ST. PETERSBURG -- At this point, just about everything Nick Ciuffo does will be a first for him.
Last year, the 2013 first-round Draft pick got his first exposure to professional baseball, playing 43 games for the Gulf Coast League Rays. Ciuffo is about a month away from his first Spring Training. One of these years, he'll advance to a full-season Minor League affiliate for the first time.
Ciuffo admitted Wednesday at the Rays' annual Winter Development Camp that players can't possibly prepare themselves enough for pro ball, and he said that a lot of it's about learning along the way. That's why Tampa Bay is hesitant to place any additional expectations upon the 18-year-old, despite his pedigree and his standing as MLB.com's No. 9 catching prospect.
"We don't believe in pushing," said Rays director of Minor League operations Mitch Lukevics. "They're all going to grow mentally. They're all going to grow physically. He's going to find out what he can and cannot do. Once you get to a certain level of maturation both physically and mentally, then we take the gloves off. It's hard to predict that in a young kid, but he has great makeup. He has some toughness to him -- and he works. When you have that combination, you have a chance to get a young player to be a big leaguer."
The Rays clearly believed that when they drafted Ciuffo 21st overall in the 2013 First-Year Player Draft. He went on to hit .258/.296/.308 in 169 plate appearances for the GCL Rays. Ciuffo learned the importance of slowing down the game and, well, how much left he has to learn.
"Catching is the most difficult position there is on the field. The expectations that we have on our catchers, both defensively and then obviously offensively, it's something that he's still getting indoctrinated into what we do," executive vice president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman said. "There's a lot of benefits to the [Winter Development] program itself, and with Nick just being a recent draftee, there's still a steep learning curve in terms of what we're trying to impart on him.
"That being said, it's a process. We only do it in bite-sized pieces for these guys to get, and he's coming along as well as we could hope."
Ciuffo was obviously enjoying himself at the camp, taking note of the four flat-screen televisions inside Tampa Bay's clubhouse and joking that he needs to get to the Majors as fast as possible and stay for as long as possible.
"This is awesome," Ciuffo said. "When I got the email saying I was going to get to come hang out at the big league clubhouse for four days, it was hard not to get excited."
Ciuffo said game calling will be a bigger focus for him in 2014, especially considering his lack of experience doing so behind the plate. So it's fitting that when he was asked to name one Rays player he looks up to, he singled out catcher Jose Molina, a 14-year veteran valued far more for his defensive expertise than his bat.
"For Molina to be in the game as long as he's been and to know what he knows, that's somebody that I would like to sit down with and just have a talk and ask him little questions about baseball that you can't ask a coach or a manager or something like that," Ciuffo said. "He's somebody that's been in this clubhouse, been in other clubhouses, been around the game for such a long time, [and I would like] just to kind of pick his brain."
For now, Ciuffo will continue to take part in what Lukevics described as the hardest part in a catcher's development: showing up every day. That will start in Spring Training, carry on to whichever Minor League club he's placed with and then on into his first full professional season.
"For all these young kids ... it's a challenge, because they've never experience it. Now they're coming into their first Spring Training, they're not used to it," Lukevics said. "Come after that, they'll start getting into the drill. They'll start getting the understanding. We're really pleased with the way all these kids have come in here and seeing the work that they did at home prior to coming. They're ahead of the game right now."
Certainly not far enough ahead, however, for Ciuffo to enjoy those four flat-screen TVs anytime too soon. Asked about when he thinks that day will come, Ciuffo issued another reminder that he's still just trying to get the hang of everything, one first at a time.
"That's a question I can't really answer, because this is my first go at professional baseball," Ciuffo said. "I'm just here to work hard and take it step by step. When the guys think I'm ready, I'll be ready."