It's no secret that the Tampa Bay Rays organization operates on a shoe-string budget in comparison to a lot of other major league clubs. But the franchise has managed to close the gap with their rivals and field a competitive team - making the post-season three out of the past four seasons - by being creative and investing their limited resources in such a way as to maximize every available means to produce quality and productive major league players.
One such way is the Rays' emphasis on player development.
Perhaps no other organization in baseball is as reliant on their farm system to cultivate players to populate their big league roster as the Rays are - and because of that - player development is among the top priorities for the franchise.
The Rays have many programs in place to help increase the odds on developing young talent and the recently held Winter Development Program is one of them.
28 of the best minor league players in the system were in St. Petersburg earlier this month for the four day camp and Rays director of Minor League Development Mitch Lukevics believes that conducting programs like these are an essential part of the player development process.
"When they're at home you can't see them. It's very difficult. In the off-season they are all over the world. So we have a nice program here where we can see them. There are so many advantages to bringing the player in and and putting them under our coaching staff's eyes. We'll reap the benefits down the road from that."
The list of the camp's attendees read like a Top 20 prospect list from a site like Baseball America, with top young players in the system like Taylor Guerreiri, Mikie Mahtook, Enny Romero, Drew Vettleson, Alex Colome, Ryan Brett, Jake Hager, and Tyler Goeddel among the program's invitees.
But Lukevics says that the Rays asked players to participate for a variety of reasons and that everyone invited to the camp is an important commodity in the future of the franchise.
"As you can see the type of player that we bring could be a first-year 40 man player, it could be - as you see - a number of first-year Spring Training players, it could be some conditioning guys...some rehab guys. We all need to pay attention to all of them, because they're all very valuable to us."
Lukevics admits that the draft and player development is not an exact science but contends that the Rays are committed to doing everything they can to help increase the odds of producing future major league talent.
"It's really hard to predict. And that's why you see in baseball - we don't have all the answers. We try and do certain things over the course of time to enhance the odds of these young men getting to the big leagues . Programs like these help. Instructional Leagues help. We sent players to Australia this year for the first time in 10 years to try and help those odds get greater. I wish I had that magic formula to get the exact odds. But it's a challenging profession and all these programs can help our odds."
Lukevics used Matt Moore as an example of a player who has reaped the benefits from the Rays' player development philosophies and programs like the one conducted at Tropicana Field a few weeks ago.
"For those that don't know - Matt spent two years in Princeton for us. It wasn't like a rapid journey. Signed out of high school, two years at Princeton - and as you saw - the physical attributes - he matured. And the mental attributes - he matured. Having him come here to a program like this has certainly helped. And we feel comfortable that's it going to help the young men who are here this year as well."
The camp offers far more than just the ability for the Rays' coaching staff to work with young prospects - it offers the players an opportunity to become better acclimated with the big league experience.
"I’ll use Matt Moore as an example - who was here last year", Lukevics continued. "He’s never been to big league camp yet, but he’s pitched in the big leagues for us. He was here in this program. He had media training. He’s been in our big league locker room. He’s met Westy, he’s met Zimmy…that takes a lot of expectations down a level in feeling comfortable when they get here. It’s all part of the program. "
2011 supplemental pick Tyler Goeddel echoed what Lukevics conveyed and agreed that the experience was helpful.
"It’s been really good. They have definitely tried to show us what it’s like to be in the majors - which helps motivate us in a way," Goeddel said. "I think I’ve learned a lot just being here in the major league clubhouse and facility and just meeting all the guys and just having them show us around. It’s been great."
But making players feel comfortable extends much further than just letting players hang out in the clubhouse at the Trop and meeting the big league coaching staff and other personnel. There are other issues that need to be addressed by the club in assuring that their young talent is adjusting well to the life of a professional baseball player.
Those challenges are often vastly different from those faced by franchises in other American professional sports. Lukevics spoke about this at length after a Winter Development Program workout.
"With professional football, guys are coming out of college at a certain age and a certain level of competition. We get these young men from all over the world. We’re not all born equal. They come from different social-economic backgrounds. We have language training. We have cultural assimilation programs to put them on par with the domestic players. I think that just from that alone -it’s different from any other sport for the most part."
With such a high percentage of major league players coming from Latin American countries - approximately 20 percent - cultural assimilation is a big part of player development and the Rays do all they can to help their Latin players get a leg up in that regard.
"It’s really challenging, but that’s what we have to do to get - say an Alex Colome - to where we need to so that he can converse with his teammates," Lukevics continued. "He’s acclimated to the country. He’s acclimated to our food. He can converse with you guys. It’s all part of player development. More than just bats, balls, run, field - we have a total player development service-type program to reach all and to reach all these different players about playing the game of baseball."
"Overall in all of our programs - whether it’s in Venezuela, in the Dominican, here in Spring Training, in the Instructional League, even in Princeton and Hudson Valley - we have English lessons and cultural assimilation programs to help these guys get acclimated to our culture and fit in. Obviously they come from different countries, different cultures and we want them to act a certain way of professionalism and it’s an education-type process."
Lukevics comments are in line with what Princeton Rays general manager Jim Holland told me last November; namely that the Rays are very pro-active in helping Latin American players learn English and assimilate to American culture.
"The Tampa Bay Rays are very aggressive in programs to help foreign players adapt to living in this country," Holland said. "We have a local teacher here that the Rays contract to teach these players English and it is my understanding that they make great progress throughout the course of the season in learning the language. I would assume that this continues in all levels of our organization."
But it isn't just foreign-born players that need help acclimating to life as a professional baseball player. Domestic players need assistance too. And as Holland revealed - it is often the Rays' fan base who helps in that process.
" It is not so much me as the GM, but our fans themselves that assist in this process through our "Adopt-A-Player" program, which our franchise has had in existence since 1993. Since then, we have annually been successful in pairing players with local families to give them a local person to bond with. Most of our local adoptive parents will call the players' parents right out of the gate to introduce themselves and I feel it gives the players' parents a little sigh of relief to know there is someone on this end interested in the well being of their son."
But perhaps the biggest benefit of the Rays' all-encompassing approach to scouting and player development is the fact that it isn't tough to attract top talent evaluators to join the Rays' fold, as I recently learned from new Rays' scout Rico Brogna who told me:
"I think it is one of the things that really attracted me to the job and being a part of the Rays. I thought a lot of my personal beliefs on scouting and player evaluation was very much in line with what the Rays look for and a lot of their philosophies. Their's and mine are very similar. I was lucky to have a few opportunities with different teams - and I say that humbly - but that was one of things that stood out about possibly being part of the Rays' organization is that a lot of their core beliefs and philosophies in their developmental system and scouting are very similar to what I believe in."
If the Rays are to continue their success in developing major league-ready players then they will need the assistance of talented baseball minds and according to Brogna it shouldn't be too hard to sell people on working for the organization with the Rays' current way of doing things.
"The uniqueness of the Rays and the way they have been operating - and highly successfully too - is something that drew me in," Brogna said.
That pretty much sums it up.
The Rays HAVE been highly successful in recent years and their attention to player development has been a huge part of that.