PORT CHARLOTTE — Robinson Chirinos believes he was born to be a catcher. It just took him seven professional seasons to figure it out, making a position switch that likely saved his career.
Before Chirinos, 26, became a key prospect acquired from the Cubs in the offseason Matt Garza trade — a catcher the Rays could call up this season if need be — he was a foundering minor-league infielder.
Chirinos has a good glove, but he struggled to hit consistently, and he remained stuck in the lower levels with little hope of sniffing the big leagues.
But Cubs vice president of player personnel Oneri Fleita saw catcher's qualities in Chirinos — "good feet, good arm, quick release and really good hands" — and tried for several years to get him behind the plate. In 2004, Fleita first broached the idea, but Chirinos would not budge, though the two joked about it over the following years.
"I said, 'If you don't start hitting, I'll make you a catcher,' " Fleita said. "Every time, he'd get four hits (the next game) …
"Then I said, 'If you don't start hitting soon, we'll make you a coach.' Finally, he came and said: 'I'll do whatever you want. I just want to play the game.' "
Since Chirinos made the switch three years ago, he has been a hit behind the plate, and a better hitter, too. Rays manager Joe Maddon said Chirinos has one of the better swings in camp, and the catcher has three hits and five RBIs, including a solo homer, in his first two exhibition games.
Maddon acknowledged they don't go "Lady Gaga" over spring training performances, saying it's still early and pitchers aren't sharp, but he said, "The way he's playing right now, he may be ready for the major-league level."
With catchers Kelly Shoppach and John Jaso locks for the roster, it likely would take an injury for Chirinos to make the big-league team. But Chirinos is just grateful for the opportunity.
Though he had been an infielder since growing up in Venezuela, he immediately felt comfortable catching. Chirinos got a lot of help from Class A Daytona manager Buddy Bailey and roving catching instructor Jody Davis, both former catchers, and was the best defensive catcher in the Cubs system the past two years.
"I picked it up pretty quickly," he said. "It's kind of funny. I say maybe I was born for catching."
What neither Fleita nor Maddon could explain was how Chirinos transformed at the plate. He hit .244 over his first seven pro seasons but hit a career-high .326 last season, between Double A and Triple A, including 18 homers, 74 RBIs, with more walks (44) than strikeouts (33).
Chirinos kept the same mechanics but said since becoming a catcher, he has been more prepared in his at-bats.
"I have more of an idea what pitchers are trying to do," he said. "I have a plan when I go to the plate."
Maddon, a former catcher himself, said it takes time for a catcher to develop and understand the game in its entirety, "like the quarterback position in the NFL," before everything becomes second nature.
But Fleita points out success stories of infielders converting to catchers, such as the Cubs' Geovany Soto and the Yankees' Jorge Posada and Russell Martin. Having known Chirinos since he signed at 16, Fleita said he has the work ethic and leadership qualities to succeed at the position, comparing him favorably to veteran catcher Henry Blanco.
"(Blanco) hasn't really hit a ton but is a tremendous catcher and throws guys out, stops the running game every year," Fleita said. "Robinson Chirinos is going to be one of those guys at the very least. And if he keeps hitting like he has (the past couple of years), a lot of teams will want (him) in their lineup as their catcher."
Joe Smith can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.