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Hanging on his every at-bat

Backup catcher Shawn Riggans analyzes each opportunity in his quest to impress.

By EDUARDO A. ENCINA
Published March 10, 2007


ST. PETERSBURG - Shawn Riggans walked through the Devil Rays clubhouse and shook his head, reliving an at-bat from the previous day.

"Just a couple more feet," he said, thinking back to a warning-track fly ball hit Wednesday in the late innings of a eight-run loss to Cleveland.

That's life right now for the Rays catcher - every at-bat is amplified, every inning behind the plate magnified - because Riggans is trying to win one of the toughest jobs in pro sports, one of the 60 roster spots for major-league catchers.

What makes Riggans' spring even more difficult is the two men in front of him - a 23-year-old catcher of the future and a veteran reserve.

Dioner Navarro is a young player so coveted by the organization that it made a late June trade for him. The 31-year-old Josh Paul, who has played parts of eight seasons in the majors, gives a veteran presence that is seen as instrumental for a young pitching staff.

Manager Joe Maddon doesn't like to lean on spring performances as a heavy factor in choosing his roster. Still, Riggans realizes he is fighting a numbers game, which makes every opportunity valuable in his eyes. More playing time should open for Riggans over the next week because Navarro injured a hamstring Thursday. Riggans got started right away Friday against the Yankees with an eighth-inning run-scoring double, his fourth hit in seven spring at-bats.

"It's a tough situation," Riggans said. "I'm just glad I don't have to make that decision. The only thing I can do is play the best I can and try to make the decision tougher for them. You can sit down and talk about a lot of different things, but it all comes down to performance.

"The only thing I can do is hope that they give me the opportunity to win a job, which I think they are doing."

Maddon can look back to last season and see success. Riggans, 6 feet 2, 190 pounds, showed he could perform at the Triple-A level, hitting a team-high .293 with career highs in six offensive categories. He was ranked the best defensive catcher in the International League by Baseball America after throwing out 21 of 84 potential base-stealers 25 percent. He hit .172 (5-for-29) for the Rays after a September call-up, throwing out all three potential base-stealers in his eight games.

Both Maddon and executive vice president Andrew Friedman said the organization hasn't decided which two catchers it will bring out of camp.

"He can absolutely (make the team)," Maddon said. "Part of it is he's a young man, and you'd have to weigh whether you'd want a young man sitting on the bench as the backup catcher. Or do you want him to play every day in Triple A. These are the kind of things you have to weigh."

For now, Riggans, 26, doesn't want to think about another season in Durham, "But I have no control over it."

But he has made his mark. His exuberance drew notice last spring and has continued into this season. In the locker room, he's often trying to glean tips from Navarro and Paul. During batting practice, he's behind the cage, engaging the likes of Twins catcher Joe Mauer in conversation. Afterward, he can be seen jogging along the streets neighboring Progress Energy Park while listening to his iPod.

"It's a lot different this year," Riggans said. "Last year, I was just happy to be here. This year, I want to win a job."

"You can tell he likes being behind the plate," bench coach Bill Evers said. "You have to be that way. You have to want to be the focus, because after the pitcher releases the ball, you control the game. If you're not like that, you need to find another position."

The Rays say they have taken notice, but whether it is enough for Riggans to earn an opening day roster slot remains to be seen.

"We believe Shawn's future is very bright," Friedman said. "Whether his season starts in Triple A or the big leagues, we have very high hopes for his career. ... In some instances, you're talking about opportunity. And having depth at the catcher position is a good thing, especially given the grind the body goes through during the course of a season."