For most of this past summer in Princeton, W. Va., the future of the Rays — draft class of 2010, anyway — didn't look too promising.
Drew Vettleson, the outfielder chosen 42nd overall by the Rays, alternated warm-and-cold on his way to hitting .282 in his first pro season. Justin O'Conner, the catcher selected 31st, rallied in the final 10 games to finish with a .157 average.
And Josh Sale, the well-muscled outfielder they took 17th overall, marked his arrival with a homer in his first pro at-bat but hit only three more on the way to a .210 showing.
A couple months away have eased their disappointment, and when they gathered at the Trop last week with 25 other prospects for the team's Winter Development Program, that future was again looking a little brighter.
"There's frustration," Sale said. "But I think that gives me more incentive to come back even stronger and be like, 'Look, the first year I hit .210, and I'm tired of it already.' So I'm going to do all I can to not hit .210 again."
The transition from prep star to low-level minor-leaguer is often challenging. And eye-opening.
"They learn how difficult the game is," Rays farm director Mitch Lukevics said. "I think that happens to most young kids when they come in as highly touted as they are."
That lesson was especially stark for Sale and Vettleson, who didn't play in 2010 because they held out until the August signing deadline and found out abruptly how different their worlds had become.
"I came down to spring training and I stepped on the field and I was like, there's a lot of good players here," said Sale, 20. "I'm not just the top dog from the (Pacific) Northwest now."
The level of surrounding talent was one thing. So was the time and effort required, from the first workouts through extended spring training and the 68-game Appalachian League season.
"I didn't know what to expect at all," said Vettleson, 20. "In the offseason, I thought I was working hard, but I really wasn't. Coming down here the first time doing all these workouts, I was dying. I was dead. I was like, 'Wow, I really need to pick it up.' "
And just when Vettleson felt he had it figured out, he went hitless in his last 22 at-bats.
"My mind was just thinking, your body is done," he said. "Once that happens, it's hard to recover from that. I hit a wall."
The mind games can be even more of an issue than what happens in the games.
"The main problem I had was looking at my stats every day, and worrying about the stats," said O'Conner, 19, who signed early enough to play in the 2010 Gulf Coast League, hitting .210. "And it just got in my head and snowballed from there."
As important as learning to recognize pitches and hit to the middle of the field is accepting the requisite patience.
"When the Rays first told me they were an organization that takes things slow and is going to develop, I was like, 'I want to get there now,' " Sale said. "But that's just something you can't — the best of the best don't usually do that. … It's a process.
"You've got to put in the work. You've got to put in the hours. You've got to get your rest. You've got to do everything you can do so you can better your chances to get to the major leagues."
As these three analyzed their initial experiences in one corner of the home clubhouse they all hope to soon occupy, the top two picks from 2011 were talking excitedly — and perhaps naively — about their futures.
Outfielder Mikie Mahtook, the 31st overall pick out of LSU, at least had the benefit of 18 mostly successful games in the Arizona Fall League (where he hit .338 with a .954 OPS) to support his confidence. "I learned a lot about myself and the type of game I have and what I need to be able to get better at," said Mahtook, 22. "It's a big advantage to me. … I'll be able to come into spring training ready to play and build on what I did."
And then there's top pick Taylor Guerrieri, the talented 19-year-old high school right-hander who was taken 24th (and didn't sign until the deadline), who had only a few innings of instructional league action on his stat sheet but maintains his same draft-day plans for a quick trip to the majors.
"Hopefully two years," he said. "I'd be lying to you if I said I didn't want to be up there right now. It really just depends on how I progress."
Around the majors
A'S-ROCKIES TRADE: Colorado traded outfielder Seth Smith to Oakland for right-hander Guillermo Moscoso and left-hander Josh Outman.
ANGELS: Third baseman Alberto Callaspo agreed to a $3.15 million, one-year contract that avoided arbitration.
BREWERS: Outfielder Nyjer Morgan agreed to a $2.35 million, one-year contract.
GIANTS: Outfielder Angel Pagan agreed to a $4.85 million, one-year contract that avoided arbitration.
NATIONALS: Left-hander Gio Gonzalez's new $42 million, five-year contract includes both a club option and a vesting player option that could make it worth $65.5 million over seven seasons. Also, catcher Jesus Flores agreed to an $815,000, one-year contract, a raise of $65,000.
PHILLIES: Free-agent right-hander Joel Pineiro agreed to a minor-league contract.
PIRATES: All-Star closer Joel Hanrahan agreed to a $4.1 million, one-year contract, and right-hander Charlie Morton struck a one-year deal worth $2,445,000.
REDS: Outfielder Ryan Ludwick agreed to a one-year deal with a $2.5 million base salary and a mutual option for 2013, according to CBSSports.com. … Former Rays catcher Dioner Navarro agreed to a minor-league contract.
RED SOX: Right-hander Vicente Padilla agreed to a minor-league contract with an invitation to spring training.
ROYALS: Catcher Brayan Pena and second baseman Chris Getz agreed to one-year contracts.
TIGERS: Right-hander Rick Porcello agreed to a $3.1 million contract and left-hander Phil Coke to a $1.1 million deal, both avoiding arbitration.
TWINS: Oft-injured right-handed reliever Joel Zumaya agreed on an $850,000, one-year contract.
YANKEES: Right-hander Phil Hughes agreed to a $3.2 million, one-year contract, a raise of $500,000 that followed an injury-filled season.
Staff writer Joe Smith and Times wires contributed to this report. Marc Topkin can be reached at [email protected] Follow his coverage on Twitter at @TBTimes_Rays.