Rays’ first-round pick Nick Ciuffo ready to work and grow

Nick Ciuffo (second from left), seen here after signing his contract with the Rays, hit .258 with 25 RBI and a .296 on-base percentage in 43 Gulf Coast League games in 2013. Of 37 stolen-base attempts against him, he threw out 14 runners.

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — There’s anticipation. Then there’s reality.

Catcher Nick Ciuffo is living the transition within these walls, here in the Tampa Bay Rays’ clubhouse during the team’s winter development program Wednesday afternoon. In waves, cameras and recorders come for the 21st overall pick from last June, each checking to see how life has treated the native of Mount Pleasant, S.C., since he became the first catcher taken by his franchise with its first selection.

He’s asked about working out at Tropicana Field, the site of his journey’s destination and his professional goal. ("It’s kind of a little extra push to say, ‘This is where you could be if you keep working hard,’" he said.) He’s asked about his first months in the system, a time of renewal. ("The offseason has been a little bit weird taking this much time off.") He’s asked about the largest lesson he has gained, one of many to come. ("Probably being on time. That was a big thing they stressed — especially to all us young kids that were coming out of high school.")

Ciuffo, not long ago, was only beginning the evolution from South Carolina’s top prospect to the Rays’ hope for future depth at a position they’ve had trouble developing in the past. There was an innocent charm in his reaction to the selection, a certain boyish quality that revealed how eager he was to begin a methodical climb to the major leagues.

Shortly after midnight on June 7, hours after he was selected, he tweeted this:

Shortly after noon on June 7, hours after Rays fans were only starting to learn his background, he tweeted this:

Late in the morning on June 19, 13 days after he had transformed from a top-level high-school prospect to a symbol of the Rays’ future, he tweeted this:

The Rays are hopeful Ciuffo’s mix of energy and excitement allows him to be shaped into the player they envision he can become. His credentials suggest a high ceiling: Baseball America ranked him as the No. 22 prospect overall, the second-best catcher and the top overall talent to come from South Carolina; MLB.com ranked him the No. 23 overall prospect; as a senior at Lexington (S.C.) High School, he guided his team to a Class 4A state championship and was named the 2013 South Carolina Gatorade Player of the Year.

"We don’t believe in pushing," said Mitch Lukevics, the Rays’ director of minor league operations. "They’re all going to grow mentally. They’re all going to grow physically. He’s going to find out what he can and cannot do. … He has had some toughness to him, and he works. When you have that combination, you have a chance in getting a young player to be a big leaguer."

Rays re-sign ace David Price for 1 year, $14M

A prospect’s toughness cannot be understated. No two paths to the major leagues are the same — Price started all of 27 games in the minors before becoming a staple of Tampa Bay’s rotation in 2009, while others toil in baseball’s lower levels for years — but Ciuffo can use his developmental phase to show he has the stamina to make a deep impact.

The opportunity is there. The Rays were part of a three-team trade in December that secured catcher Ryan Hanigan, a seven-year veteran, from the Cincinnati Reds. Jose Molina, now 38, is expected to be Hanigan’s primary backup, but it’s unknown how many more seasons he has left. Jose Lobaton, known for his ice cream dramatics of 2013, has some promise at age 29, but most who follow the game expect him to be traded soon.

"I don’t try to think about it too much, because there are going to be — what? — 30-something first-round picks in 2014?" Ciuffo said of the pressures involved with living up to his draft slot. "It’s definitely an honor, but this is really behind me."

Yes, Ciuffo’s anticipation has given way to a more realistic representation of what his life will be. The days of his high school stardom are over. Gone are the pre-draft prospect ratings, the what-if curiosity, the wonder that comes with hearing his name called on draft night.

He’s a project now, talent to be molded and refined.

"Catching is the most difficult position there is on the field," said Andrew Friedman, the Rays’ executive vice president of baseball operations. "The expectations we have on our catchers — both defensively and then obviously offensively — it’€™s something that he’s still getting indoctrinated into what we do."

The process has started to yield results. Ciuffo hit .258 with 25 RBI and a .296 on-base percentage in 43 Gulf Coast League games. Of 37 stolen-base attempts against him, he threw out 14 runners.

This, Ciuffo knows, is only the start. There’s plenty of room to grow. He’s gaining a deeper understanding of the game — how each individual pitcher prefers to throw, learning their tendencies, recalling at-bats from previous games — but he knows there’s still a large distance to be traveled from the fields of Port Charlotte, Fla., to a consistent home in manager Joe Maddon’s lineup. This is no challenge for the meek.

Rays prospect Josh Sale humbled by, but growing from, past mistakes

"It’s like what I went through — I was an early round pick, and you’re going to go through each level," said Rays infield prospect Jake Hager, a first-round pick in 2011. "The biggest thing is to stay positive at each level. It’s going to get harder and harder. This is your life. This is your job. And you come to it every day and you put your work in, and you’€™re going to start progressing."

"You have to view it as you’re just another player in the organization," said Rays infield prospect Richie Shaffer, a first-round pick in 2012. "These guys, the front-office (personnel) and higher-ups in the organization, they expect every player to come out there and work their tail off and become the best player they can be."

For Ciuffo, his best would mean something big. He has lived the praise, the excitement, the innocence that comes with a fresh start and his destination a mystery. Others see the spark inside him, and if the Rays can draw it out in future years, then they will have an asset behind home plate that will be a prize to keep.

Yes, Ciuffo is no longer the wide-eyed draftee who tweeted about his dream to catch Price back in June. Sure, he carries goals, but his perspective is different.

He’s beyond the first-round talk. He has made movement forward. He has lived growth, and it’s his challenge to live the promise of his pick, like each first-rounder who has come before.

There’s wonder. Then there’s work.

You can follow Andrew Astleford on Twitter @aastleford or email him at aastleford@gmail.com.