PORT CHARLOTTE — This time last spring, catcher John Jaso's career was at a crossroads.
Jaso, 27, had spent almost all of his first seven professional seasons in the minors and appeared headed for another one. Manager Joe Maddon, admittedly uncomfortable with Jaso's defensive stance and blocking ability, among other things, was pretty harsh in their first meeting.
"It was now or never," Jaso said.
What happened following the wakeup call, according to Jaso, was when "preparation meets opportunity." And after Jaso played his way into becoming the primary catcher — and leadoff hitter — as a rookie for the American League East champions, his pre-spring meeting with Maddon this week had a very different tone.
It went from a roast to a toast.
"It was a lot smoother," Jaso said, smiling.
Maddon laughed: "He's much more comfortable, and I'm much more comfortable with him."
Jaso is also more confident and ready to follow up his impressive rookie season, when he stepped in for an injured Kelly Shoppach and never looked back. The two are expected to platoon this year, but there's a very different feeling in Jaso.
"That whole sense of belonging is there," Jaso said. "Like that stress of wanting to get noticed and all that stuff. … It's gone. I know that impression has already been made. Basically, coming into spring now, it's just get the work in so I can keep going with what I'm doing. I just have to maintain.
"I want to stay."
Jaso plans to continue all the workouts and defensive drills he completed last spring with bullpen coach Bobby Ramos, which were a big part of getting him here. The notebooks he compiled with scouting reports on big-league hitters will just get longer. And a young pitching staff has grown more comfortable with him behind the plate.
Starter Jeff Niemann said Jaso learned what each pitcher wanted to do, and by the end of the year there was very little shaking off of his signs, which he put down "with conviction."
"For a pitcher that's just awesome," Niemann said. "You can't ask for anything more."
Jaso, a left-handed hitter, can also lead off, which he did in 45 games last season, more than any rookie catcher in major-league history. But hitting coach Derek Shelton said that, position aside, he's a great fit for that spot. Jaso's 59 walks were a franchise record for a rookie, and he had an AL rookie-best .372 on-base percentage.
"I think he kind of embodies what we talk about in terms of team offense. He handles the strike zone, he handles his own hitting zones, he gave us a quality at-bat every time," Shelton said. "Many people get caught up with the fact that (the leadoff man) has to run. This guy is one of the best baserunners in baseball."
While Jaso's play transformed, his personality hasn't. He still loves classic rock and plays his electric guitar. He's an adventurous outdoorsman, going lobster diving this past offseason before traveling to the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico, visiting Cancun and the ancient Mayan ruins of Chichen Itza.
But while Jaso is more on the same page with his pitchers, even avid hunters and fishermen like Niemann and fellow starter Wade Davis acknowledge "he's a little bit different than we are."
Joked Niemann: "He's more of an environmental outdoors person, instead of an NRA outdoors person."
Maddon said he now understands Jaso better.
"He's definitely his own man, and, for so many different reasons I think he won't be impacted by anything," Maddon said. "Whether someone says, 'You're really good, you're an All-Star caliber' … none of that stuff would ever bother him. He's going to be the same Mikey every day and I like that about him."
Said Ramos: "He's going to be a nice player for us for a long time."
Joe Smith can be reached at email@example.com.