Maddon out to spark Navarro

By EDUARDO A. ENCINA, Times Staff Writer
Published January 6, 2008

ST. PETERSBURG - Dioner Navarro is still just 23 years old, but this offseason represents a critical time for the Rays starting catcher.

Navarro will enter his second full season as the starter, and the organization is hoping to see more maturity and see him make good on the top-prospect label he was given in the minor leagues.

Navarro struggled in the first half last season, hitting just .177 with one homer and 13 RBIs at the All-Star break, but found his swing in the second half, hitting .285 with eight homers and 31 RBIs.

But manager Joe Maddon said he wants to see Navarro get into better shape, become a better game-caller and "become the quarterback he needs to be for our young pitching staff. That's going to be very important for the development of our pitchers."

With the Rays' core of starters - Scott Kazmir, James Shields and Matt Garza - the talent is there, but Maddon said it will be important for Navarro to develop leadership qualities this season.

And it will come down to Navarro. With last year's backup, Josh Paul, a free agent, that leaves Shawn Riggans and John Jaso as the remaining catchers on the 40-man roster. But Riggans is coming back from elbow surgery and Jaso, a Double-A all-star last season, is better suited for Triple A this season.

Maddon said he was in contact with Navarro this week, and he has been working out at the Naimoli complex trying to get into better shape for spring training. Last spring Navarro struggled as Maddon called the starting job open.

"I really got a sense of urgency from him," Maddon said. "I would be very surprised if he didn't come into camp in much better shape and ready to play. I know he's not going to forget what happened last spring, also because I'm not going to let him.

"He knows how important this season is for him."

MEETING TIME: The Rays will conduct three days of organizational meetings Wednesday through Friday, the first opportunity for everyone to sit together in one room and discuss plans for the upcoming season.

"It's a time for us all to get on the right page from the beginning," Maddon said.

RAYS RUMBLINGS: First baseman Carlos Pena is reportedly practicing with Licey as the team plays in the Dominican Winter League postseason. ... The Marlins signed former Ray Jorge Cantu to a minor-league deal, and he will compete with recent acquisition Jose Castillo for the starting third base job. He joins pitchers Tim Corcoran and Doug Waechter as former Rays who signed minor-league deals with Florida. ... New acquisition Andy Cannizaro has a shot at making the team in spring training and competing for the super-utility position. He has been regarded as one of the best fielders in the minors for some time, and even if he doesn't make the team, he serves as the perfect stopgap in case new shortstop Jason Bartlett gets hurt and prospect Reid Brig-nac isn't ready (they won't rush him). ... The Edwin Jackson to Seattle rumors won't die, but there still seems to be little substance to the idea of sending him to the Mariners. ... The Rays are still in search of a left-handed reliever, but there has been little recent progress on that front.