PORT CHARLOTTE — When catcher Chris Gimenez signed a minor-league deal with the Rays on the eve of camp, picking them over a couple other teams, opportunity was a key selling point.
"They said the backup situation was wide open," said Gimenez, 29. "They said it was a 'winnable job.' "
As one of the few position battles this spring, the second catcher spot behind veteran Jose Molina is "not even close to being locked up," manager Joe Maddon said Monday. There are the incumbents, 27-year-olds Jose Lobaton and Robinson Chirinos, who have limited experience — and success — at the big-league level. Lobaton, who is out of options, would appear to have a slight edge, with Gimenez not on the 40-man roster, but both Venezuelans still have a lot to prove.
"It's a big moment for me," Lobaton said.
Said Chirinos: "I have everything in my hands."
Considering Molina's career high is 81 starts (in 2008), the backup will also have his hands full, a large workload that will play into the team's decision.
"It's not your typical backup catcher," Maddon said. "It's not Sunday or two days a week. That's very important, that's why you've got to work all the different things, whose tools will be able to handle the kind of workload, play to a consistent level."
For Gimenez, all he ever wanted was a more regular role. Drafted as an infielder by the Indians in 2004, Gimenez converted to a catcher a couple years later. Though he has gained versatility at the corner infield and outfield spots, he has hit just .171 in the majors, though dealing with sporadic playing time.
"In my whole career, that's something — I've gone 12-15 days without playing," Gimenez said. "It's tough when you play once a week or 15 days and then face CC Sabathia."
Gimenez moved into a new Reno, Nev., home with his wife, Kellie, and baby son Jace during the offseason but was designated for assignment by the Mariners Feb. 6 before signing with Tampa Bay 10 days later. "It's crazy how things work," he said.
Maddon loves Gimenez's personality — bright, engaging, sharp — with the kind of makeup that's important as a catcher. But there will be other factors that help the Rays choose, from their ability to receive and prepare to how they're received by the pitchers. Defense means more than offensive ability, with Maddon saying "one thing that's really important is a pitcher likes throwing to that catcher."
Right-hander Jeff Niemann said he enjoyed throwing to both Lobaton and Chirinos last season. "We didn't miss anything because they were out there," Niemann said. "They played at a very high level."
Both rookies had their moments, but Maddon said neither separated himself. Chirinos, acquired from the Cubs in the Matt Garza trade, doubled in his first at-bat July 18 against the Yankees and added a walkoff single against the Blue Jays on Aug. 4. "A dream come true," he said.
But Chirinos hit .218 in 20 games, and while he was exceptional blocking pitches, he threw out just two of 23 attempted basestealers. He said he has made the right adjustments.
"I'm happy where I'm at right now, but I know I can get better," Chirinos said. "And I can be a guy to catch every day in the big leagues."
Lobaton also had a shot but sprained his left knee in his third game and missed 43 while on the disabled list. He hit .115 in 15 games, yielding playing time to Kelly Shoppach down the stretch partly due to his lack of offense.
"Offensively, I think maybe I was trying to do too much," Lobaton said. "To … show those guys I was ready to play, but never relaxed. Now, it's different."
Both Chirinos (broken wrist) and Lobaton (sore shoulder) had setbacks during winter ball but are healthy and ready for the crowded three-way competition.
"It's a good fight," Lobaton said, smiling. "But a clean fight."
Joe Smith can be reached at [email protected]