Spring Training presents a great opportunity for fans to see the players who will become the future of the Major League team. But for now, most of them will provide depth at the Triple-A level. Looking at the players in Rays camp who are earmarked for Triple-A Durham, it's easy to project that Tampa Bay's highest Minor League team will be loaded for bear.
"We're trying to get [Durham manager] Charlie [Montoyo] some more awards," Rays manager Joe Maddon said. "Put him back on the tour again next year. It's a good group, and they're young. There's a lot of youth involved."
Maddon referred to the fact Montoyo's Bulls captured the International League crown in 2009 as well as the Triple-A title, earning Montoyo much postseason recognition.
Looking at the players in Rays camp and all of the possibilities, Maddon surmised that Durham should be a force.
"They will have a nice blend of veterans and youngsters," Maddon said. "You know they're going to help you down the road.
"A lot of times, the Triple-A team is pretty much a holding tank based on what you need, primarily older guys. It's nice when you have a couple of those and some really nice youngsters involved, and then we have some below them, too. It's a very fertile moment right now."
Maddon pointed out that having youngsters pushing from below if anyone falters or is injured is even more important, given the way the Rays do business.
"We have to have one eye here and one on the future," Maddon said. "We have to have that for us to be successful annually.
"We have to turn out our own product. We have to be able to do that. Right now, I feel pretty good about that. The thing that's happening in this camp, I know we're getting on the same page as far as the Major and Minor Leagues. We're finally into that point where there is no gap at all. It's really coming together nicely."
Nothing has been set yet, but the Durham lineup could have Dan Johnson or Joe Dillon at third base; Reid Brignac, Sean Rodriguez and Elliot Johnson at shortstop and second, respectively; Chris Richard or Ryan Shealy at first; John Jaso at catcher and an outfield of Fernando Perez, Justin Ruggiano and Desmond Jennings.
Meanwhile, the pitching staff will have Jeremy Hellickson and perhaps Andy Sonnanstine and Carlos Hernandez among the starters, with Jake McGee possibly starting or relieving and Dale Thayer as the closer.
In other words, Durham should have a team that would have rivaled some of the Rays' Major League teams from yesteryear.
"I'm hoping all the kids who played for me make the club," said Montoyo with a smile. "That's not possible."
Montoyo believes Durham will have "some good insurance for the big league club" in 2010.
"This year, again, we've got good depth for the big league club, and I'm happy about that," Montoyo said. "If the big league club is happy, everybody is happy."
The Durham manager believes in the organizational concept and how the Triple-A team helps the Major League club any way it can.
"That's part of my job, and I love that fact," Montoyo said. "It looks like we're going to have guys that, whoever is doing well is going to help whenever the big league club needs it. I think -- of my three years in Triple-A -- this is the year we will have more players who can come up and help."
Montoyo particularly enjoys this phase of Spring Training, when he gets to see the kids he managed at Durham compete against Major Leaguers.
"Not only are they good players, they're good kids," Montoyo said. "They love the game and they love to play the game right. Our scouting department has done a great job of that, signing not only good players but great kids. Jennings is the same way; so is Hellickson."
Some day in the future, Montoyo knows he'll be able to perform one of his favorite duties with many of the players.
"One of the things I love about Triple-A is telling a guy he's going to the big leagues," Montoyo said. "That's the best part. It doesn't matter if he's been in the big leagues 10 years or he's never been there."
Bill Chastain is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.