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Finding hidden bullpen gems key to Rays' success

ST. PETESRBURG -- Finding bullpen pieces has been an integral part of the Rays' success since 2008.

Normally, it's a veteran reliever signed to a Minor League deal with an invite to Major League camp. In the past, the Rays have seen the likes of Joel Peralta, Randy Choate, Joaquin Benoit, Lance Cormier and Juan Cruz, to name a few, come aboard via Minor League deals and contribute in a big way.

Choate, who now pitches for the Cardinals, shed light on the experience of being a Major Leaguer and having to sign a Minor League deal when the veteran left-hander spoke about the situation he faced prior to joining Tampa Bay in 2009.

"I didn't really have any other options," said Choate, who described having his hand forced after enduring a "roller-coaster" year in 2008. "So I had to go to the Dominican [for winter ball], and I pitched pretty well."

Despite pitching well in the Dominican Winter League, Choate's agent informed him that the Rays wanted to sign him to a Minor League deal, adding, "But they're going to invite you to camp."

"I'm like, 'Is that all there is? Is that all I really have?'" Choate said. "He told me, 'This is going to be your best opportunity, I'm going to tell you that. They have J.P. Howell and don't really have any other lefties.'"

So Choate signed a Minor League deal, "basically because I had to and didn't have anywhere else to go."

"You're always looking for an invite to camp so they can at least see you," he said.

Tampa Bay ended up signing Brian Shouse, another veteran left-hander, before camp, which pretty much determined Choate's fate.

"I got sent down about halfway through camp," Choate said. "They were honest with me. They were like, 'Hey, we just don't have enough innings for you here. We can't get you work, so we're going to send you to Minor League camp.'"

Despite getting sent to Minor League camp, Choate continued to pitch for the Major League club during Spring Training games and was told by pitching coach Jim Hickey that the Rays loved his ground-ball ratio, but Shouse was going to be the guy. But they wanted Choate to know that he remained on their radar.

In turn, Choate told Tampa Bay how much he liked the organization, but he pointed out he had an out in his contract that he would have to exercise if he wasn't in the Major Leagues by June, because he knew he was going to pitch well enough to merit a spot in the bigs.

Subsequently, Choate joined the Rays in May, leading to 146 appearances in his two seasons with the team.

"[Tampa Bay] treated me so well that I would definitely take less to return there if it ever came to that," Choate said. "Playing for Joe [Maddon] and the Rays was a great experience for me."

Bill Chastain is a reporter for
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