Tampa Bay Rays catcher Dioner Navarro optimistic about coming back from bad season

ST. PETERSBURG — Relative to the world of major-league baseball (as unrelative as that is to most people), Dioner Navarro has had it pretty rough.

A miserable career-worst season, followed by left elbow surgery. Threatened with being dropped from the team, then humbled to forego a raise and re-sign for the same salary he made last season (albeit $2.1 million). Challenged as the Rays sought and acquired (and signed long-term) another catcher to push for, and potentially take, his job.

Of all the ways Navarro could take such developments — whether it be shocked, shaken or stirred — he chose an interesting response:

A smile and a shrug.

"Regardless, since the season that I had, I knew I need to come back strong this season," Navarro said Wednesday. "So it really doesn't matter what they did."

Navarro's fall from his lofty 2008 success to his 2009 mess was dramatic.

An All-Star selection, strong offensive numbers (.295 average, .349 on-base percentage) and a 35.7 caught stealing percentage (third best in MLB) established him as one of the game's best young catchers.

But his follow-up was so bad in so many ways (.218 average, .261 OBP, 23.7 caught stealing rate) that now, at age 25, he might not even be a starting catcher.

About the only good to come out of all that bad was Navarro's self-realization that he deserved the blame.

"I didn't play to my abilities — that's the bottom line," he said.

"I don't think there's nothing to prove, but there's something to gain. I think I have proved myself at this level, but I just have to come back and be myself and play the way that I know that I can play."

Rays officials say they are hopeful and optimistic he will, but they also took action in case he doesn't, acquiring Kelly Shoppach from Cleveland (then paying him more — $2.25 million this season, up to $9.25 million over three years).

Navarro had only good things to say about Shoppach, and the right things to say about a position battle — "a really nice healthy competition" that will be among the most interesting when the Rays open spring training in three weeks.

"I knew we needed to go get somebody," Navarro said. "I look at it in a positive way — he's a great guy, I think he's going to bring a lot for the team. I think with me and him, hopefully we stay together, I think we're going to do a pretty good job together this upcoming season."

Navarro is confident it will be better. With new agents (Barry Praver and Scott Shapiro), he avoided the nastiness of the arbitration hearing that set a bad 2009 tone. His recovery from elbow surgery is going well enough that he should be 100 percent for the start of camp. He is already working hard, such as Wednesday when he stayed on the field for extra running when the other eight Rays were done with their workout at the Trop.

Really, he insists, it's not all as bad as it looks:

"I just have to come to spring training and bust my tail."

Marc Topkin can be reached at topkin@sptimes.com.

FAST FACTS

How bad was Navarro in '09?

Of the 222 major-leaguers who made 400 plate appearances last year, his .218 average was 219th (Pat Burrell was 218th) and his .261 on-base percentage 221st.

Tampa Bay Rays catcher Dioner Navarro optimistic about coming back from bad season 01/27/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, January 27, 2010 10:37pm]

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