ST. PETERSBURG — Manager Joe Maddon calls the Rays the "land of opportunity."
Catcher Chris Gimenez and infielder Will Rhymes are grateful to be the latest examples.
When the two signed as minor-league free agents in the winter, accepting invitations to spring training, it didn't make for headlines. Gimenez, 29, competing for the second catcher spot, and Rhymes, 29, hoping to land as a utility infielder, often played late in exhibitions, when the regulars had already hit the showers.
Neither made the opening day roster, starting the season riding buses in Triple-A Durham.
But Gimenez and Rhymes were on the Rays team charter to New York on Monday to start an eight-game road trip, having made some unexpected early impact due to injuries to catcher Jose Lobaton and star third baseman Evan Longoria.
Gimenez and Rhymes said they chose Tampa Bay because of its track record of giving non-roster invitees a shot in the majors, from Carlos Peña in 2007 to Eric Hinske in 2008, Joaquin Benoit in 2010 and Juan Cruz last season. And the Rays are reaping the rewards of that reputation.
"We've had a lot of guys sign to minor-league contracts … that have gone on to help this team along, and we speak to that when we talk to guys," executive vice president Andrew Friedman said. "We don't try to sign 50 minor-league free agents, we're very selective to what we do. And we hope that reputation spreads like wildfire, that what we say is genuine, and the opportunity is very real."
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Gimenez was in limbo at the absolute worst time, the beginning of spring training.
He had reported to Mariners camp, unpacked and moved into an Arizona rental with his wife, Kellie, and 3-month-old son, Jace. But on Feb. 7, Gimenez was designated for assignment, and had to wait 10 days to be traded or clear waivers. He couldn't go to the complex, so he threw and hit at an area high school, anxious because he knew it was one of the tougher times to find a job.
"It was chaos," Gimenez said. "I just felt like, it's the worst thing that could have happened to me."
Gimenez was grateful to have a couple of options, but the Rays were No. 1 on the list, sealed by a phone conversation with Maddon. Maddon told Gimenez, who had played sporadically in parts of four big-league seasons, that he wouldn't ever go four or five days without playing.
"That's like, No. 1, the best thing ever," Gimenez said.
Gimenez has gotten his shot, splitting time with veteran catcher Jose Molina, playing 12 games since getting called up April 15. He's hitting .229, but Friedman has been impressed with his play defensively and how he works with the pitching staff.
Gimenez loves the loose and welcoming clubhouse atmosphere, saying he has never been on a team that has had so much fun.
"If I could stay here the rest of my life, I'd be the happiest man ever," he said.
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Rhymes, the Tigers' opening day second baseman last season, thought he'd be back in Detroit, at least at Triple A.
But after spending parts of two seasons in Detroit, he was non-tendered at the deadline last fall, which, as Rhymes said, turned out to be a "great thing."
Friedman had liked Rhymes for his "elite contact ability" and versatility defensively. Rhymes said he had a few options, but he sought advice from his Houston childhood buddy, Rays pitcher Jeff Niemann, who told him he'd get a "fair shake" in Tampa Bay.
"It was a tough decision," Rhymes said. "You never know, trying to weigh what's going to happen in spring, who are the guys in the mix? You don't really ever know what's going to happen. You just try to pick where you think profile best."
Having Rhymes play some third base in spring was fortuitous, as he has made his first three-big league starts there since getting called up last week when Longoria got hurt. He has hit .294 in five games, and he has showed his defensive ability, making a diving stop up the middle Sunday.
"So far, it's been incredible," Rhymes said. "I'm happy here."
Joe Smith can be reached at [email protected]