Competition is key at Rays Minor League camp

March 14th, 2022

PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. -- Many around baseball see the Rays as a primary example of how to win at the big league level and maintain and grow a strong farm system. Today in Minor League camp, the ingredient in the secret sauce was revealed.


OK, that’s not exactly a revelation, but the Rays' player development staff has really learned how to use the system’s impressive depth to almost self-replenish. Obviously, the scouting departments -- amateur, pro, international -- need to keep adding new talent, something they’ve shown tremendous acumen in doing, but once they become Rays, the staff has found the best way to get the most out of the players: the players themselves. And it was a lesson learned as a silver lining during the 2020 shutdown.

“At the alternate site in 2020, we had a bunch of guys from different levels all together,” Rays farm director Jeff McLerran said. “We've started to incorporate some of that within our drill work here. We're not just breaking guys down by the upper level guys, the recent Draft guys, the young guys. We’re trying to mix them all together. Younger guys can see from the older group how they go about their business. The older guys see the talent that is coming behind them. So that keeps their motor going to try to strive to stay ahead.”

On any given day, for example, you’ll see Greg Jones (age 24), Carson Williams (age 18) and Carlos Colmenarez (age 18) all working together at shortstop, all learning from each other, all pushing each other. It makes heading to the back fields every day this spring a really good time. 

“It's not something that we necessarily can create ourselves, but the players create that environment,” McLerran said. “You see the progress the guys make and how the competition kind of lifts everyone. 

“It’s fun to watch the waves of players coming through and getting to see them push each other. You can bounce from field to field. You might think all the good players are on Field 1 today, then you walk to Field 2, and you think maybe the best players are there. Each field has something. It makes it fun to come to the office every day.”

Camp standouts: Willy Vasquez and Carson Williams

One was signed out of the Dominican Republic in July 2019; the other was the Rays’ first-round pick in 2021, taken out of the California high school ranks at No. 28 overall. Vasquez is 20, Williams is 18, both played in the Florida Complex League last summer, both play shortstop, and both have been very impressive in the Rays’ early camp.

“They are two that have really turned the heads of our upper level staff who didn't get to see them because by the time Willy came over from the Dominican or Carson joined us from the Draft, they were off in their seasons,” McLerran said. “Just by them going through some drills, just going through live BP, just the physicality of both in the skill that they show, just in the short time I've seen them, they have stood out to the staff.”

Vasquez wows with how well he moves given how big and physical he is, with mobility almost as impressive as how hard he can hit the ball. Williams’ defense has improved his play at short and he clearly took strength and conditioning seriously this offseason, with his ability to impact the baseball a lot better than when he was an amateur.

“Those combinations of skills you don't always see, especially in young players like that,” McLerran said.

Prospects we’ll be talking about in 2023: The 2021 Charleston infield

Again, more depth. Curtis Mead kind of stole the show here, starting with Low-A Charleston, ending in Triple-A and capping it off with a strong showing in the Arizona Fall League. But he left behind a ton of other infield talent: Tanner Murray, Osleivis Basabe, Johan Lopez and even Alika Williams, who also got bumped up to High-A and then to Triple-A for the end of the year. All of them can play shortstop, which made it a little harder to fill out a lineup card. They all moved around quite a bit, seeing time at all four infield spots.

“We had to shuffle playing time around to kind of fit those guys together,” McLerran said. “That group kind of flew a little bit under the radar because there wasn’t the one shortstop, they weren’t the focal point of that team. But I think all of those guys, five, six years ago would have been top 10 prospects for us because of what they can do on the dirt as well as at the plate.

“I think as they get to those upper levels, some will probably reach Double-A at some point this year, I think they’re going to turn some heads, with the skill level that just hasn't gotten noticed.”

Something to prove: Nick Bitsko

Originally supposed to be part of the Draft Class of 2021, Bitsko finished high school early and reclassified for the 2020 Draft. The Rays loved his stuff and his upside, nabbing him with their first-round pick (No. 24) overall and giving him slightly over slot ($3 million) to sign. Since then… there’s been a lot of waiting.

When Bitsko takes to the mound in 2022 in a game, the first pitch he throws will be the first competitive pitch of his career. He had labrum surgery in Dec. 2020 and missed all of 2021, making it back for some instructional league games last fall, but that’s been it. The Rays are obviously going to proceed cautiously, ramping the big right-hander up slowly to monitor his workload, but everyone is thrilled seeing him doing actual pitching things this spring.

“He’s making progress,” McLerran said. “He's healthy, he’s thrown his first live BP and we’re building into it. I think people are excited to see what he can do.

“Not only looking at the stuff in some of the bullpens, but you can see the work ethic, the drive, the aptitude to make changes. He’s made some tweaks delivery-wise to lessen any injury risk moving forward. He has both the physical and mental aptitude to put those things in motion without too much struggle and that typically foreshadows some good things.”