ST. PETERSBURG -- Developing catchers has never been a strong suit for the Rays organization, which can be attributed, in part, to the talent they have had to develop.
Hoping to rectify that situation, the Rays made South Carolina high school backstop Nick Ciuffo their first pick -- the 21st -- of Thursday's First-Year Player Draft.
"We like his tools and [his] chance to be an everyday catcher in the big leagues," scouting director R.J. Harrison said. "He's a high school kid that's going to start his journey and work his way through the Minor Leagues. He's got a plus arm, [he's an] average defender, and we like his bat and power. And he's a tough kid. We like the kid."
Although the Rays insist they adhere to the philosophy of drafting the best player available, they were pleased to bring into the organization some quality at the catcher position.
"I think catchers have a really high upside and a really low downside, just because it's tough to develop them," said Andrew Friedman, executive vice president of baseball operations. "There are a lot of really good catching prospects that haven't made it. But the ones that do carry significant value on a Major League team. The fact that he also hits left-handed is something that certainly helped the profile."
With their second pick of the first round (No. 29), the Rays took right-hander Ryne Stanek from Arkansas, and they finished the day by selecting high school shortstop Riley Unroe from Desert Ridge High School in Mesa, Ariz., with the 60th pick
Ciuffo went into the Draft feeling a good vibe from the Rays.
"I really wasn't expecting much in the earlier part of the round, and I kind of had a feeling [Tampa Bay] was where I was going to go," Ciuffo said.
Ciuffo, 18, is 6-foot-1 and 205 pounds, and bats left-handed. The product of Lexington High School has made a commitment to play at South Carolina.
Area scout Brian Hickman called Ciuffo "a tremendous kid."
"It's an easy conversation," Hickman said. "When you get to know this guy, you feel like you've known him for your whole life. He's just one of those types of people."
As for his catching ability, Hickman called Ciuffo "a student of the game."
"He loves to talk the game," Hickman said. "We use this [expression] from time to time: The kid's a baseball rat. That's what he is. He loves the game. ... The guy cannot get enough baseball, and his work ethic is just off the charts. He's just a tremendous kid. I think when everybody gets to meet this young man, they're going to be able to see that right away. He's just a different human being."
Ciuffo is impressive at the plate and behind it, and he projects to be able to hit at the next level for both average and power. His arm is considered his best defensive tool, and though he need to continue to work on his catching, he is projected to remain at the position.
"We think he's a catcher, we do," Harrison sad. "That's one of the major reasons we took him. ... I just think he's athletic behind the plate. He has the good arm. He throws like a catcher. It's not a long, slinging arm action. He looks like a catcher. I don't know how to explain it any better than that. He's a strong-bodied kid. He's got bat speed. ... There's just a lot of things to like about him."
Save for Mark Thomas at Double-A Montgomery and Luke Maile at Class A Bowling Green, the Rays are fairly thin at the catching position. Ciuffo was asked if he thinks the situation would allow him to move more quickly to the Major Leagues.
"It's hard to say," Ciuffo said. "I wouldn't really say they haven't had bad success when it comes to developing catchers. I'm not really sure about who they've had in the past. But I can guarantee everybody in Tampa Bay and everybody in the state of Florida one thing. I can't promise you that I'm going to get to the big leagues, but I can promise you there won't be another catcher coming out of this Draft that's going to work harder than me to get to the big leagues."
One motivation for Ciuffo reaching Tropicana Field quickly is the prospect of catching reigning American League Cy Young Award winner David Price.
"It's a lot of fun to catch real good pitchers, and I've watched David Price over and over again, even when he was in college," Ciuffo said. "He's one of the best pitchers in the game. I want to get there as fast as possible and see if I can catch him."
Day 2 of the Draft continues with Rounds 3-10, streamed live on MLB.com on Friday, beginning with a preview show at 12:30 p.m. And Rounds 11-40 will be streamed live on MLB.com on Saturday, starting at 1 p.m.
The Rays have been thin at the catching position for years, so there's a chance Ciuffo can move quickly through the organization. He has a quality bat, the necessary catching tools and a quality makeup.
Stanek profiled as one of the top college arms in the 2013 Draft class, one who was coming on strong after a bit of a slow start to his junior season. He has a power arm, reaching the mid-90s, and maintains that velocity throughout his starts. In addition to a fastball that is said to have good sink and run to it, he has two breaking balls, a curve and a slider. Given the fact that he is a college pitcher, he has a good chance to move quickly through the organization.
The speedy and athletic Unroe is the son of Tim Unroe, who played in the Major Leagues from 1995 to 2000. An athletic shortstop is always a welcome addition to an organization because even if he doesn't make it as a shortstop, there are a lot of places in the field to move to.
Bill Chastain is a reporter for MLB.com. Adam Berry is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter at @adamdberry. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.