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Spring Training Dish: Devil Rays Camp
by Chris Kline
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.
• 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.