PORT CHARLOTTE — Jose Lobaton has done a lot — with his bat, with his arm, with his glove, with his head — to impress the Rays as a minor-leaguer. And, albeit in limited opportunity, very little to impress anyone as a big-leaguer.
But barring an unexpected acquisition in the next few days, the Rays are going to bank — heavily — on Lobaton making that transition, presenting him an ample opportunity as the other half, and possibly the larger half, of their catching tandem with veteran Jose Molina.
"That's what I've been waiting for, what I've been working for," Lobaton said. "I don't want to say my last chance because it's not, but it's a big, big opportunity that I have right now. And I just have to take it. Take it and keep it."
Lobaton, 27, looked to have a chance to play regularly last season, when he got called up after a solid first half at Triple-A Durham and an injury to John Jaso. But Lobaton got hurt in his third game, spraining his left knee, and was sidelined into September, then didn't show much when he returned.
Though Lobaton has looked better over the past week, manager Joe Maddon acknowledged it wasn't so much what they saw from Lobaton this spring — and what they didn't see from the underwhelming competitors in camp, plus the fact that Lobaton was out of options — as what he did last season for the Bulls. In 54 games, he hit .293 with eight homers and a .410 on-base percentage (while hitting the ball exceptionally hard), threw out 31 percent of attempted base-stealers and earned a reputation as a catcher pitchers liked to throw to based on his game-calling and pitch-framing.
"He got a lot of rave reviews from everybody who saw him at Triple A last year," Maddon said. "That had a lot to do with it."
But the Rays also have a comfort level based on the maturity they sense from Lobaton, and some of the conversations he is having, specifically with Molina about his catching and with Carlos Peña about his hitting.
On Maddon's five-step evaluation of a big-leaguer, Lobaton is just about past the critical point.
"He's probably in the later stages of survival, Stage 2, morphing into Stage 3, I belong here," Maddon said. "And once he gets there and his confidence starts to come up to where it needs to be, then you're going to see all the stuff you saw at Triple A. If you don't have a strong sense of 'I belong here' and believe that, it's hard to bring all of you to the ballpark every day."
Lobaton is a switch-hitter with gap-to-gap power, but in 22 major-league games (seven with the Padres in 2009, 15 with the Rays last year) he only has a .137 average and hasn't driven in a run.
Peña has huddled with Lobaton daily, showing him some drills and tips, but more to stress the importance of being able to analyze his own swing and make immediate adjustments when he is off before wasting too many at-bats.
"You have to be in tune with yourself," Peña tells him. "You have to know how to bring yourself back to that line, and it's hard to do so for 162 games."
Molina spends even more time with Lobaton, discussing specific pitchers and game situations, going over what to do and how best to do it, and plans to stay on him. Given that Molina is likely to start only 80-90 games, it's possible Lobaton will actually end up playing more.
"Being in the big leagues is not easy, and imagine doing the job that these guys want him to do," Molina said. "You have a great pitching staff, there's a lot of pressure out there. You don't know how the young kid can take it. So that's where I came and started talking about (it)."
Lobaton said the advice from the two veterans has been a big help. Both Peña and Molina say they are impressed with how Lobaton has reacted to their talks, and how he has taken what they've discussed onto the field.
"He will be doing great, not okay," Molina said. "I don't take okay. I take great."
Marc Topkin can be reached at [email protected]