TAMPA, Fla. — Being a minor league free agent for the second successive season didn't matter to Tampa Bay catcher Kevan Smith.
It was as if he never left.
That's because he didn't.
The Seneca Valley graduate and 32-year-old major league catcher recently signed another minor league deal with the Rays. He hit .258 with a homer and eight RBI in 17 games with the American League champions last year.
“Between 'Z' (Mike Zunino, Michael Perez and myself, I felt like we had the best three-man deep catching staff in the majors,” Smith said. “Then, at the end of the season, we were all let go.
“That was an eye opener.”
The Rays brought back Zunino with a less expensive contract. Perez signed with the Pirates as a free agent.
Smith said he only had a spattering of interest as a free agent last year. This time around, he and his agent talked with a dozen teams.
“We whittled that list down to six, then four, the final two ... Tampa Bay was the best place for me,” Smith said. “This is a first-class organization that is up front with its players. They've always treated me right.
“When I was cut loose, they said they had interest in bringing me back. I feel like I have a real opportunity here.”
Zunino hit .147 with four homers in the 60-game 2020 season. He was the Rays' catcher in the postseason and figures to be the starter in 2021. Tampa Bay has also signed catchers Francisco Mejia, 25 — who hit .077 with a homer in limited play with the Giants last season — and Joe Odom, 28, who hit. 128 in 39 at bats with Seattle.
“You figure Zunino is going to catch 80 to 90 games this season,” Smith said. “That leaves another 60, 70 or 80 games for someone to catch. My goal is to get those games.”
Smith is a .272 lifetime hitter in the major leagues with 13 homers and 79 RBI in 685 at bats, spread out over five major league seasons.
“My career's been a roller-coaster and I'm still riding that roller-coaster. I just want to keep playing baseball,” he added.
Smith was not on Tampa Bay's postseason roster this past season, but was the next man up in the event of any injury to a teammate.
“If someone even tweaked a hamstring, I was the guy. I would have been in there because I was our next best hitter,” Smith said. “But our trainers did a great job keeping everybody healthy.
“Still, I was in the dugout the entire postseason, very much a part of things. We almost took down the three-headed monster — Yankees, Astros and Dodgers — took the Dodgers to six games. That's an experience I'll never forget.”