When minor league spring training started earlier this month, there were 137 players that began preparing for the 2012 season. Since then, some players have been released by the organization and others have joined the fold after being reassigned from big league camp.
The man in charge of overseeing it all is Director of Minor League Operations Mitch Lukevics. I caught up with him earlier in camp and asked him about his job as the head of the Rays farm system and how he and his staff went about the monumental task of teaching, developing and evaluating all of the young players in camp.
There are many theories on how and why the Rays assign players to different levels each season. There are those that think that the franchise is overly-cautious when moving players through the system (especially high school players) and others that think that these decisions are somewhat pre-determined before spring training even starts.
In order to get clarification on just what the organization's philosophy is on player development, when I sat down with Lukevics for our interview, I asked him about minor league spring training and how the evaluation process works. As he answered my questions, one thing became inherently clear: the process is not as complicated as one might think. There isn't some secret formula or pre-determined timeline for each player. While the factors that go into determining where each player is assigned cover all facets of a player's physical and mental abilities, the final decision boils down to one thing - do what is right for the player.
Lukevics on players from the 2011 draft class who didn't play last season and how they are evaluated: "We didn't get to see them a lot. We got to see Mikie [Mahtook] in Instructs and at the Arizona Fall League. We didn't see Taylor [Guerrieri] until Instructional League. So what happens - for some of them - when you don't get to see them, is that you really don't know. Spring training is a big time for all of them. They're getting to know us and we're getting to know them. Mikie had a little bit of an advantage going to the Arizona Fall League. He's a high-pick, college guy and certainly he merited the opportunity to go out there and show that he could compete at that level."
"It gives us an advantage, because we're always evaluating. We know what our scouts see and we talk to them all the time about who we're selecting. Then we get them and work with them every day. Now we have to re-evaluate in sense and place them where we think is the best place for their career at this time."
Lukevics on how much teaching and developing occurs during spring training versus player evaluation: "It's always teaching and developing. It doesn't stop, whether it's in the extended program or at Durham. All along we are evaluating at the same time, whether it's when we are doing drills or in a game. You just don't evaluate during game action. You're seeing what kind of range an infielder might have just by doing drills. When we take infield and outfield, how does their arm play? Does it play for a corner outfielder or is he more of a center fielder because of his speed and so forth. The evaluation part is always ongoing."
"Then we're seeing how these young men adapt. Can they handle a full-season club? Are they ready? Some guys could be ready physically, but they're not ready mentally. There are other kids who are ready mentally, but not physically. At the end of the day we have our meetings and we discuss each player. It's simple. Let's put player so-and-so at the best place for him."
"Lukevics on spring training work groups: "It's based on age and experience for the most part. Obviously our more experienced players are in our Durham work group. It's not a Durham roster, it's a Durham work group, because most of our Durham ball club is in the big league camp. So when we get those bump-downs, everyone is placed more-or-less along the lines of where we think that individual will start out at."
Lukevics on evaluating game performance vs. evaluating talent: The big thing is, when we evaluate we want to do it over the course of a full season - 550 at bats or 22 to 23 starts. The game is made of streaks and slumps. You can have a streak here and you can have a slump there. We base a lot of this off of what a guy did over the course of a full season - a longer body of work then spring training. The players we don't know, we are evaluating here to see where they fit in. We want to do what's best for them."
Lukevics on who and what he is watching during spring training workouts and games: "I'm watching everybody. Everybody and everything. How are they reacting to the opposition? How are they reacting to what good they do? How are they reacting to failure? I'm just getting back into the swing of things and watching baseball. Are these kids running hard home to first? How are they on and off the field? Even in a loss there are some positives. You want to see if a young man who works in the morning on his craft now figures it out and takes it into to a game. You're going 'Hey Jimmy, he couldn't do that before. How about that? Isn't that a real good thing?' It's ongoing. It never stops. It's all good."
John Gregg is Publisher and Senior Editor of Rays Digest. You can follow him on Twitter at @RaysDigest. He can also be reached via e-mail at email@example.com.
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