team, and it's the most significant area where the Rays must show improvement to reach the next level.
Dioner Navarro came to the Rays via a midseason trade with the Dodgers in 2006. At the time, the move looked like a smart one, as Tampa Bay traded its veteran receiver, Toby Hall, and handed over the reins to a youngster who could grow with the team and mature with the young staff.
Almost immediately, Navarro showed his potential when he blocked a potential go-ahead run at the plate. Unfortunately, all the reviews since then have not been as glowing.
Navarro, who will be just 24 years old at the start of the 2008 season, has been inconsistent at the plate and in his game calling since his auspicious beginning.
Prior to the All-Star break in 2007, Navarro hit just .177 with one home run and 13 RBIs in 62 games, and his throwing at times was erratic. But he showed improvement in the second half, when he hit .285 with eight home runs and 31 RBIs, which gave him the third-best average among starting American League catchers after the break.
"He really came on offensively," Rays manager Joe Maddon said. "But the quantum leap we want to see is defensively calling a game.
"He does a pretty good job of blocking pitches. We like to see him receive balls on the corner better than he has in the past. Taking charge of the staff, communication wise, we have a ways to go. ... It's vital to the development of [Scott] Kazmir, [James] Shields, [Matt] Garza, [Edwin] Jackson, etc."
Navarro did throw out 30 of 101 attempted basestealers in 2007 for a percentage of 29.7, which was 10th best in the Major Leagues.
Tampa Bay Rays
Veteran Josh Paul is no longer with the team, so it's not out of the question the Rays could venture outside the organization to bring in a veteran receiver to back up Navarro and tutor the youngster. If that doesn't happen, other catchers who could become part of the mix include Shawn Riggans and John Jaso.
Riggans had a hard-luck season in 2007 that saw him get his opportunity to catch in the Major Leagues before having to give in to a right elbow problem that eventually ended his season and prompted surgery. In 29 games at Triple-A Durham, Riggans hit .295 with four home runs and 14 RBIs. He was ranked the best defensive catcher in the International League by Baseball America's Best Tools Survey in 2006.
Jaso caught at Double-A Montgomery, where he finished second in the Southern League in hitting at .316. His .405 on-base percentage ranked third in the league, and he threw out 35.2 percent of attempted basestealers. But looking at the Rays' catching situation, Jaso is probably better suited to begin the season at Durham.
"[Navarro] knows he has to come into Spring Training ready to perform and play," Maddon said. "I always challenged Navi to get involved with the workouts and have these pitchers see he wants to catch them and be with them and talk to them. That is vital to our development.
"The backside of it is Shawn Riggans coming off an injury right now, Jaso has not had any big league experience. Josh Paul is not there with us right now. We do lack experience there. No question. We have to accelerate the learning curve behind the plate. We talk a lot about it and we're trying to address it."
Bill Chastain is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.