The longest day of Nick Ciuffo’s life was over before he knew it. He and the Tampa Bay Rays hope his journey to Major League Baseball goes just as quickly.
Selected by the Rays with the No. 21 overall pick in the MLB draft Thursday night, Ciuffo said Friday morning that his financial advisor will begin negotiations with Tampa Bay officials on Sunday. The signing bonus at No. 21 is slotted at $1.9 million, though the 18-year-old catcher could get more than that, depending on how the Rays decide to use their bonus pool.
Then, Ciuffo hopes to report quickly to the Rays’ rookie team in the Gulf Coast League to begin his journey to the big leagues. The GCL Rays are set to begin play June 21 in Port Charlotte, Fla.
Ciuffo also has a fallback position: An offer to play college ball at South Carolina, where he’s been committed since age 14.
“My philosophy is to kind of take it one step at a time,” said Ciuffo, a Mount Pleasant native who was a star player at both Wando and Lexington high schools. “If I stay healthy and prove myself, maybe I can skip a step or two and get to the majors a little more quickly.”
That would be just fine with the Rays, who have developed a reputation for squeezing the most out of limited resources. But Tampa Bay has struggled in recent years to develop a home-grown catcher, and are counting on the 6-1, 210-pound Ciuffo to solve that problem.
“I think catchers have a really high upside and a really low downside, just because it’s tough to develop them,” Andrew Friedman, executive vice president of baseball operations, told reporters. “There are a lot of really good catching prospects that haven’t made it. But the ones that do carry significant value on a major league team. The fact that he also hits left-handed is something that certainly helped the profile.”
Scouting director R.J. Harrison said Ciuffo projects as an “everyday catcher in the big leagues.”
“He’s a high school kid that’s going to start his journey and work his way through the minor leagues,” Harrison said. “He’s got a plus arm, (he’s an) average defender, and we like his bat and power. And he’s a tough kid. We like the kid.”
Ciuffo, who led Lexington to the Class AAAA state title this season, has no bigger fan than Rays scout Brian Hickman.
“When you get to know this guy, you feel like you’ve known him for your whole life,” Hickman said. “He’s just one of those types of people. He loves to talk the game. We use this (expression) from time to time: The kid’s a baseball rat. That’s what he is. He loves the game.
“The guy cannot get enough baseball, and his work ethic is just off the charts.”
Ciuffo said Thursday “seemed like a dream.” Friends and family joined him in New York, where he visited Yankee Stadium before going to MLB Studios in New Jersey for the draft.
Ciuffo grew up hanging out with College of Charleston players like Brett Gardner, now center fielder for the Yankees.
“To go into the clubhouse and sit in the same seats as Derek Jeter and Brett Gardner, that was unreal,” he said.
“Yankee Stadium is first-class all the way around. They made me and the other players feel like kings.”
Once he reported to Studio 42 at MLB Network headquarters, Ciuffo waited more than two hours into the draft to hear his name called in the first round. Friends and family erupted in cheers when it happened.
“Once I got to the studio, it seemed like an eternity,” he said. “But now, it’s come and gone. It seems like it went by in a flash.”
Despite all the hoopla, Ciuffo has his priorities still in order. He noted that Tampa is not too far from Charleston, and that there is a lake near the GCL Rays’ ballpark.
“That means I can go fishing when I have a break,” he said.