Francisco Mejia comes to the Rays with a bit of a rap.
Scouts and team officials chatter that his game-calling and defense need work, his bat has been disappointing and his promise as the game’s top catching prospect just a few years ago is fading fast.
Mejia seems well aware.
“I’ve had a lot of opportunities. Now it’s time to capitalize and take advantage of these kinds of opportunities,” he said Monday on a media Zoom call after the Rays’ fifth spring workout in Port Charlotte.
“I think I still have a lot more in the tank. I was a good player then, but I think I still have a lot of opportunity and a lot of room to continue to grow and become a better player.”
The Rays got Mejia, 25, from San Diego as part of the four-player return for ace lefty Blake Snell.
While right-hander Luis Patino is considered the prize piece and pitching prospect Cole Wilcox and catcher Blake Hunt potential future fits, Mejia has the chance to have the most immediate impact.
As a switch-hitter who is better from the left side, Mejia could pair well with right-handed hitting Mike Zunino, the defense-oriented veteran who was signed back, to give the usually catching-challenged Rays a solid tandem behind the plate.
As disappointing as Mejia was in limited opportunity with the Indians, with whom he came up at age 21; and the Padres, who got him in a July 2018 trade; the Rays, naturally, think he can do better with them.
They believe their coaching staff, specifically catching specialists Paul Hoover and Tomas Francisco, can reach Mejia with a new perspective and different messaging and that his swing will translate to more than the .225 average and .668 OPS he posted in 128 games over parts of four major-league seasons.
They also think he’ll benefit from the change of scenery, specifically an opportunity to focus on his game without daily pressures to make the team or stay in the majors — something that worked with other acquisitions such as pitcher Tyler Glasnow and outfielder Austin Meadows.
“To have a young catcher that could come in, a fresh start so to speak, with all the experiences, life experiences, that he’s had underneath him to this point, and physically still in a really good place, we just like those guys,” Rays general manager Erik Neander said.
“We like to give them that opportunity and hope that it’s the right time, the right place for them to take off and really establish themselves.”
There are some things to be encouraged by.
Mejia’s arm is considered one of the best among catchers. He has power from the left side. His work behind the plate was showing signs of improvement last year under Padres coach Rod Barajas.
“We know this: Two years ago he was basically the best catching prospect in baseball,” Cash said. “A lot of talent. Rodney Linares, our third base coach, has seen him play in winter ball and he said you don’t you don’t see many arms like his as far as arm strength from behind the plate. Everybody knows about the bat.
“And I and trust that our guys, with Paul and Tomas working with him and getting a sense of what he’s been informed with and what he hasn’t, (will) try to blend it all together to get him comfortable and acclimated pretty quickly.”
Mejia, speaking via team interpreter Manny Navarro, said he welcomes the new opportunity.
He was surprised to be traded but quickly went to work learning his new team, watching video of the pitchers and World Series replays to see how Zunino handled the staff.
He also seems to have an awareness of where he is career-wise, knowing that improving his defense is a necessity.
“I really want to work on just being a lot more consistent,” Mejia said. “There’s some days where I play well and other days that I don’t play as well, so that’s what I want to really work on.”
And there’s something else.
His father, Fremio, died in January 2020. Mejia said he is driven — “deep down inside of me” — to become the best player that he can.
“He was definitely the person that was always there for me,” Mejia said. “I would call him before every game, he’d call me after the game and see how I felt, how I did.
“It’s unfortunate that he’s not here. … I’ve got to keep on playing, and I know he’s looking down on me.”