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Rays hope to develop position players

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Published:   |   Updated: March 13, 2013 at 06:03 PM
ST. PETERSBURG -

The Tampa Bay Rays went outside the organization this month to find a starting first baseman and a starting shortstop. Their No. 1 minor league prospect, an outfielder, has been with the organization for a week.

One of the four players acquired in last week's blockbuster trade with the Kansas City Royals is Patrick Leonard, a 20-year-old third baseman who made his pro debut last season in rookie ball.

When talking about Leonard on the night of the trade, Rays executive vice president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman said Leonard was a good position player who has a chance to rise through the organization. Then Friedman added, "In years past we've been more pitching focused, pitching heavy."

That much is obvious.

The Rays farm system seems to produce major league-ready pitchers every season – from David Price to Wade Davis to Jeremy Hellickson to Alex Cobb to Chris Archer, the latter came to the organization before the 2011 in the trade that sent Matt Garza to the Cubs.

Position players, not so much.

"We'd like to do better, without question," farm director Mitch Lukevics said.

The farm system has churned out a Cy Young Award winner (Price), a Rookie of the Year (Hellickson), and an All-Star who led the league with 11 complete games in 2011 (James Shields).

The Rays went a major league-record 232 consecutive games started by a pitcher drafted and developed by the organization. The streak ended June 20 when Archer made his major league debut.

Only two position players drafted and developed by the organization have played in the Major League All-Star Game – Carl Crawford and Evan Longoria.

If the farm system was as adapt at developing bats as well as arms, would the Rays be searching for the same position players each winter?

"You can't do it all," manager Joe Maddon said. "It's a real fortunate group that has every position covered."

True. And if the Rays are going to be heavy on one side – pitching or position – they will choose pitching.

Friedman has often spoke about the importance of the organization developing its starting pitching, that it would be beyond the Rays financial means to look outside the organization for quality major league pitching.

"The emphasis has been on pitching, and I think that is evident," Lukevics said. "That said, we want to develop major league championship caliber position players, as well. Some cases have worked out. Some haven't worked as well as what we like. We give every aspect of player development the same attention. It has worked with pitching. It has worked some with positional players, but certainly we need to do better with that when you self-evaluate."

Last season's spate of injuries in the infield and the outfield forced Friedman to look outside the organization to fill the holes. Yes, Triple A Durham was lacking when it came to players to plug in at the major league level. And, yes, Friedman said there will be an effort made this offseason to restock Durham so as to guard against that in 2013.

But, Friedman, Lukevics and Maddon each think the farm system has produced its share of position players.

Their proof: Aubrey Huff, Toby Hall, Crawford, Rocco Baldelli, B.J. Upton, Longoria and Desmond Jennings and to a lesser extend Reid Brignac.

"We've had our fair share of success there," Lukevics said.

Lukevics added Ben Zobrist, Matt Joyce and Sean Rodriguez to that list.

"Player development comes into play the same way (in a trade) as us drafting a young player," Lukevics said.

Three players drafted by the Rays played at least 100 games in 2012 – Upton, Jennings and Elliot Johnson. Longoria played in 74 games, missing the rest with a hamstring injury.

By comparison, the Baltimore Orioles (Matt Wieters and Nick Markakis) and the New York Yankees (Derek Jeter and Robinson Cano) both had two players drafted by the organization play more than 100 games while the Boston Red Sox (Dustin Pedroia) and Toronto Blue Jays (J.P. Arencibia) had one each.

Baltimore's Nolan Reimold, Boston Jacoby Ellsbury and New York's Brett Gardner would have been on that list had their season's not been cut short by injuries. Former Red Sox third baseman Kevin Youkilis would have joined the 100-club had he not been traded.

What does this mean? That it's not so easy to develop players, which is why teams are always looking outside the organization each winter to fill needs.

It also shows the Rays have been extremely fortunate to develop so much major league-quality starting pitching that they could trade two starters – Shields and Wade Davis – to the Kansas City for the Royals top prospect – outfield Wil Myers – and three other prospects and still feel they have enough pitching to contend for a postseason spot this season.

"We definitely could stand to do a better job (developing position players)," Friedman said. "The issue is that I don't want to swing it 180 degrees and start developing position players better at the expense of pitching."

In an effort to guard against that, Friedman also received two pitching prospects in return for Shields and Davis.


rmooney@tampatrib.com (813) 259-7227 Twitter: @RMooneyTBO

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