It may not seem fair, to other organizations at least, that the pitching depth extends to the bottom rungs of the system. Much of this embarrassment of riches is on display in instructional league action in Port Charlotte this fall.
There are 2007 draftees Matt Moore and Nick Barnese. Moore led all of the Minor Leagues in strikeouts and batting average against in his first taste of full-season ball and was considered one of the top prospects in the South Atlantic League. Barnese joined Moore in Bowling Green later on after dealing with some shoulder tendinitis and was very impressive over his 15 starts there.
A half-step behind that duo -- though perhaps not for long -- is 2008 supplemental first-round pick Kyle Lobstein. All he did was finish in the top 10 in a host of pitching categories in the short-season New York-Penn League for his pro debut. It's a good time to be a part of the Rays player development staff.
"You can never have enough pitching," said Rays farm director Mitch Lukevics, echoing one of the truer adages in baseball. "Everyone knows it. Everyone tries to develop their own. It's huge because we're a small-market club."
Lukevics looks around instructs and likes what he sees. Camp is full of good body types and arms, guys who came to the organization with really good stuff. "A pitching coach's dream," is how Lukevics put it.
Lobstein, the 20-year-old lefty who came out of the Arizona high school ranks, is more than just a strong arm, however. His feel for pitching, his command of his three-pitch arsenal, is a big reason why he was allowed to make his debut in the short-season NY-Penn League, rather than down a level with Princeton in the Appalachian League, the Rays' usual course of action for their young arms.
"Kyle Lobstein had a head start because he could throw strikes from day one," Lukevics explained. "Does he have to sharpen his breaking ball? Absolutely. Does he need to work on his arm speed for his changeup? Yes. But because of his ability to throw strikes, with all three pitches, we felt he could take on [the NY-Penn League]."
"I'm not sure if I am more advanced than other guys as far as knowing the game and the mental side of the game," said Lobstein, who had a 2.58 ERA, a .204 batting average against and better than a strikeout per inning with Hudson Valley this summer. "It's definitely a huge part of it. As far as me going to Hudson Valley as opposed to Princeton, I thought it was going to be a huge jump. After my first couple of stays, when I had some trouble, then I calmed down, used what I know to get through the season. Every day in pro baseball you're learning something. You try to reinforce what they're teaching you with what you already know and just try to build on it."
That process has continued in instructs. With more than 20 pitchers in camp and just a 15-game schedule, which concluded on Friday, there weren't exactly an abundance of innings to go around. At instructs, though, that was secondary as the Rays instructors could work on things like delivery and tempo with Lobstein more closely in bullpen sessions.
"To be honest, it's nicer," Lobstein said. "It's more laid back, you get more time off, especially after my first season. It's nice to get more rest in between outings. The big things are throwing bullpens on the side. During the season you get in the routine, you want to maintain and stay where you're at, rather than try to work on a lot of stuff. Down here, it's a great time to work on what you reallly need to. The games don't matter as much. It's a working environment."
Between extended Spring Training and his time at Hudson Valley, Lobstein was pretty much at his innings quota anyway, so it works out for everyone. It was a fantastic way for Lukevics and his staff to take stock and continue to cultivate this next wave of progress, hopefully to be the next Price, Niemann, Shields or Davis.
"It's great," Lukevics said. "It all starts with the selection process. They do a great job in the Draft and in international selection. You see these guys progress and it's very gratifying from top to bottom."
And it's a great motivator. It's not just the coaches and staff who look up and see those young arms contributing in Tampa Bay. There's no question Lobstein and his fellow prospects watch what's going on at the top with great interest and that it works as a serious motivator.
"It really does," Lobstein said. "All those guys in the starting rotation came through the system. It really opens your eyes and helps you see that they went through all the things you're going through right now. It helps you stay focused and buy into what they're doing down here. If you're struggling, you think about it. It helps put you at ease and you keep pushing to work hard for it. You know there's room for you to do it as well."