Nick Ciuffo is eager for the next stage of his baseball life to begin.
The Tampa Bay Rays announced Friday morning that they had signed their first-round pick, No. 21 overall. In the afternoon, the catcher reported to Port Charlotte, Fla., where he will join the rookie-level Gulf Coast League Rays.
“With the slot value where it was ($1,974,700), it was really just too good of a deal to turn down,” Ciuffo told reporters in a conference call.
Tampa Bay made some franchise history with its selection of Ciuffo. He became the first catcher ever taken by the Rays with their first-round pick. Baseball America ranked him as the draft’s No. 22 overall prospect, the No. 2 catcher and the top player out of South Carolina. Meanwhile, MLB.com slotted him as the No. 23 overall prospect.
After his senior season at Lexington (S.C.) High School, he was named the 2013 South Carolina Gatorade Player of the Year. He led his team to a Class 4A championship, hitting .468 with five home runs, 33 RBI, a .723 slugging percentage and a .562 on-base percentage.
Ciuffo, 18, is the first high school catcher from his state to be taken in the first round. He had committed to South Carolina, after receiving a scholarship offer from the program at age 14. He hit .401 with 11 home runs and 93 RBI in 123 career high school games.
“We like his tools and his chance to be an every day catcher in the big leagues,” Rays scouting director R.J. Harrison said after Ciuffo was drafted. “He’s a big high school kid who is going to start his journey and work his way through the minor leagues. He’s got a plus arm … and we like his bat. He’s a tough kid.”
Ciuffo said he spoke about his decision to sign in discussions with right-hander Taylor Guerrieri, a Rays prospect taken No. 24 overall in the 2011 draft who was Ciuffo’s former teammate on a travel squad. Ciuffo said Guerrieri had positive things to say about the franchise, which aided in Ciuffo’s choice.
“I’ve been on the edge of my seat since I heard my name called in New York,” Ciuffo said. “I’m ready to go. Whenever they want to say, ‘Go at it,’ I’ll be ready.”
Ciuffo’s entry into the Rays’ system represents a full-circle moment of sorts for him. When he was a boy, at an age no older than 7, he recalls visiting Disney World with his family. During the trip, he and his father, Tony, made the drive from the Orlando, Fla., area to Tropicana Field for Ciuffo’s first major league game.
On Friday, a new journey for Ciuffo began. He hopes the path leads to that familiar dome once more.
“Whenever the big team thinks I’m ready,” he said, “I’ll go up there.”