ST. PETERSBURG — Nick Ciuffo figured it just seemed right that he ended up being drafted by the Rays on the first day of the MLB draft.
He was 6 or 7 years old, at Disney on a family vacation from South Carolina, when his dad took him for a special treat, to see his first major-league game at Tropicana Field.
Plus, he's friends and a former travel-ball teammate with Rays' 2011 first-rounder Taylor Guerrieri. And he had developed a close rapport with Tampa Bay area scout Brian Hickman.
"I think it's just destiny," said Ciuffo (pronounced SHOO-fo).
The Rays hope so, attempting to fill their seemingly endless void for a frontline young catcher by taking Ciuffo with the 21st pick Thursday. Then eight picks later they added a hard-throwing starting pitcher in Ryne Stanek from the University of Arkansas.
With the 60th pick, the Rays took Riley Unroe, a shortstop from Desert Ridge High in Mesa, Ariz., whose dad, Tim, played in the majors (1995-2000). Thursday's portion of the draft consisted of the first two rounds.
The Rays liked Ciuffo, 18, as much for what he has done on the field, showing left-handed power at the plate and a strong arm, as how he does it, with leadership, high energy and personality, compared to A.J. Pierzynski in several ways.
"He looks like a catcher," Rays scouting director R.J. Harrison said. "I don't know how to explain it any better than that."
Ciuffo has a scholarship offer from the University of South Carolina, but it sounds like Guerrieri, who also was a Gamecocks recruit, has done a pretty good sales job on him.
"Two weeks ago, I think, he called me, and we talked for about half an hour about the Rays organization and how much he loved it and how much he'd love for them to pick me," Ciuffo said. "He saw the mock draft where I was going to y'all, and he kept texting me, 'I hope they get you.' Me and him have been texting … for the past hour since the pick was made."
Ciuffo led Lexington High to the state title and was named the South Carolina Gatorade player of the year after hitting .468 with five home runs, 33 RBIs and a .562 on-base percentage. In 123 career high school games, he hit .401 with 11 home runs and 93 RBIs.
Ciuffo was one of the players at the MLB Network studios in New Jersey for the draft, and when his name was called he couldn't contain his excitement.
"My heart was beating so fast and my hands were shaking," he said. "It's kind of like a blur. I was so excited."
Stanek, 21, said he was expecting to go higher in the draft (Baseball America had him ranked 11th overall, but his disappointment was tempered by joining the Rays, given their record of developing pitchers.
"I feel like it's a good fit for me," Stanek said.
Harrison said the Rays were "a little bit" surprised Stanek, whose fastball hits 97-98 mph, was available. They jumped at the chance after he called an old minor-league teammate, Dave Jorn, who happens to be Arkansas' pitching coach.
"I said, 'Any reason we wouldn't want to take Ryne?' and he said, 'Absolutely not, I think his best days are ahead of him,' " Harrison said. "That made me feel pretty good because that's what we're looking for."
In Stanek's three-year career at Arkansas, he was 22-8 with a 2.55 ERA in 48 appearances.
The signing deadline is July 12. The Rays have a bonus pool of $6.7 million, which under the new collective bargaining agreement is assigned by MLB based on the determined "value" of their picks in the top rounds, including $1.975 million for the 21st pick, $1.76 million for No. 29 and $927,500 for the No. 60 pick. There are penalties for teams that go over the limits.