PORT CHARLOTTE — Chris Gimenez is of Spanish descent and grew up in the United States. Jose Lobaton is a native Venezuelan. But both have a strong rooting interest for Puerto Rico in the World Baseball Classic.
That's because the deeper Puerto Rico gets in the tournament, which began Saturday, the longer starting catcher Jose Molina will be away from Rays camp playing for his country, and the more opportunity Gimenez and Lobaton will get to make their case for the backup job.
"Huge Puerto Rico fan," Gimenez joked.
Manager Joe Maddon doesn't like to base decisions on spring training performance, but he acknowledges that the additional looks the coaches will get at Gimenez and Lobaton will help decide one of the few open jobs in camp.
"I don't know how the evaluation eventually plays itself out, but both look really good to me right now," Maddon said. "I think it's general. Honestly, I can't nail it down to one specific. I think they both understand what we want, and both have gotten better at what we want."
Lobaton, 28, is the incumbent and the favorite. He is out of options, and the Rays would have to risk losing him on waivers if they sent him to the minors.
"With Molina gone, yeah, this is a big chance for me to be able to play more to show Joe and to show the team I'm ready to stay in the big leagues," Lobaton said.
He started 50 games last year, didn't hit much (.222, .640 on-base plus slugging percentage) or throw particularly well (14.3 caught stealing percentage), and spent six weeks on the disabled list with a shoulder issue.
But in what was his first extended opportunity in the big leagues, Lobaton did learn. A lot.
The lessons included the importance of extensive communication with the pitchers; how to absorb and apply the detailed scouting information available; better ways to call a game, and how to work an umpire.
"Those little things I learned last year, hopefully I can put them together this year and be smarter in the games," Lobaton said.
A switch-hitter, Lobaton is also working to be more productive at the plate. He is trying to take a process-oriented approach of focusing on having good at-bats rather than focusing on the results.
Gimenez, 30, offers more versatility, in terms of contract status (he can be sent directly to the minors) and positionally. He can also play third base, first base and the corner outfield spots.
He is also savvy enough to know that neither thing might work to his advantage.
Thus far this spring, Gimenez — who homered Sunday against the Twins — has spent more time at third than behind the plate (17 innings to nine) and hasn't had a chance to show the improvements he believes he has made in his area most in need of improvement: footwork for throws to second.
"I want to show them I've been working my butt off," he said. "I'm antsy to get in there. Hopefully (Molina's absence) is a good opportunity for that to happen. Not that I don't want to play other positions, because that has a value in its own right."
Stay updated on Tampa Bay’s sports scene
Subscribe to our free Sports Today newsletter
You’re all signed up!
Want more of our free, weekly newsletters in your inbox? Let’s get started.Explore all your options
Gimenez, who had previous big-league time — and not much success, with Cleveland and Seattle — had two stints with the Rays last season. He was unimpressive in his first when Lobaton was hurt, hitting .191 in 24 games, and extremely impressive when he came back in September with a reconstructed stance, hitting .406 in 11 games.
Maddon finds the defensive options interesting and the offensive potential intriguing. "What I've seen so far is a lot from Gimenez of what I'd seen at the end of last season."
The decision won't be made until after Molina returns, even if he's gone the full 2½ weeks of the tournament. All Gimenez and Lobaton can do is take advantage of the opportunity they get in the interim. And root hard for Puerto Rico.
"I hope they go the whole way," Gimenez said.