DUNEDIN — Outfielder Mikie Mahtook last season showed the Rays, especially during a sizzling September, that he was ready and able to play in the major leagues.
The Rays responded, based on the players they brought in and didn't ship out this winter, by ticketing Mahtook for a likely return trip to Triple-A Durham to start this season.
Welcome to life on the fringe, where young players such as Mahtook and infielder Richie Shaffer, plus others like right-hander Matt Andriese, have to balance the success they had in the majors with the reality of knowing that barring injuries or trades, they are headed back to the minors.
"Obviously it's not going to be something I'm happy about, it's not something I want to do," Mahtook said. "If I start the year there, that's not where I'm going to finish it. My ultimate goal is to be in the major leagues and be successful in the major leagues, and I firmly believe that I can, and I proved last year that I can."
Mahtook made, arguably, the best case of the class, showing his speed, power and overall athleticism in hitting .295 with nine homers, 19 RBIs and a .970 on-base plus slugging percentage while getting 105 at-bats over 41 games.
"I felt like last year I showed what I was capable of doing," said Mahtook, 26. "I know that it wasn't a fluke. … I think that's just a flash of what I can bring for a full season. I have extreme confidence in myself."
Shaffer, who had the memorable first homer in Chicago last August, when he responded to the silent treatment in the dugout by giving air hugs and high-fives to imaginary teammates, has a similar take.
Though his performance after that wasn't as impressive — .189 with four homers, six RBIs, a .699 OPS and 32 strikeouts in 74 at-bats — he feels he did enough to show he is ready for the show. At the least, he wants to make things "as difficult as possible" for the decision-makers.
"I think I can bring value to this team, absolutely, 100 percent," said Shaffer, 25. "I think I'm ready to be a major-league player, and I intend on showing that. Whether I get that opportunity right away or not is a little out of my control. But I plan on showing them that I'm ready to be a guy. I've put in all the work I need to, I'm confident, I'm as strong as I've ever been. I'm ready to go."
But with their bosses deciding to add Corey Dickerson, Logan Morrison and Steve Pearce to the glut of outfielders and first basemen and not subtracting Desmond Jennings or Brandon Guyer from the mix, there doesn't appear to be any room for either to make the team.
And Shaffer knows that ultimately, he can't do anything about it.
"If there's not a spot and I've got to go back to Triple A, then that's what I've got to do," he said. "I'm a professional, and that's part of it. It (stinks) but you can't control it. You've got to go out there, keep doing your thing, keep your head up and keep grinding, and your opportunity will pop up at some point."
Rays bench coach Tom Foley said their frustration is understandable.
"You want to be here," he said. "You want to get here and you want to stay here. Once you've done well and you know you can stay here, the frustrating part can be going back down and waiting for a break. But that's just the nature of the game."
Mahtook and Shaffer said they understand, and that there is no sulking in baseball.
"You can't get caught up in the other stuff like personnel additions," Shaffer said. "What are you going to do about it? You can't get too upset about it or feel slighted or whatever."
Mahtook, a 2011 supplemental first-round pick, said he learned a few years ago the lesson many up-and-comers do, that it can be tormenting to "play GM" and try to anticipate — much less over-analyze — the moves.
Plus, he tries, as difficult as it might seem, to look at what's best for the Rays overall.
"Obviously they have brought some guys in and they are going to better our team one way or another," Mahtook said. "I don't consider that a detriment to me. I don't consider that a negative. I consider that a positive because at the end of the day it helps us get to where we want to be."
Marc Topkin can be reached at [email protected]. Follow @ TBTimes_Rays.