1/10/2014 12:29 P.M. ET
Rays gear up for Winter Development Program
By Bill Chastain / MLB.com
ST. PETERSBURG -- Tampa Bay will hold its fifth annual Winter Development Program for select Minor League players next week.
Twenty-seven of the organization's top prospects will congregate at Tropicana Field for myriad activities from Monday through Thursday.
Players will work out each day, and receive media training and instruction from the Minor League staff. The group will also make visits to MacDill Air Force Base and the Pinellas Park Boys & Girls Club.
Among the invited players are former first-round picks Nick Ciuffo, Blake Snell, Jake Hager, Brandon Martin, Richie Shaffer and Josh Sale.
Of note, Sale was suspended by the Rays last May due to "conduct detrimental to the organization." He remained suspended for the duration of the 2013 season.
Niemann, Fuld both open to return to Rays
ST. PETERSBURG -- Jeff Niemann, who underwent right shoulder surgery at the beginning of the 2013 season, is a free agent after the Rays outrighted him earlier this offseason.
Niemann, 30, who made $3 million in 2013, would have been arbitration-eligible for the third time this offseason. If Tampa Bay was to try to bring him back now, it would have to sign him as a free agent. The Rays' No. 1 pick in the 2004 Draft did not rule out the possibility of returning to Tampa Bay.
"Right now, every door is still open for me," said Niemann, who continues to rehab his shoulder. "We're starting the second part of the throwing program, which is going to lead into a mound progression to where I'm competition-ready and where I can show something."
When asked about the time element for his return, Niemann expects to be back by the second half of the 2014 season.
"Right now we're just kind of getting back into it," Niemann said. "Everything is going good, following the program. We've got a six-week long-toss program, then we get on the mound and start building from there."
Sam Fuld was not tendered a contract by the Rays, which allowed him to become a free agent. Like Niemann, the popular outfielder said he would consider a return to Tampa Bay.
"Yeah, yeah, I definitely would if the opportunity was there," Fuld said. "If I felt like the opportunity there was good, I would not hesitate at all to sign back with them. I've got nothing but good experiences with the Rays."
Currently, Fuld said he is not close to signing a deal with any team, though there has been interest from a host of clubs.
"Nothing has really developed over the last couple of weeks," Fuld said. "So I'm just kind of waiting. I don't seen anything happening too soon, but it's all unpredictable."
Hellickson keen on giving back at Pitcher Perfect
ST. PETERSBURG -- Central Iowa kids have a chance to learn from Jeremy Hellickson, the Rays right-hander who hails from the area, while helping support Kids Living Brave at the second annual Pitcher Perfect event on Jan. 25 in Johnston, Iowa. Hellickson will help kids ages 8 through 18 to sharpen their skills at a pitching clinic hosted, staffed and sponsored by Grand Slam USA.
"I love hanging out with the kids, they remind me of myself at that age," Hellickson said. "It also feels really good to support these kids and have some fun with them, because they are so full of life and joy, and to see them smile makes me smile."
All proceeds from Pitcher Perfect support Kids Living Brave, a nonprofit organization that supports families with children fighting cancer. Hellickson is a longtime family friend of Jack and Pam Cooper of Johnston, who founded Kids Living Brave in 2011.
Registration is available online at KidsLivingBrave.org. Attendees will receive a T-shirt and an autographed photo of Hellickson. They will also take an individual photo with him, which is available for purchase online after the event.
Traveling secretary Ziegler parts ways with TB
ST. PETERSBURG -- Longtime traveling secretary Jeff Ziegler has decided to leave the Rays to pursue another opportunity.
"Ziggy" was one of the best at what he did as attested by countless current and former Tampa Bay players. Typifying Ziegler's tenure with the team was the work he did to get Dan Johnson to Fenway Park on Sept. 9, 2008, enabling one of the greatest moments in team history to take place. Had Ziegler not been able to make the travel arrangements to get Johnson from Wilkes-Barre, Pa., to Boston in time, Johnson never would have hit the pivotal home run off Jonathan Papelbon.
Corresponding moves within the Rays' clubhouse will see Chris Westmorland become director of team travel and clubhouse operations. Jose Fernandez will take over as the home clubhouse manager, while Ryan Denlinger is now the assistant home clubhouse manager.
Bill Chastain is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.