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Dioner Navarro aims to seize chance with Jays

DUNEDIN — Plenty has changed for Dioner Navarro since his days with the Rays.

There's his short black hair, which is now sprinkled with shades of gray.

His address has spanned the country, playing in Los Angeles, Cincinnati and Chicago since leaving Tampa Bay after the 2010 season. Soon Navarro, 30, will be in a different nation, having signed a two-year deal with the Blue Jays.

But what has remained steadfast is Navarro's belief he can be counted on as the everyday catcher, a role he's ready to grab hold of for the first time since 2009 with the Rays.

"It was a tough journey," Navarro said. "But I'm right where I want to be at, playing in the American League East again. And I'm just looking forward for the next chapter of my career."

Navarro knows there's some doubters, considering he hasn't played more than 89 games since 2009, but he welcomes the challenge to resurrect his career. He never expected he would be a part-time player in the first place, not after becoming an All-Star in 2008 as the starting catcher during the Rays' World Series run.

But after a significant dropoff in 2009, hitting .218, he was the odd man out in 2010, sent to the minors for a couple of months as Kelly Shoppach and John Jaso shared most of the starts. Left off the Rays' roster for the first round of the playoffs, Navarro surprised the team by going home instead of staying there to be ready in case of an injury, or for the next round.

While his time in Tampa Bay had a bad ending, Navarro said he has good memories. And he could face Tampa Bay today when the Rays play the Jays in Dunedin.

"I had the best year of my career with the Rays in 2008," he said. "I always think about the guys I played with. It was a great run. But business is business, and I guess everybody's got to do what they've got to do."

Navarro had to re-establish himself, starting in 2011 with his second stint with the Dodgers. He played in just 64 games in Los Angeles and just 24 in 2012 with the Reds (as opposed to 62 in Triple A) before a "rebirth" last season with the Cubs.

Navarro hit .300 with 13 homers in 89 games for Chicago, including a three-homer game against the White Sox on May 29 at Wrigley Field. He said the key was changing a few things with his approach at the plate, motivated in offseason workouts with former Reds teammate and MVP first baseman Joey Votto.

It all paid off when the Jays signed him in December to a two-year, $8 million deal, hoping he would be the No. 1 catcher.

"That's exactly what I'm looking for," Navarro said. "I'm grateful for the opportunity. I know I'm capable of doing it. The rest will take care of itself."

As an added bonus, Navarro gets to spend spring training near his Apollo Beach home, which he has kept since his time with the Rays. He said he'll go fishing several times a week in the offseason, in his favorite spot by the power plant. Sometimes sons Gerson, 15, and Dioner Jr., 8, and wife Sherley will join.

"I just try to spend as much time as I can on the water," Navarro said. "Try to stay away from baseball."

But now Navarro is working "my tail off," trying to reward the Jays' faith. Manager John Gibbons said Navarro probably won't catch knuckleballer R.A. Dickey, but he will get most starts.

"He's always been a solid player, always had good hands," Gibbons said. "How many games he can catch? We don't know yet. He swings the bat, he had a good year last year. We think he's going to help us. Durability is the big question mark because he's been kind of in that backup role. That'll all play out.

"I know he wants that job, he wants to be a regular. Here's his chance."

Joe Smith can be reached at joesmith@tampabay.com. Follow him on Twitter @TBTimes_JSmith.

Dioner Navarro aims to seize chance with Jays 03/06/14 [Last modified: Thursday, March 6, 2014 11:15pm]
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