Rays prospects get taste of big leagues
Select Minor Leaguers participate in Winter Development Program
ST. PETERSBURG -- Tropicana Field resembled two crops on Wednesday morning: the one that the organization currently lives off and the one that will feed the organization in the future.
Current Rays conducted informal workouts in the infield while the organization's Winter Development Program for select Minor League players unfolded in the outfield.
"They are our future, make no mistake about it," said farm director Mitch Lukevics of the group.
This is the third consecutive season that Tampa Bay has brought in select Minor League players to take part in the program. On Monday, 28 Minor League players began daily workouts in addition to getting schooled in other areas, such as media training and making community service visits to places such as MacDill Air Force Base and the Pinellas Park Boys & Girls Club. Thursday will be the final day for this year's session.
Current Rays players working out included Matt Joyce, Russ Canzler, Alex Cobb, Jake McGee, Brandon Gomes, B.J. Upton, James Shields, Reid Brignac and Sean Rodriguez.
To be selected to take part in the camp, and then be on the same turf with the Major Leaguers, is a nice benefit for a Minor Leaguer in Tampa Bay's system.
"There's a lot of things that it means [if they are invited to take part in the program]," Lukevics said. "One, we care about them. When you have a January program, where most teams are home in the Minor Leagues, we bring in a select group of young men for different reasons."
The honor of being invited did not seem to be lost on the attending players.
"It feels great coming here," said shortstop Jake Hager, a first-round pick in the 2011 First-Year Player Draft. "I'm very fortunate being one of the 28 guys picked. It's a great feeling to get back into things and getting ready for Spring Training. And it's very nice seeing the big leaguers here and seeing what they go through and how they are here in the locker room. ... It's a great experience. It's been a good week."
Shortstop Derek Dietrich, who was the Most Valuable Player at Class A Bowling Green in 2011, called the time "really special."
"You're treated like a big leaguer for a week as far as where you stay, when you wake up, the breakfasts, the meals," Dietrich said. "The workouts are first class, on the field and in the weight room, with all the coordinators and staff in this organization.
"It's a great opportunity for me and the others to see the instructors and for them to see us and for them to see how our progress is during the offseason. We're away for four months and everyone is working at becoming a better player for the team, and it's valuable for them to be able to see our progress and see what we need to do."
Dietrich appreciates the kind of organization the Rays operate from top to bottom.
"The Rays are the best at developing young players," Dietrich said. "They get their guys to the big leagues, they develop them the right way and they stay there. So it is exciting to know that you have these opportunities with instructional league and the Winter Developmental Camps. And all the other opportunities you have to develop as a player going into the season. And they do it the right way. I'm happy to be a part of it."
Taylor Guerrieri, Tampa Bay's top pick in the 2011 Draft, liked the inspiration he has derived from being a part of the session.
"This is really good motivation to come here and see everybody work out and get a nice little tour of the locker room -- get a feel for everything," Guerrieri said. "That's nice."
Lukevics believes that taking part in such programs improves the attending players' chances of getting to the Major Leagues.
"Absolutely, because we can see things," Lukevics said. "When they're at home, we can't see them. That's very difficult. The offseason, they're all over the world. So we have a nice program here that we can see them.
"There are advantages, so many advantages, where we can bring the player in and put him under our coaching staff's eyes. We'll reap the benefits down the road from that."
Bill Chastain is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.