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Rays' Draft goes mostly according to plan

With preparations finished, attention turns to signing players

ST. PETERSBURG -- The Rays started off the First-Year Player Draft on the right foot Thursday night, selecting a catcher they had their eyes on and a pitcher they did not expect to fall their way late in the first round.

Three days later, they believe they managed to keep up that pace throughout the 40-round Draft, which concluded Saturday night. They took 20-plus players from the college ranks along with more than a dozen high school players. They selected 24 pitchers, nine infielders, six outfielders and two catchers.

And the one thing that stood out to scouting director R.J. Harrison on Saturday night, after three days and 40 rounds and 41 picks, was that they picked the players they were most comfortable with -- that everything went according to plan, and sometimes better.

"We never had to reach down for players; we drafted players at or were able to get guys that we liked even at a higher level, that we would've considered at a higher level," Harrison said. "I would say this: We didn't get very many bad hops in this Draft. We never were in a position where we felt uncomfortable or we were scrambling. ... Off of our Draft board, we felt great about what we did."

That started at the top, with catcher Nick Ciuffo, the 21st overall pick selected out of Lexington (S.C.) High School. It is arguably the weakest position in Tampa Bay's system, and the club has never had a great deal of success drafting or developing front-line catchers. That is what made Ciuffo, a high-energy left-handed hitter who should remain behind the dish, such an appealing option to them.

"We think he is a really good prospect on both sides of the ball; the fact that he's a left-handed hitter helps," executive vice president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman said. "But it's an area throughout the industry that I think there's really a dearth of really good catching prospects. So to be able to add one that also hits from the left side is something that's really exciting for us."

And the Rays were just as excited to have a chance to pick University of Arkansas right-hander Ryne Stanek, rated by as the No. 12 overall Draft prospect. Tampa Bay had been interested in Stanek since he was in high school -- Brian Hickman, the area scout who was on Ciuffo this year, was actually on Stanek back then -- and the Rays were at least prepared for the possibility that he might slip through the cracks and down to them with the 29th overall pick.

As patient as Tampa Bay is with its prospects, particularly its pitchers, Friedman acknowledged that Stanek's experience in the Southeastern Conference could help him reach the Majors before too long.

"I don't think we really fast-track anyone," Friedman said. "But on a relative scale, I think he has a chance to get here pretty quickly."

The Draft continued from there, with the Rays selecting high school shortstop Riley Unroe to round out Day 1 and athletic center fielder Thomas Milone to begin Day 2. They picked up a few players with recognizable baseball names -- Kean Wong and Aaron Griffin, most notably -- and a balanced group of players they hope to add to their player-development system as soon as possible.

And though the picks come quicker and the names shrink to a lower profile on Day 3, Harrison said the Rays' Draft room was no less involved on Saturday. On several occasions, he referenced two players currently thriving for Double-A Montgomery: center fielder Kevin Kiermaier and lefty reliever C.J. Riefenhauser. That is because Riefenhauser was taken in the 20th round of the 2010 Draft, and Kiermaier was picked 11 rounds after that.

In fact, when Harrison asked Friedman for his "pref list" entering Day 3, Friedman responded with a simple objective.

"He said, 'Get us another Kiermaier or Riefenhauser,'" Harrison said.

Of course, whether that happened Saturday remains to be seen. It usually takes at least a few years to properly evaluate the success or failure of a Draft. But from 11th-round pick Hunter Lockwood to 40th-rounder Ryan Henley, the Rays felt good about what they accomplished Saturday.

"We bear down all the way through," Harrison said. "It just takes one guy out of all this to pop through to change your whole Draft.

"I'm telling you, our guys did a great job, especially in the Draft room, of grinding through all the reports and any intel that we had to try to pull out the best of these guys. ... Because we're fortunate enough to have those extra [Minor League affiliates], we have an opportunity to give more guys opportunities. In the cases with a lot of these [college] senior players, they get an opportunity to go out and play and it's up to them to go out and impress player development enough to get invited back to Spring Training."

For that to happen, the Rays must first get those players signed and out on the field. That part of the process will earn the bulk of Harrison and his staff's focus from Saturday going forward. But after three days picking those 41 players, and countless hours before that spent evaluating them, Harrison could look back positively on the Rays' Draft as a whole.

"I thought the first day was outstanding, and I thought we rolled right into yesterday and kept it going," Harrison said. "I thought that we did a really good job today."

Adam Berry is a reporter for Follow him on Twitter at @adamdberry.
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