Not Opening Day

Only 80 days until short-season leagues kick off

Next week is Opening Day for a lot of minor leaguers, but for many more, next Thursday will just be another day on the calendar

About 100 Rays minor leaguers will be dispatched for Minor League Opening Day April 3rd, but for many others, spring training is not even close to being finished. Players waiting for an assignment to one of the organization's three U.S.-based short-season affiliates will see their spring training continue for another two months.

That means more drills, workouts and games that are kind of games but don't count. I'd imagine the wait for actual games can be frustrating, and waiting for these players to appear on box scores can be frustrating for impatient armchair prospect watchers too.

These short-season leagues are important in player development though, especially at the glacial rate the Rays tend to move prospects. That's probably part of the reason they added a third short-season affiliate in 2009. It allows a greater number of players to get the at-bats or innings they need to develop. Here are some key players that likely won't be playing in real games next week.

2014 draft picks

High school players taken early in the draft that aren't quite as raw as some of their peers sometimes get assigned to a full-season affiliate to start their first full professional seasons. This is mostly seen in other organizations, but the Rays have done it too, notably with Tyler Goeddel and Jake Hager two years ago. A trio of 2013 picks could be given a shot to hold their own with Bowling Green to start 2014, but I don't think they will. Those are first rounder Nick Ciuffo, second rounder Riley Unroe and fourth rounder Kean Wong. Outfielder Thomas Milone is surely starting for a short-season affiliate.

Despite being picked first among this group, Ciuffo's path to Bowling Green in year one may be the most unclear. Although he ranked several spots higher on our writers' top prospect poll, he's probably going to have to wait as Oscar Hernandez gets first crack at handling the Bowling Green pitching staff. Hernandez is 20 months older and has twice as many career plate appearances as Ciuffo, and he also got a very brief three game stint with the Hot Rods in 2013.

Unroe and Wong could form a double play tandem capable of holding its own, but it's more likely to happen at Hudson Valley or Princeton. While they both came prepared for the pro ranks out of the chute with good debuts, there could be different circumstances delaying each of their full-season debuts until at the very least, later this year.

In Unroe's case, I suspect the Rays will be giving another look to former first rounder Brandon Martin. Martin still has youth on his side since he'll be playing most of the 2014 season as a 20 year old, but so far in his career, he's been unable to improve his approach or feel for contact to go along with his above average defense. I'm not optimistic about his future, but another shot as an everyday player for Bowling Green makes sense.

For Wong, I think he may just lose a simple numbers game. Between the four full-season affiliates, there are probably five second basemen the Rays would like to see playing every day: Cole Figueroa (who could also play third base), Ryan Brett, Tommy Coyle, Ty Young and Wong. In terms of prospect status, Wong is right behind Brett in this group, but in the end I see him deferring to the older players and remaining in extended spring training.

Young arms

The Rays have a number of promising pitchers still very early in the developmental process. Headlining that group are seven-figure signings from Venezuela, righty Jose Mujica and lefty Jose Castillo. They're both creeping up prospect lists, but they're both also only going to be 18 this year. They combined for 62.2 innings in 2013, and if healthy, they'll probably throw 60 apiece this season. The Rays are going to be patient with their workloads.

They add a handful of arms for six-figure bonuses every signing period, and two that currently stand out above the others are German Marquez and Andres Gonzalez. Marquez has the higher ceiling with a better breaking ball and a little more on his fastball, but Gonzalez is a bit more polished and throws more strikes. Fans should keep an eye on both of them as either could break out.

There are a handful of other six-figure bonus arms in the lower levels, both domestic and international. In 2012, they signed righties Nolan Gannon and Damion Carroll for a combined $390,000. Gannon ran into some bad luck with Princeton last year, and Carroll only pitched a couple innings, presumably because of an injury.

The international pitchers are a little tougher to peg. Aside from the four already mentioned, they've signed eight other pitchers for six figures in the last three signing periods. They haven't made as much progress as those four, but none of them have even turned 20 yet. Maybe some will make it to a stateside affiliate in 2014 and get closer to the prospect map.

Catching depth

Aside from Ciuffo, the Rays have another key catcher expected to be behind the plate for a short-season affiliate: David Rodriguez. He signed for $600,000 the same summer they got Mujica and Castillo, and he's coming off a very good season in the Venezuelan Summer League. Baseball America's Ben Badler recently ranked him as one of the top 20 prospects playing in the Dominican or Venezuelan Summer Leagues ($, players are listed in alphabetical order.)

Former 12th rounder Taylor Hawkins, who received over $200,000 in the 2012 draft, will probably be slotted in between Ciuffo and Rodriguez. He hasn't performed at all in his pro career so far (.174/.245/.242 in 198 GCL plate appearances), but he has quite a bit of power and could become a decent defender.

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