Backfield Blog Day 2: Tampa Bay Rays

By Jake Seiner/MiLB.com

Charlotte Backfields

Day two of my Grapefruit League swing brings me to Port Charlotte, spring home of the Tampa Bay Rays and their Florida State League affiliate, the Charlotte Stone Crabs. The complex is a bit smaller than Boston’s Spring Training home, which I visited yesterday, but it is a convenient and comfortable setup. I pulled in around 10 a.m. as the Minor Leaguers were taking batting practice on the backfields. Unfortunately, I was only able to catch a bit of the session, as task No. 1 was a sit-down with Tampa Bay’s director of Minor League operations Mitch Lukevics, but I did get to catch a few swings by 2013 first-round pick (21st overall) Nick Ciuffo (pronounced Shoo-foe).

While I didn’t get to see much baseball, I did get to talk it plenty. I chatted with Lukevics about a number of players in the Rays organization, and while much of that will go into our season preview content over at MiLB.com, here are a few bullet points to tease you with:

  • We talked a little about Jake Odorizzi and the new changeup I wrote about yesterday. Lukevics said he thought The Thing could help Odorizzi find more success against left-handed hitters. I asked Lukevics if he thought Odorizzi was ready for an MLB role, to which Lukevics unsurprisingly said yes, pointing to the right-hander’s entire body of work.
  • While Odorizzi is still in competition for the No. 5 starter job in Tampa Bay, fellow pitching prospects Alex Colome and Enny Romero have already been sent to Minor League camp. Both should open 2014 with Triple-A Durham, where they’ll work on improving their consistency. For Colome, the task is more mental — Durham pitching coach Neil Allen told me later in the day he wants the 25-year-old to maintain more focus and deal better with adversity, something he’s made progress with over the past year. Romero, meanwhile, will be asked to improve the consistency of his mechanics. Lukevics said Romero’s stuff was good enough to be a No. 2 pitcher in the Majors, but that the 23-year-old needed to improve his command and refine his offspeed pitches. Allen has a game plan in place to help Romero in that process, something I’ll outline down the road.
  • I asked Lukevics about Taylor Guerrieri’s recovery from Tommy John surgery. He said everything is still on schedule for the 24th overall pick from the 2011 Draft.
  • Speaking of injuries, Lukevics said he expects Hak-Ju Lee to be in Minor League camp at some point in the next couple weeks and hopes to get a better gauge of the shortstop’s fitness then. Lee built a reputation as one of the Minor’s top defensive shortstops prior to a nasty knee injury early in 2013. He’ll have to play with a brace on the recovered knee and should begin the year with Triple-A Durham.
  • Last of the injury updates: Tampa Bay’s 2013 first-round pick (29th overall) Ryne Stanek is recovering from offseason hip surgery, and Lukevics has received promising reports from the Rays’ training staff. Lukevics was unsure of Stanek’s recovery timetable, but said the University of Arkansas product would likely spend time in extended spring training after he recovers.
  • I asked Lukevics about another 2013 first-round pick (21st overall), Nick Ciuffo, which led to an interesting conversation about developing high school players. I’ll let Lukevics explain: “I can’t stress that enough, how challenging it is for these young kids today. Away from home for the first time. They have apartments, have to cook a little bit, have to do a little laundry. Mom’s not around, dad’s not around. It’s a real eye-opener for them. Plus, they’re playing baseball. It’s really hot here. They come from all over the world, and now they’re playing against players from all over the world and they’re going, ‘Holy cow.'”It’s challenging, not only physically but mentally, when you have to take that on. Then a year goes by, two go by, and their skill catches up to everything and the really good ones, the skill surpasses that, and those become the good ones.”
  • I also talked to Lukevics about Grayson Garvin for a feature that ran early today over at MiLB.com, so be sure to check that out.

Before I called it a day, I had a tremendous conversation with Durham pitching coach Neil Allen about some of his strategies for motivating and helping young pitchers which led to a great story about how he helped Matt Moore when Allen coached the left-hander in the Minors:

“It was in his head that the mounds were bothering him on the road,” Allen said. “He goes, ‘The different mounds out there, they just bother me,’ and I went, ‘Alright.'”

The backfield complex here in Charlotte has four fields spread like a clover with the backstops all within 50 or so feet of each other. Allen instructed Moore to use all four of the fields, as well as each of the two side bullpens, in his side session later in the day.

“I took him to every mound out here,” he said. “Not a lot of pitches, maybe eight or 10 pitches on each field.

“We got our work in, but we went from mound to mound to mound to mound to mound to mound. He always kids me about that all the time. He goes, ‘I’m not throwing any more sides like that,’ and I say, ‘Well you’re the one who said the mounds were bothering you.’ So we don’t have that issue any more. “

For what it’s worth, Moore posted a 2.74 ERA on the road in 2013.

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