Top Prospects Return To Aid Defending IL Champs

PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla.—The Durham Bulls won the Triple-A International League as well as the one-game Triple-A National Championship in 2009.

Outfielder Desmond Jennings was at home plate in that last game when the winning run scored on a wild pitch. Righthander Jeremy Hellickson was the game's MVP, tossing five scoreless innings.

The Rays liked a lot of what they saw of both players, their top two prospects, this spring. But they're even more excited about what they expect to see when they make it to the big leagues for good.

Hellickson and Jennings were sent back to Durham to begin the 2010 season, giving them more time to develop for Tampa Bay, and giving Bulls manager Charlie Montoyo two of the minors' top prospects in defense of the Triple-A title. Durham's roster should be fortified by several returnees from the '09 squad, including outfielder Justin Ruggiano, who will begin his fourth season with the Bulls.

"He might have had the best spring of anybody,'' manager Joe Maddon said. "Right now, he's a major league outfielder. We just don't have the room.''

Ruggiano, 27, was disappointed but understanding after hitting .447 during big league camp. He vowed not to allow a repeat of his own frustrating 2009 season, when he sulked after being returned to Durham, hit .189 in his first month and finished the season with a .741 OPS, after posting .888 and .911 OPS marks the previous two seasons.

"I feel like I'm leaving here with my head up and knowing confidently that I'm ready. I'm ready for the next step, and I'm ready to stay,'' Ruggiano said. "I respect the Rays' decision, but hopefully, the next time it's more of an opportunity to stay and help out on a regular basis.

"It's not going to be something like I took last year where I was disappointed and I let it show in my play. I'm going to take off a day or two and clear my mind, but I want to take the same energy and same attitude that I had here down to Triple-A even though it's a totally different atmosphere and more of a mental grind.''

Climb Nearly Complete

Now Hellickson and Jennings get to go through that grind. The Rays have shown a willingness to give their pitchers plenty of Triple-A time. Wade Davis and Jeff Niemann both spent two full seasons in Durham before graduating to the Tampa staff, and that's the path Hellickson is on. He's 22 and has worked just 461 pro innings, including just 57 above Double-A.

While he pitched just 2 2⁄3 innings in big league camp, Hellickson showed he could step in now if necessary—he struck out six and gave up only one hit in spring camp. Though he was naturally disappointed by the demotion, Hellickson was not surprised. "I think I showed them what I can do," he said. "Hopefully, it was enough for them, but we'll see what happens."

"He's not that far way," pitching coach Jim Hickey added. "If our hand were forced and he had to start in the middle of April, it wouldn't be the ideal situation, but I would be comfortable with that."

The Rays liked pretty much everything they saw, from what he did to how he did it to how he handled himself in his first exposure to big league players.

"My impressions were very favorable," Hickey said. "Everything was kind of 'as advertised.' Everyone said he was an extremely poised young pitcher, and I saw that. That he had very good command of his fastball, and we all saw that. And a plus-plus changeup, and I think we all saw all that, also."

The coaching staff also spoke favorably about Hellickson's attitude and his aptitude.

"I like him a lot," Maddon said. "And now that I've had a chance to see him and get to know him a little bit, he's got the right makeup to do it also."

About the only thing Hellickson hasn't shown—"the biggest part of his game that he needs to work on," Hickey said— is a dependable breaking ball. The curveball he struck out Derek Jeter with in his March 5 big league exhibition debut looked good enough, but the Rays want him to either tighten up the break on that or find something different, be it slider, cutter or slurve.

"There's always been a little bit of juggling of what's going to work best," Hickey said. "I just think the next step for him is to identify which breaking ball is going to work best for him, or which two."

Positive Impression

Jennings, 23, didn't get a chance to show much, having been sidelined twice by injuries (hit by a pitch on his left elbow, sprained left wrist sliding into a base) in the first week of exhibitions.

But the major league staff was still impressed with the Rays' top position prospect, who will join Hellickson at Durham.

"You can just watch him in batting practice and see how compact he is and how well everything works; that was obvious," Maddon said. "I liked seeing him on the bases to re-emphasize what I thought, and it was there. And the way he went after fly balls was very, very good. He's a very instinctive player."

The rest of Durham's roster wasn't quite set, but the return of Hellickson and Jennings assures the Bulls another season with top prospects. Since becoming a Triple-A club and affiliate of the Rays in 1998, the Bulls have featured such future big league regulars as Rocco Baldelli, Jorge Cantu, Carl Crawford, Aubrey Huff, Evan Longoria, Niemann, David Price, James Shields, B.J. Upton and Delmon Young.