After a very candid admission of guilt, and a lengthy suspension that sidelined him through the first 50 games of the season, Nick Ciuffo is back behind the plate for the Tampa Bay Rays franchise and closer to the majors than he's ever been.
The Mount Pleasant native pulled no punches back in February when he spoke about testing positive for marijuana.
He opened up about his girlfriend shedding tears over the news, and how he did the same when he spoke to his dad.
And even when the dust settled in his personal life, the catcher had to sit out as his teammates played on.
“It's really frustrating being that close to realizing a dream, and then having miss that much time,” he said Saturday morning. "But the Rays have been great and my teammates have been here to support me."
Ciuffo, 23, has put the suspension in the rearview as he readies for a long season.
He kicked off his 2018 campaign with the Rays’ Class A-Advanced squad in Charlotte. After two road games in Palm Beach, Ciuffo made the 11-hour drive to join the Durham Bulls, Tampa's triple-A affiliate.
"It's exciting," he said. "Being this close, you can almost taste the majors. There are guys on this roster who were playing in the majors last week and they'll probably be heading back soon."
As the Rays' first-round draft pick in 2013, expectations have been high for the Lexington High alum.
He’s met them so far in his career, including last season’s success with the Montgomery Biscuits, the Rays’ double-AA affiliate. There, Ciuffo batted .245 with seven home runs and 42 RBIs through 102 games.
And while he’s one of his biggest critics, the Rays aren’t complaining.
They ranked the catcher just outside of their Top 20 prospect list heading into the season. And after the 2017 season, he was ranked the best defensive player in the entire organization.
Also, Ciuffo has been invited to the organization’s major league camp in back-to-back years, where he gets to work out with players who are already playing at Tropicana Field.
That’s the goal, Ciuffo said.
He won’t speculate about when it will happen. But based on MLB history, it could be sooner than later if he continues to produce.
The Rays’ two catchers, Wilson Ramos and Jesus Sucre, are both 30. And while Ramos has some power, he has had injury issues over the past couple of seasons.
Plus, if the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox keep dominating the American League East, Tampa may start looking toward the future and calling guys up for their MLB debuts.
But Ciuffo isn’t worried about all of those factors. He’s trying to win games for the affiliates until the franchise decides it’s time for Tampa.
“When they need a catcher, I want them to say, 'We have to call him up. He forced our hand and played great. We have no choice.'"