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Tampa Bay Rays' Lobaton ready to put in some work


Published:   |   Updated: March 28, 2013 at 07:17 AM
CLEARWATER -

You never know what you can pick up in a telephone conversation these days.

Jose Lobaton was chatting with fellow catcher Chris Gimenez on Monday when he heard the news he was hoping for — Gimenez had been optioned to Triple-A Durham, leaving Lobaton as the backup to Jose Molina when the Rays open the regular season against the Orioles on Tuesday at Tropicana Field.

Gimenez is batting .368 this spring while Lobaton is struggling, but Lobaton was out of minor-league options and the Rays don't want to lose the 28-year-old switch-hitter.

“Lobaton's very talented,'' said Rays manager Joe Maddon, “and the option situation is a part of the business. It's never a tasty moment, but it is what it is. The parts of Jose's game that we want to see him get better at are ones we've talked to him specifically … there's nothing vague about it.''

Claimed off waivers from the Padres in 2009, Lobaton played in 69 games with the Rays last season and batted only .222, with two home runs and 20 RBIs in 167 at-bats.

He also threw out only seven of 49 attempted base stealers (14.3 percent), well below the major-league average of 21.3 percent.

“I expect a lot of big things from our team this year and big things for myself,'' Lobaton said before Tuesday's 10-1 loss to the Phillies. “I've been waiting for this opportunity and working hard, trying to stay positive. Chris is a good friend of mine and he hit the ball good all spring, but I kept telling myself to do my best and things will work out.''

Lobaton knows he has a lot of work to do to keep his job.

Besides improving his throwing accuracy and getting the ball out of his glove more quickly against potential base stealers, Lobaton must significantly sharpen his batting eye against  right-handers, who limited him to a .174 average during his rookie season.

“A big part of any improvement is the player taking charge of his career,'' Maddon said. “We feel good about Jose being able to take a step forward.''

With Molina turning 38 in June, the Rays are seeking a young catcher they can develop into a mainstay.

Gimenez is 30, and Lobaton has another chance to impress Tampa Bay coaches and executives in a contract year.

“Last year was a tough season,'' said Lobaton, who flied out to deep right field against Raul Valdes in his first at-bat Tuesday before grounding into two double plays to drop his spring average to .237. “I got hurt and I had a lot on my mind, but I'm healthy now and that's all in the past.''

Lobaton spent 41 games on the disabled list last year with a sore shoulder and made 51 starts, learning to stay alert on the bench at all times.

“With Joe, you've got to be ready every inning,'' Lobaton said. “He pinch-hits a lot and changes things up all the time. I understand that I have to do more with my bat and play better defense if I want to stay in the major leagues.''

Sports Illustrated has picked the Rays to represent the American League in the World Series this fall, based primarily on an impressive group of pitchers that returns virtually intact, except for starter James Shields.

“This staff is amazing,'' Lobaton said. “It's fun to catch these guys and I'm more comfortable with them and confident we'll be on the same page. I can't wait to get things started.''


ikaufman@tampatrib.com

(813) 259-7833

Twitter: @IKaufmanTBO

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