ST. PETERSBURG -- The way Mitch Lukevics describes it, Rays infield prospect Richie Shaffer is the poster boy for the difficult jump to a full-season Minor League team.
The Rays' director of Minor League operations said Shaffer, Tampa Bay's first-round pick in the 2012 First-Year Player Draft, "near wilted" during an often-challenging 2013 season with Class A Advanced Charlotte. But the 22-year-old corner infielder bounced back with a strong performance in the Arizona Fall League, hitting .277/.478/.362, and Lukevics said he was excited about Shaffer's next step.
"He survived it. He went to the Arizona Fall League and did well, and we expect him to be in Double-A and contribute and keep making progressions. But it wasn't easy," Lukevics said. "He came to us and we put him right in the fire. Mentally, he handled it. Physically, it was a challenge, but what a great learning experience. We expect great things from him at Double-A this season."
"I made my mistakes, just like every first-year player did, with poor eating choices or poor sleeping choices or whatever," added Shaffer on Wednesday at the Rays' annual Winter Development Camp. "But those are things that I've learned and that I can properly plan now this next season, and in the future, with how I go about preparing for games and preparing for the season."
Now, Shaffer will focus more on making himself a more versatile defensive player. He's only played third base professionally but also has past experience at first. Rays executive vice president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman said Shaffer will probably play third base again next season, but Tampa Bay hasn't decided whether he'll see some time in the outfield. The Rays have third base locked up for a long time with Evan Longoria on board, and first baseman James Loney just signed a three-year deal.
"Versatility is huge with any player in the Rays organization, and that includes myself. So the more positions that I can play, the more valuable I am to this organization," Shaffer said. "No other players can really affect what I have to do. I just have to focus on myself. I can't worry about who's ahead of me or whatever, because every player in the Major Leagues is an incredible player. I just have to handle my business, and when or if my time ever comes, then I need to make sure that I'm ready."
"Any guy that we can add some multipositional flexibility with, it just adds to their value," Friedman said. "He's a guy that has a lot of ability, and it's about kind of harnessing it and figuring it out. He's getting there. His work ethic is off the charts and something that I feel like he's on the right path."
Belnome, Riefenhauser knocking on Rays' door
ST. PETERSBURG -- In a clubhouse full of most of the Rays' top Minor League prospects, C.J. Riefenhauser and Vince Belnome still managed to stand out a little bit.
It's not just that Belnome, 25, was the oldest one in the room Wednesday for the Rays' Winter Development Camp, or that the 23-year-old Riefenhauser has already pitched under the spotlight of the All-Star Futures Game. They're both on the 40-man roster, but so are right-handers Jesse Hahn and Kirby Yates, though the latter was unable to make it to the camp from Hawaii.
No, it's more so that the two of them are realistically not far from the Majors. Belnome is an infielder who put up excellent offensive numbers last year with Triple-A Durham and presents the kind of defensive versatility that Tampa Bay desires. Riefenhauser is a bulldog lefty reliever who posted a 1.22 ERA in 2013 between Double-A Montgomery and Durham.
Riefenhauser was a 20th-round Draft pick in 2010, and Belnome was taken by the Padres in the 28th round a year earlier.
"Draft position only really matters in terms of your signing bonus -- and while that matters, once you get into the system, it's much more about who you are, how you perform and how your skills evolve," Rays executive vice president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman said. "Both of those guys are examples of not letting the Draft round affect their desire and quest to get to the big leagues."
Belnome said he believes he's ready to make the leap, and he hopes his versatility -- he's comfortable at second, third and first, and is willing to play anywhere -- will help make that a reality. Riefenhauser, meanwhile, worked more in the second half on a changeup that could help make him more than just a situational lefty in the Majors, and he said Wednesday he's "starting to get a good feel for it, so I'm excited."
Farm director Mitch Lukevics praised both players' professionalism, and they showed it when asked about being only a step away from the Majors.
"It's definitely exciting that it's in the mix. When, or when I'm ready, I have no idea. That's for them to decide," Riefenhauser said. "They're great at it. Look at their track record. I'm going to try to get better day in and day out, and see where it goes from there."
"Nothing's out of reach. No rosters are set or anything. They have guys that are obviously going to be on the team, but you never know," added Belnome. "If I go out there and do well, I could get sent down or I could make the team."
• Friedman said dealing with the Rays' seven arbitration-eligible players, including David Price, is his top priority leading up to Friday's 1 p.m. ET deadline to exchange figures. But Tampa Bay's front office is still "tinkering" with the roster, he said, though he added he has "no idea" if the roster will change at all before Spring Training begins.
"We're focused on how we can get every bit of value out of our 40-man spots, and also the depth behind it," Friedman said. "There are certain areas that we don't feel as covered as we'd like to, so we're kind of playing around with different scenarios of ways to address that."
• The Rays' season opener against the Blue Jays on March 31 will begin at 4:10 p.m. ET. Most of their Monday-Friday games will still start at 7:10 p.m. and Sunday games at 1:40 p.m. Saturday games will begin at 1:10, 4:10 or 7:10 p.m.
• Lukevics said shortstop prospect Hak-Ju Lee, who missed almost all of last season after tearing ligaments in his left knee, is recovering well and should be ready for Spring Training.
"Everything's expected for him to start the season, but there's a lot of offseason left," Lukevics said. "We're very encouraged with Hak and have our fingers crossed, because he's a key component for our organization."
• Held back by pitch-count limits each of the past two seasons, Jesse Hahn expects to be at full strength come Spring Training. The 24-year-old right-hander, a sixth-round pick in 2010 out of Virginia Tech, said he feels he is "at that stage where I can stay healthy throughout a season. ... I'm really looking forward to that."
Hahn, who was added to the 40-man roster this winter, hasn't been told yet if he'll be restricted to a certain number of innings in 2014, or where he'll be pitching, "but I'm going to go in there and compete for a spot, wherever that takes me."
• Shortstop Jake Hager will begin next season at Montgomery, Lukevics said. The 20-year-old hit .258/.318/.305 in 113 games for Charlotte last season and can make all the routine plays at his position, according to Lukevics. Drafted 32nd overall out of high school in 2011, Hager said he was "very excited" to be moving up and feels "real comfortable" knowing that Tampa Bay believes in him as a shortstop.