PORT CHARLOTTE — One of the most interesting competitions at Rays camp is for a position that doesn't technically exist:
A more appropriate title would be "First Catcher To Be Called Up."
The Rays feel better than ever about their catching at the big-league level, with veterans Ryan Hanigan and Jose Molina set to split time behind the plate. But they do not have an obvious option to summon from the minors in the event of an injury — a necessary contingent considering the Rays have started catchers who weren't on the opening day roster an average of 25 games a season during manager Joe Maddon's tenure.
So that has led to what looks to be a three-way battle, or at least a jostle, among minor-leaguer Curt Casali and free agent signees Eddy Rodriguez and Ali Solis.
"It's really important," Maddon said. "It's hard to imagine nothing will happen in regard to somebody going down, even for a brief period of time. That's why our guys spent a lot of time working on this position in the offseason.
"You get guys probably a whole lot of people haven't heard about, but I'm telling you, if you're here to watch them, they're pretty talented."
Talented, sure. Experienced, not so much.
Rodriguez has started two games in the majors (for San Diego in 2012) in an eight-year pro career. Solis has caught in two (also for the '12 Padres) during his nine pro seasons. Casali, acquired last spring from Detroit, hasn't played above Double A (and only 35 games there).
Chris Gimenez had been that guy the past two years, but he was out of options and was put on waivers before spring training (and claimed by Oakland). And Jose Lobaton, who lost his share of the starting job when Hanigan was acquired, also was out of options and was traded to Washington.
Rays executive vice president Andrew Friedman said he is comfortable with the current choices but — as standard — will keep looking for upgrades as well.
"Like other positions on the field, we'll continue to assess our depth throughout the spring and be aggressive to do something if it makes us better," Friedman said.
As they're set up now, it would seem Rodriguez and Solis will share time at Triple-A Durham, while Casali will play regularly at Double-A Montgomery, each waiting for a chance.
Here's a capsule look at the three candidates to be the next man up:
Casali, 25, has the least experience but the most upside. He is considered more of an offensive player, having shown power and patience in the minors, but still needs work on defense. He is also considered a heady player, having caught at Vanderbilt. "A lot of people put my offensive side ahead of my defensive side, and that's okay," Casali said. "I don't ignore my defensive skills. I think there's always something for me to work on, but I also don't think I'm a dud behind the plate."
Rodriguez, 28, has taken an interesting path to the Rays, coming over from Cuba, attending the University of Miami and playing for the Reds, then two years in independent ball before joining the Padres. He is considered a solid defender who hasn't hit much (.226 minor-league average and .646 on-base plus slugging percentage) though with some noticeable pop. Though called up briefly in 2012, he has only 47 games of experience at Triple A. "It seems like all of us are kind of in the same mode, a strong defensive mode," Rodriguez said. "What I've gathered from Joe and the coaching staff, it's, 'Hey, be a catcher … take care of our pitchers and what you do at the plate is a bonus to what we're looking for.' "
Solis, 26, looks to be the best defensive player of the group, both in terms of receiving and throwing out runners, which probably makes him the leading candidate. Plus he has hit some (.263) in the upper minors. A spring back injury last year cost him the chance to play for his native Mexico in the World Baseball Classic and about half of last season. "Staying healthy is one of the important things for me," Solis said. "If I'm at Triple A, then I just want to play my game, do my best and wait for that call."
Marc Topkin can be reached at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter at @TBTimes_Rays.