PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. -- For much of the last decade, the Rays' player-development program has hummed along, methodically graduating one impact player after another. Last year, Wil Myers and Chris Archer advanced to the Major Leagues and finished first and third in the American League Rookie of the Year Award voting. This year, right-hander Jake Odorizzi and possibly shortstop Hak-Ju Lee, who are both ranked among MLB.com's Top 100 Prospects, are expected to push their way to the big leagues with Tampa Bay at some point.
While every player is different and the Rays have effectively used trades as well as the First-Year Player Draft and the international market to acquire young talent, their approach largely remains the same.
"You don't go from first grade to sixth grade to 12th grade. There's a process along the way," director of player development Mitch Lukevics said. "For the most part, it's slow and steady, especially early in their career.
"It's hard for them to jump leagues early. You want them to be at a level where they're challenged, yet have success."
Lukevics said he thinks the Rays' conservative approach can frustrate the players at times, but that they ultimately come to understand the team's method and appreciate the process. Having so many homegrown players in the Major Leagues who once went through the same process doesn't hurt either.
Outfielder Andrew Toles, Tampa Bay's 2013 Minor League Player of the Year, said knowing the Rays' system has had so much success is reassuring.
"It's comforting because you know they came through the same shoes you did," he said. "You know you're in good hands."
Several new Rays will hope to follow in the footsteps of Toles. At No. 6, catcher Nick Ciuffo, the 21st overall selection in last year's Draft, is the highest ranked new acquisition on the MLB.com's latest Top 20 Prospect list for the club. He is joined by right-handers Nate Karns, acquired in the Jose Lobaton deal, and Ryne Stanek, a fellow 2013 first-round pick.
They represent the next wave of talent in Tampa Bay's Minor League organization. With the realities of the Rays' financial status, their success, like that of all the club's young players, will go a long way to determining the team's future successes.
Lukevics said the player development staff is keenly aware of their importance in the organization.
"We embrace the pressure that this is our lifeline," Lukevics said. "We know what's at stake. We know where we're at when it comes to market size. We know where we're at when it comes to revenue and so forth. We as a staff -- scouting and player development and international -- all of us know where we're at and know that we have to be at the top of our game in order for our Major League club to have success."
Three questions with Nick Ciuffo
The Rays selected Ciuffo with their top selection and the 21st overall pick in the 2013 Draft.
MLBPipeline.com: After you signed last year, you went to the Gulf Coast League. What was the adjustment from high school baseball to that like?
Ciuffo: One thing I never really understood was [the expression], "The game speeds up." People were always like, "The game speeds up, the game speeds up." Well, I've never had the game speed up on me before. Through middle school to high school, it never really made that jump. Right after high school coming here, it was like the game went from 10 mph to 1,000 mph. I didn't play for two weeks, but I was able to watch. You can't really tell how fast the game is going until you get in there. That first day I got in there, there were hundreds of things going through my mind. I'm trying to tell this guy to do this and this guy to do that. But it was really fun. To get my feet wet and get 50 games or whatever it was under my belt in my first half season was good for me.
MLBPipeline.com: What's been the biggest difference for you in professional baseball?
Ciuffo: Having to control more things now. Really controlling the pitching staff now. I controlled the pitching staff in high school, but I didn't call pitches. I was able to communicate with them, but now I really control the pitching staff and you've got to let guys know where to be on this and that. It was really just a lot. It was a lot to go through my 18-year-old head.
MLBPipeline.com: What do you want to accomplish this season?
Ciuffo: I just want to get better every day. That's all you can really ask for. You can't say, "OK, I want to hit .300," or "I want to put up a year like Andrew Toles had," because when you put pressure on yourself like that, it's hard to live up to your own expectations. For me, it's just to go out and work hard every day and get more flexible every day and hit balls hard and throw guys out.
Camp Standout: C.J. Riefenhauser
Since the Rays drafted him in the 20th round in 2010, Riefenhauser has steadily worked his way through the Minor Leagues. The left-hander largely had been under the radar until 2013, when he was named to the Futures Game, replacing injured Tampa Bay right-hander Taylor Guerreri. Riefenhauser made the most of the opportunity, throwing a scoreless inning. He earned a spot on the 40-man roster after the season and has pitched well in big league camp this spring.
Lukevics said Riefenhauser is close to Major League ready, but he still has room to improve.
"In C.J.'s case, continuing to improve on the changeup against right-handed hitters is paramount for his career," Lukevics said. "And he has great ability and has done it, but he has to do it with more regularity. And that's what the Minor Leagues are all about."
In four appearances this spring, Riefenhauser has thrown three scoreless innings. His low-90s fastball and slider are likely enough to make him a left-handed specialist, but developing a consistent, effective changeup would give him the chance to one day play a larger role in the Rays' bullpen.
Breakout candidate: Oscar Hernandez
As good as Tampa Bay's development system has been in recent years, it has struggled to cultivate catchers. But Lukevics said he thinks the quality of catching prospects in the system has improved.
"I feel better now than ever about the prospects of the Rays developing their own catcher," he said. "I think now we're in a position that we're going to see some of them in the next couple years make an impact here with the Rays."
One young catcher who has a chance to do just that is Hernandez, a 20-year-old native of Venezuela. He hasn't hit well in short-season ball since coming to the U.S., but stands out for his defensive skills. Hernandez has a strong arm and is a good receiver, so if his bat comes around a bit, he'll quickly become a player to watch.