Spring Training Dish: Devil Rays Camp

Editor’s note: Assistant editor Chris Kline is spending three weeks
covering spring training in Florida’s Grapefruit League. Today’s stop:
Devil Rays camp. Coming Friday: Phillies camp in Clearwater.

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla.–When director of minor league operations Mitch
Lukevics arrived on the fields at the Raymond A. Naimoli Complex in St.
Petersburg, he automatically drew a crowd.

First, Lukevics
addressed a few members of his coaching staff, then met with a
contingent from the club’s Rookie-level affiliate in Princeton, Va.
That’s when it was time to move out onto the field and individually
speak to various players one-on-one during batting practice.

“I
always like to talk to players when they’re in their element and not in
an office whenever I can,” Lukevics said. “It’s just more comfortable,
probably for both of us.”

Lukevics is a holdover from the
old regime in Tampa, but received a promotion once vice president of
baseball operations Andrew Friedman took over for former general
manager Chuck LaMar. In the resulting shuffle, Lukevics moved from an
assistant scouting/player development position to the director of minor
league operations.

While there’s been a lot of buzz around
the Rays’ major league camp this spring for its optimism and overall
positive feeling, that aura has carried over to the minor league side
of things.

Some of that has to do with the fact that so many
players were just reassigned to the minor league side, but a lot of it
has to do with the hope that’s been injected in an organization that’s
dubbed itself “Under Construction.”

We caught up with
Lukevics for the state of the union on the system, the club’s
righthanded pitching depth and what it takes for the organization to
keep Elijah Dukes on the straight and narrow.

Baseball America: First of all, how do you feel about the overall depth in the system?

Mitch Lukevics:
I think the one thing is that we don’t have overall depth at this time
in our organization. And primarily that’s because we haven’t had a
Latin program–we haven’t gone global in the last five years. When you
see other organizations around, you see the Latin influence and how it
affects the quality of players on the field and we haven’t had much of
that influence.

BA: So has the organization taken
strides to set up academies in the Dominican Republic or Venezuela? Are
you committed to developing talent in Latin America?

ML:
We’re in the beginning stages. (Senior VP for baseball operations)
Gerry Hunsicker and Andrew Friedman have made some steps in the right
direction to getting things going in Latin America for the Devil Rays.
Obviously they hired Carlos Alfonzo as the director of Latin American
operations for us. They’re currently working in the Dominican Republic
and Venezuela to get something going for us in each country. The new
upper management leadership knows how important it is that they’re
getting the ball rolling for us.

BA: Since the new
front office has come into power, have you tried to change anything
about the scope of the way this camp is managed?

ML:
I think for the most part the camp’s been run the same way. We’re
asking our staff to challenge out players more, we want to demand more
from our players and we ask our players to come every day with the
right approach. Without the right approach, it’s hard to get anything
started. We have an experienced staff that begins with our field
coordinator, Jim Hoff and he’s basically our leader throughout. But for
the most part we’ve stayed the same.

BA: You really
seem to have a good relationship with your players, based on what I’ve
seen here today. What is your relationship with Elijah like and how,
generally, does the organization go about handling him and the
potential for off-field drama?

ML: I try to have
some kind of relationship with every player. I think it’s important.
We’re in a different day and age where communication means so much.
Regarding Elijah Dukes, we have had and will continue to have daily
conversations if we have to. As we told him today, we’re here to help
him. We’re his surrogate parents, we’re his big brother and we’re here
to help him. Sometimes that help is to put an arm around him and
sometimes that help is to give him a boot in the pants. We have that
type of relationship, and we’ve had that type of relationship.

Now,
I’m in a new position this year. I’ve always taken it upon myself with
our former leadership to go out and help with anything I could with
Elijah. I think he understands that, I think he recognizes that and I
think he appreciates that as well. But I’m not a guy who’s going to
turn my head (if something goes wrong). I don’t think that’s good for
the player or the organization.

BA: You might not
like the overall depth, but you have to be excited about the
righthanded pitching depth. There are a lot of good, young arms there.

ML:
When you get that kind of depth, there are a lot of guys you’ve got to
give kudos to. Our scouts did a good job in obtaining young righthanded
arms. And then you bring those guys in and have pitching coaches and
instructors in place who are in tune into what each guy’s development
plan is. It’s exciting for us, because pitching is something that we as
an organization need. At the same time through our upper management,
they do know that this is a long distance race and not a sprint. You
have to make sure these kids are armed when they get that opportunity
in the big leagues.

BA: Another area is outfield
depth–and I’m talking behind Delmon and Dukes. You seem to have
another wave beginning to come through the lower levels with guys like
Fernando Perez and Shaun Cumberland.

ML: You’ve got
some interesting depth behind those guys in Fernando Perez and Shaun
Cumberland in particular. They’re certainly outfielders with some tools
and a lot of upside. It’s like taking a raw resource and making it into
a fine product when you’re developing players. So they’re going through
that stage where you’re looking at a lot of at-bats, a lot of
instruction and them going through a whole bunch of trials and
tribulations to get to where we want them to be.

They’re an
interesting contrast with Shaun being a young high school sign and
Fernando being an Ivy League guy out of Columbia. So it’s about
balancing these guys and us figuring out the little things about
them–what works in instruction, what doesn’t; what you need to do to
get them going or how they certain handle situations. In the beginning
for a lot of these guys, the acclimating process is always interesting.
Some guys take longer than others. But it’s our job to reach them all.
You can’t teach the same way to everybody, it just doesn’t work.

COOL RAYS

• Outfielder Elijah Dukes
has been bothered by shin splints in recent days, but that didn’t stop
him from playing shortstop during Group One’s BP round on Tuesday.
Let’s just say he gave new meaning to the phrase, ‘big-bodied
shortstops.’

• New Triple-A Durham manager John Tamargo had fun pitching to the aforementioned Group One, though he was giving B.J. Upton and Delmon Young
a hard time after they took him deep numerous times. “Look at
that–that’s windblown crap right there,” Tamargo said after Upton hit
one out to left-center. “That wind must really be blowing out there.
All you have to do is get it up and it flies on out of here.”

• Lefthander Jeff Ridgway
has impressed club officials this spring by showing he can stay healthy
after having a history of both shoulder and elbow injuries. “He has
some history, but he’s come back pretty strong,” Lukevics said. “We’re
anxious to see how he does day in and day out and go from there, but
everything with Jeff’s been very positive.”

• Righthander Juan Salas
had a solid showing in big league camp and continues to throw well
getting acclimated to the mound. A converted third baseman, Salas moved
to the mound near the end of the 2004 season and has a power arm with a
pretty decent feel for a breaking ball. “His big league camp success
has been a real shot in the arm for him since he came over here,”
Lukevics said. “Here’s a young guy with a nice arm and he hasn’t
pitched a lot. He’s still learning body awareness and repeating his
delivery.”

• Shortstop Reid Brignac worked
hard in the offseason to come into camp bigger and stronger, putting on
15-20 pounds. The 20-year-old infielder also grew two inches and is now
listed at 6-foot-3, 203. “I got myself a personal trainer back home in
Baton Rouge and he helped me out a lot,” Brignac said. “I just worked
my tail off to come into this year in the best shape I could. I worked
hard on my defense and really just staying through the ball at the
plate. I want to be at as close to the same point in April as I am in
August as far as how I feel physically. That’s the goal.” Brignac is
slated to start the year at high Class A Visalia.

• Righthander Jeff Niemann
continues to go through his throwing program and is doing all pitching
drills with the Triple-A club in camp. Still recovering from minor
shoulder surgery to shave down part of his collarbone near the AC joint
in his shoulder, the first-round pick in 2004 will likely not pitch
competitively until May. But the prognosis is good and the Rays are
optimistic, especially since there haven’t been any setbacks through
the long tossing portion of his rehab.

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