FSL notes: Ciuffo flaunts cannon in Charlotte

Rays prospect has thrown out 74 percent of base stealers this season

The 21st overall pick in 2013, Nick Ciuffo is hitting .241/.271/.277 over 29 games. (Cliff Welch/MiLB.com)

By Guy Curtright / Special to MiLB.com | May 18, 2016 10:00 AM

Nick Ciuffo's success rate throwing out would-be base stealers going into this season was already one of the best in the Minor Leagues. The Class A Advanced Charlotte Stone Crabs catcher's rate so far this year, though, has been off the charts.

After throwing out nearly 45 percent of runners in his first three seasons, Ciuffo had gunned down just under 74 percent his year.

Yes, that's right.

Florida State League runners had tried to steal with Tampa Bay's No. 26 prospect behind the plate 23 times over his first 24 games. Only six had made it safely.

Ciuffo, the No. 21 overall pick in the 2013 Draft, has always been know for his cannon arm, but this was eye catching to say the least.

What was the use of even trying anymore to steal a base?

Ciuffo obviously takes satisfaction in his stunning success so far this year, but he doesn't want to take all the credit.

"The pitchers have done a great job holding runners, and there have been some great tags, too," he said. "Not all the throws have been perfect."

Most have been, though.

"I've taken a lot of pride in my catching since high school," Ciuffo said. "Hitting comes and goes. Defense is a constant."

The Rays place a high priority on their catchers' work behind the plate, and Ciuffo was the team's second first-round pick a the position over a four-year period.

No. 15 prospect Justin O'Conner, the No. 31 in 2010, is on the disabled list at Double-A Montgomery because of a back injury, though, and that has put more of the prospect spotlight on Ciuffo.

The 21-year-old has responded, although his contributions at the plate haven't matched what he's done behind it.

Ciuffo (pronounced SHOO-fo) was known for his bat as much as his arm in high school, leading Lexington to a South Carolina state title and winning Gatorade Player of the Year.

The left-handed hitter bats in the middle of Charlotte lineup, but he was hitting .241 with four extra-base hits through May 16. Ciuffo rebounded from a 1-for-17 start in April to go 13-for-31 at the beginning of May. Then he cooled off again.

"I've been a slow starter each season," Ciuffo said, obviously referring to his hitting and not his throwing.

Ciuffo, who received a bonus of nearly $2 million from the Rays, was so talented as a youngster that he was offered a baseball scholarship by the University of South Carolina when he was just 14 and yet to play a high school game.

"My dad went there, so I would have been put up for adoption if I thought about going anywhere else," he said.

But it was actually around the College of Charleston program that Ciuffo got his baseball education. His father, Tony, was the Cougars' assistant athletics director for communications for 20 years.

"That is where I fell in love with baseball," Ciuffo said. "I was around the team all the time. Brett Gardner and those guys were my heroes. I learned a lot from them."

A broken finger suffered on a foul tip cut Ciuffo's time in the Australian Winter League short after last season, but he is still way ahead of the learning curve for a young catcher.

The Stone Crabs' team ERA is one of the best in the Florida State League, and Ciuffo takes as much pride in his handling of the staff as anything else.

Of course, it helps pitchers when they know they don't need to overly worry about a runner at first base in a tight situation.

Ciuffo will take care of things if anyone foolishly decides to take off for second.

In brief

Stewart surging: Lakeland left fielder Christin Stewart was just one off the top total in the Florida State League a season ago when Detroit's No. 4 prospect hit a grand slam at Daytona on May 14 for this 13th homer. The 22-year-old left-handed hitter homered in three consecutive games May 9-11 and took over the league lead in RBIs with 30 by driving in 11 over a nine-game stretch. Stewart was the 34th overall pick in the 2015 Draft out of the University of Tennessee. His home run total through May 16 was more than three Florida State League teams.

Gordon hot in return: Fort Myers shortstop Nick Gordon, who suffered a concussion in an outfield collision on May 3, was 10-for-24 in his first six games since coming off the disabled list May 11. The No. 5 overall pick in the 2014 Draft by Minnesota was hitting .331 after a three-hit game May 16 at Dunedin that included his second homer of the season. Gordon, 20, is rated as the Twins' No. 4 prospect and ranks No. 87 on MLB.com's Top 100 list.

Coley on roll: Bradenton right-hander Austin Coley lost his first two decisions, not making it through five innings either time. But the eighth-round choice by Pittsburgh in the 2104 Draft won his next five starts and lowered his ERA from 10.13 to 4.08. Coley, 23, was 16-6 with a 3.66 ERA for Class A West Virginia a year ago, leading the South Atlantic League in victories.

Coulter sidelined: Brevard County right fielder Clint Coulter, already off to a disappointing start, landed on the disabled list because of an oblique strain. He was hitting just .212 with two homers and nine RBIs through 26 games. Coulter, 22, was a first-round pick by Milwaukee in the 2012 Draft. The Brewers' No. 13 prospect is repeating the Florida State League after batting .246 with 13 homers and 59 RBIs last season.

Guy Curtright is a contributor to MiLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.

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