ST. PETERSBURG -- With Carl Crawford now a member of the Red Sox, the Rays have big shoes to fill in left field, leading to constant speculation about who will be called upon to try and fill those shoes.
Justin Ruggiano hopes the Rays discover that the answer to their need is right under the nose.
The 28-year-old came to Tampa Bay on July 19, 2006, as the player to be named in a trade that sent left-hander Mark Hendrickson, catcher Toby Hall and cash to the Los Angeles Dodgers on June 27, 2006, in exchange for right-hander Jae Seo and catcher Dioner Navarro.
Since then, Ruggiano has had several cups of coffee with the Rays while proving to be a solid performer at Triple-A Durham. Save for a four-day stint with Tampa Bay in 2010 -- in which he did not get into a game -- he spent last season at Durham, where he hit .287 with 15 home runs, 70 RBIs and 24 stolen bases in 117 games.
During December's Winter Meetings, manager Joe Maddon spoke about a subject dear to him when he addressed the fact the Rays are not in the business of giving away Major League jobs.
"[A player] has to earn his way to that spot," Maddon said. "We talked about this a couple years ago. This was the entitlement program. This is the house of scholarship. We aren't that anymore. You have to earn your way to this team, and I love it.
"Something that we've talked about, it was maddening the first couple of years all these guys signed a big league contract with the Devil Rays, they're supposed to be in the big leagues in two years and do whatever they wanted to do. That was the culture at that time. It's changed, it's flipped, it's good. Now you have to earn that right to be there, and it's a very healthy atmosphere."
If indeed that is the case with the Rays, Ruggiano should have a good shot at winning the position, because, in fact, he has paid his dues. Of course, there will be many challenges to that possibility, including the athletic Desmond Jennings and Matt Joyce, who also is a contender for the right-field job. Through Ruggiano's eyes, the coming spring will be his best opportunity with Tampa Bay since joining the organization.
"I feel like there's always been Carl [in left field] and B.J. [Upton in center field], [Gabe] Kapler in right field," Ruggiano said. "Now I feel like there is a spot open, and it's open for competition. I'm going into it as if it's my best opportunity. I'm going to fight for a job in the spring.
"Hopefully the organization likes what they see out of me. I definitely have the at-bats in the Minor Leagues and feel like I've done everything I can there. So I'm ready for the next step and I'm ready for the challenge."
In the past, Ruggiano has seemingly been right on track to join the Rays as a fourth outfielder. He has some power, can run and is a plus outfielder. When Ruggiano had an outstanding spring in 2009, he appeared earmarked to begin the season with the team, but the club went with Joyce instead. Such decisions are hard to take for someone aspiring to reach the Major Leagues, but Ruggiano now looks at the organization's decision to leave him at Durham as a positive.
"I'm hoping that this persistence I have is going to pay off," Ruggiano said. "It's been a mental grind, but I've also learned to -- it may sound cheesy, but just don't quit. You can only control what you're doing out on the field every day. I want to prove day in and day out that I can play this game and that I can play it at a high level. I guess the most important thing I've learned is that you need to stay within yourself -- quit worrying about what other people are saying, what other people are doing."
Truly embracing the "stay within yourself" concept is not easy, though. Ruggiano confessed that it took him a while to understand the concept.
"And a lot of coaches will tell you exactly that," Ruggiano said. "But as a younger guy, you kind of blow that off and you're like, 'I want it now, I want immediate results.' And 'I want to be in the big leagues.' And 'Why am I not there?'"
Ruggiano's 2010 campaign included a stint on the disabled list when he tore his left biceps while swinging, and he suffered an oblique injury while playing in Mexico during the past offseason. But now he's healthy. He's hitting three times a week at his home in Rockwell, Texas, working out in the gym and running. In short, he's ready to fight for a job.
"As a player, I've been through everything, I've had downs and ups and the in-betweens," Ruggiano said. "I know people might laugh if I say I feel like a veteran. But to me, I feel like a Minor League veteran, and now I feel like I'm ready to embark on a strong rookie year and see how that translates to Major League success."
Bill Chastain is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.