ST. PETERSBURG -- The 2011 First-Year Player Draft concluded on Wednesday, and the Rays are hoping to see the players they picked follow in the footsteps of other prospects.
The Rays have dug into their farm system for help this season, most notably bringing up pitcher Alex Cobb and left fielder Justin Ruggiano.
The pair have not disappointed as Cobb recorded his first-career Major League win on Tuesday and Ruggiano hit his second home run of the year on Monday.
Tampa Bay's Minor League system is full of other highly touted prospects. Center fielder Desmond Jennings, who is currently playing in Triple-A with the Durham Bulls, is at the top of the list.
"He's a wonderfully gifted athlete," said Mitch Lukevics, who is Tampa Bay's director of Minor League operations. "When you have that gift, it's a matter of experience, it's a matter of him learning the game and understanding the game, so when he gets the opportunity, he's prepared to take the it on at the Major League level."
The Rays' No. 1 rated prospect is hitting .269, with nine home runs, 26 RBIs and 10 stolen bases this season. Jennings, who is 24 years old and was drafted in the 10th round in 2006, appeared in 17 games for Tampa Bay last season and hit .190. He could make a return to big leagues soon, though. The 2006 Draft also netted Cobb and Evan Longoria.
Lukevics said Jennings, second baseman Brandon Guyer, and catchers Robinson Chirinos and Jose Lobaton are "on the verge" of playing in the Major Leagues.
Guyer is putting up impressive numbers in Triple-A with a .317 batting average and nine home runs. Meanwhile, Chirinos struggled to begin the season, but has his average back up to .263 with Durham.
Also in Durham, Lobaton, a switch batter, has put together a more even season than Chirinos. He is hitting .308, with six homers and 21 RBIs in 34 games.
At the other end of the farm system, Tampa Bay's trio of 2010 first-round picks are further away from playing in the big leagues, but progress is being made.
Outfielders Josh Sale and Drew Vettleson, along with catcher Justin O'Conner, who were taken on Day 1 of the 2010 First-Year Player Draft, are not on a full-season club this year. Instead, they are taking part in an extended spring training program in Port Charlotte, Fla.
"All three have done well," Lukevics said. "It's a tough grind in the extended spring training program -- no fans, no night games. But it's good training for those boys."
Sale, Vettleson and O'Conner will join a short-season club soon, and the plan is for them to join a full-season team in 2012.
That they are in an extended spring training program is "not an indictment at all," Lukevics said. "You always want to place players where they can compete, where they can be challenged and not embarrassed. For some going out to a full-season club isn't right for them.
"We would be disappointed, to say the least, if all three of those young men didn't make a full-season club after this season."
The one common thread between each of these players is that they are all given a chance by the Rays, who take pride in grooming prospects within their farm system.
"We have a lot of patience," Lukevics said. "That starts at the top, and they allow us to have patience -- that's really the key."
Anthony Chiang is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.