By BOB REDD
Bluefield Daily Telegraph
Brandon Backe, Rocco Baldelli, Wes Bankston, Reid Brignac, Alex Colome, Humbero Cota, Carl Crawford, Wade Davis, Yurendell Decaster, Bartolome Fortunato, Jonny Gomes, Edgar Gonzalez, Josh Hamilton, Jason Hamilton, Jeremy Hellickson, Paul Hoover, James Houser, Delvin James, Desmond Jennings, Elliot Johnson, Joe Kennedy, Pete Laforest, Seth McClung, Jake McGee, Matt Moore, Travis Phelps, Jason Pridie, Jeff Ridgway, Shawn Riggans, Juan Salas, Jared Sandberg, Travis Schlichting, Chris Seddon Jason Standridge, Brian Stokes, Jose Veras, Doug Waechter and Victor Zambrano. What do all of these men have in common?
They all played for the Princeton Devil Rays or Rays and have made major league rosters since 2001.
In the past 12 years, 38 P-Rays have traversed the baseball ladder and reached what is called “The Show.” The first P-Ray to do so was Travis Phelps who played in Princeton in 1998 and made it to the bigs in 2001.
Now as a point of clarification, there are approximately 20 other players who played for the Princeton Pirates, Patriots and Reds who have played in the bigs, but those who have gone through as P-Rays are part of what’s known as the “Tampa Bay Way.”
Mitch Lukevics is Director of Minor League Operations for the Tampa Bay. A former college and professional pitcher, Lukevics is responsible for developing players in the Rays’ nine-team farm system. He explained the “Tampa Bay Way.”
“The Tampa Bay Way is selecting the right raw resource, having a great player development staff who will teach, educate and instruct, and have great patience with young players,” Lukevics explained.
“Players come from all over the world, all over the United States, from different cultures, different socio-economic environments. You can’t assume anything and in order to get the best out of them, to reach their potential, you must have patience.
“I think what scouting does with getting the right raw resource and the staff you have in implementing philosophy and doing it the Rays Way, with great patience you have a chance for success.”
Tampa Bay played its first major league game in 1997 and for the first several years of the team’s existence it had the worst record in the majors. However, the team reached its highest point of success in 2008, reaching the World Series and since then has been a team constantly in the American League playoffs.
Lukevics said the key is player development, scouting and patience.
“You have to stay the course. You can’t deviate from that. Early on we had a lot of high picks. After that not as many, but Desmond Jennings played here, he was a 10th round pick. Matt Moore was an eighth round pick. Matt spent two years with the Princeton Rays. So you can see with the younger players we have more patience and you have to stay with the plan,” Lukevics pointed out.
“You can’t panic when the cycles aren’t going your way. It’s easy to panic and not have patience sometimes with your young players, but slow is better than fast and kid learn at different rates. If you push too much they can regurgitate information and they are not going to retain it. If they do not retain it, it becomes a problem. So patience is a virtue in our development.”
Tampa Bay has four Rookie League teams of which Princeton is the highest level. There are teams in the Venezuelan Summer League (VSL), Dominican Summer League (DSL) and Gulf Coast League (GCL) where many members of the Princeton Rays played prior to coming to the Appalachian League.
Above Princeton on the ladder is Class A short season Hudson Valley of the New York-Penn League; Bowling Green of the Class A full season Midwest League, and Class A full season Charlotte (Fla.) of the Florida State League. The top rungs on the Tampa Bay minor league ladder are Class AA Montgomery of the Southern League and Class AAA Durham of the International League.
While fans are mostly fixated on their local teams winning games and championships, that is not always the most important thing with minor league baseball, where the goal is to develop players for the next and higher levels of professional baseball.
Prior to the start of the 2013 Appalachian League season, Princeton manager Danny Sheaffer talked about the importance of player development.
“At the end of the day if we end up winning a ball game and we end up costing development because of that, we haven’t done our job. If we end up losing a ball game and we end up developing a player to be a better major league player, or a player at a higher level, we’ve exceeded expectations and that’s what we want to do,” Sheaffer pointed out.
Jim Holland has been general manager of the professional baseball teams in Princeton since the 1993 season, first with the Princeton Reds, and since 1997 the Princeton team affiliated with the Tampa Bay organization.
“We’ve put up 38 players in 12 years,” Holland said. “Every farm director will tell you that is what this league is all about, developing players. The fact that we’ve put up 38 in 12 years, I would believe that we are close to being King of the Hill for the most players going to the big leagues in the last 12 years.”
Lukevics said each major league organization has its own way of doing things and while Tampa Bay and many others can never do things the way big market teams like the Yankees, Red Sox, Dodgers and Angels operate, they have found a way to compete, develop players and make the playoffs.
“We are never going to be able to do it like the major market clubs,” Lukevics said. “We have nine teams, 290 players. We have five short-season teams then the four long-season clubs. We believe in our people. We believe in how our guys select the players. Slow and steady is good, stay the course.
“I don’t know what the other clubs do. Oakland has had their struggles and they’ve been successful early. They were in a little lull and now they’ve come back and are doing a really good job. Minnesota, over the years has done a good job with scouting and player development.
“We all see what each other does at a distance, but we don’t know what each other team does up close. We know what we do. We review what we do all the time to stay current. We don’t believe in doing the same mistake over and we want to learn from our mistakes and try to better the system and that starts with a really good staff and candid conversation, always looking to get better.”
— Contact Bob Redd at