Time for challenger to catch on

Published May 25, 2007

ST. PETERSBURG - At some point, you have to ignore the scouts. You have to stop listening to talk of high ceilings and unlimited potential. You have to forget what you think and focus on what you know.

At some point, performance has to matter.

Which brings us to the curious case of the catcher hitting .195.

Dioner Navarro had his best offensive day of the season Thursday, driving in three runs after going more than two weeks without an RBI.

It was a start. It was a sign of hope. It was a critical contribution. And it was not enough.

Shawn Riggans arrived from Triple-A Durham before Thursday's game to take the place of Josh Paul, who went on the disabled list with an elbow injury.

Paul may be gone for as long as six weeks, and the Devil Rays should use that time to see if Riggans has what it takes to stick in the big leagues. And maybe to see if Navarro has what it takes to answer a challenge to his job.

Because, at this point, we simply do not know.

In 311 at-bats since being acquired from the Dodgers last season, Navarro has hit .225 with four home runs and 29 RBIs.

And yet he has been handed the starting job virtually by default. Toby Hall is long gone, and Paul has spent his career as a complementary player. For nearly a year, there has been no sense of danger where Navarro's playing time is concerned. And, obviously, the results have not been impressive.

Which is why it may do everyone a world of good if manager Joe Maddon begins writing Riggans' name in the starting lineup.

It doesn't have to be every day. And it doesn't have to be for the rest of the season. But it's important to figure out if Riggans, at age 26, has a future with the Rays. It's important for everyone in the clubhouse to understand that there are no free rides, even for a team in last place.

And Riggans is the best player to use as an example of the reward for hard work.

Where Navarro was once considered the best prospect in the Yankees farm system, Riggans has never been anyone's idea of a potential star.

Even as a senior, he couldn't crack the starting lineup for his high school team in Fort Lauderdale. He was a walk-on in college and eventually transferred to a junior college. He didn't get drafted until the 24th round and has knocked around the minors for seven years.

But Riggans has always shown up, and he has always worked hard. And he has shown improvement every step along the way.

"I've never had the best ability. I've never been a super talent, so I've had to work a bit to get to where I am," Riggans said. "I think I have some good things to offer. And I have a few weeks to prove it. So we'll see how it goes."

As a hitter, Riggans has only gap power. As a defensive catcher, he is solid but not spectacular. As a prospect, he is limited.

But there are some in the Rays organization who feel his energy and work ethic outweigh the shortcomings that may end up in a scout's notebook.

"The way he approaches the game is very beneficial to the pitchers. He's very good behind the plate, he controls the running game pretty well," said Rays vice president Andrew Friedman. "He has a bright future with the organization."

And by bright future, Friedman could very well be talking about Riggans' potential as trade bait. For, no matter what he does in the next two months, the Rays still seem committed to giving Navarro every chance to be their future catcher.

It is not just Navarro's skills, but his upside. At 23, he is one of the youngest starting catchers in the majors. And he is three years younger than Riggans.

So there is a sense the Rays are willing to wait through some of Navarro's growing pains as a big-league hitter.

"I see Navi keep getting better every day," Maddon said. "If he's hitting below .200 now, watch out. He's a much better hitter than that."

What the Rays cannot afford, however, is to allow Navarro to get complacent. To feel as if he does not have to continually grind to earn his keep. When the Yankees traded him to the Dodgers via the Diamondbacks two years ago, it was Navarro's work ethic that people were talking about.

Even on Thursday, as Navarro was ripping line drives around Tropicana Field, there were worrisome signs. He was tentative going after a foul pop near the stands in the first inning and later allowed two runs to score on passed balls.

If it takes having someone such as Riggans around to threaten Navarro's playing time, then the Rays should not hesitate in using that hammer.

And if Riggans outplays Navarro, the job should be his.

John Romano can be reached at romano@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8811.