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What it means to be a non-roster invitee to Rays camp

For 14 minor-leaguers, the invite to major-league camp can pay off in many ways.
Pitchers Joe Ryan (left) and Phoenix Sanders during Friday's workout. [MARC TOPKIN | Tampa Bay Times]

PORT CHARLOTTE — Having worked his way up as a 10th-round senior selection in 2017 from USF, Rays minor-league pitcher Phoenix Sanders has plenty of primary reasons to be pleased about getting invited for the first time to big-league camp.

The chance to have big-league team officials put a face — and an arm and a personality — with his stat line and scouting report. To watch, listen to and learn from established major-leaguers such as Charlie Morton and Blake Snell. To work directly with Rays pitching coach Kyle Snyder and staff, getting exposed to the latest strategy, technology and feedback.

“The whole opportunity is important,’’ Sanders said.

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And there’s some secondary benefits in the details.

The major-league clubhouse is roomier and better staffed. The equipment nicer and more readily available. The food more tasty and plentiful.

And the money’s pretty good, too, the same $195 a day in meal and housing allowance the big-leaguers get for reporting to work 3½ weeks early in the sunshine. And way better than the $115 a week minor-leaguers get while living in the team hotel, or the $400 a week if they live out.

“Any sort of financial help from any aspect definitely helps,’’ Sanders said. “Rent gets pretty expensive down here around spring training, so it’s definitely nice to have a little help with that.

“And I’m getting married next January (to Haleigh Hemond, daughter of former USF star and big-leaguer Scott), so it will all add up. Maybe that honeymoon will get a little better or we can stay an extra day.’’

Sanders, 24, is one of 14 players invited from the minor-league system hoping to better their chances of getting to the majors for the first time.

Some come with a resume, such as lefty Shane McClanahan, a fellow USF product who got a $2.23 million bonus as a 2018 first-round pick, and infielder Tristan Gray, for whom the Rays were willing to eat $4.5 million of Daniel Hudson’s salary to get from the Pirates in the Corey Dickerson deal.

Some come with accolades, such as right-hander Joe Ryan, who won Rays 2019 minor-league pitcher of the year honors, along with infielder Taylor Walls (top minor-league defensive player) and right-hander Tyler Zombro (top reliever).

Rays non-roster invite Phoenix Sanders, a former USF pitcher, throws during a spring training workout in Port Charlotte, Fla. on Friday. [MARC TOPKIN | Tampa Bay Times]

And some come just with hard work, such as pitchers Paul Campbell, Josh Fleming, Sam McWilliams and Ryan Thompson; catchers Rene Pinto and Brett Sullivan; and position players Dalton Kelly and Miles Mastrobuoni.

All are quite happy to be there.

“When I got the call I was in shock honestly,’’ said Gray, 23, who played last season at Double A. “I was at home by myself, and I was just looking around.’’

Walls was on his honeymoon in Cancun, and the 23-year-old who moved up from advanced Class A Charlotte to Montgomery said he and Hallie “celebrated a little more. … It’s exciting to see the guys you watch on TV and are up there and now you’re sharing a locker room with them.’’

Ryan, 23, pitched his way from Class A Bowling Green to Charlotte to Montgomery last year, and sees his camp invite as the next step.

“It’s pretty special, obviously, just going into my second spring training and getting to come up here and play with these guys right now. Obviously the goal is to be playing with them (in the majors) this year,’’ Ryan said.

“Just having guys here like Charlie Morton … not only his ability, that speaks for itself on the mound, but just as a person, a good guy to be around, a good guy to have as a mentor almost. Hopefully, I can learn from him.’’

Sanders, who pitched his way from Double-A to Triple-A Durham last season, sees every day in big-league camp as a chance to both make a good impression and/or to learn something.

Sometimes instructional.

“You hear something from a different voice or a different person and something different clicks and it works,’’ Sanders said. “You can watch other guys throw bullpens. You can watch what Snyder said to somebody else and maybe pick up on that and something clicks. I’m more than happy to learn from anyone and everyone.’’

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Or subtle.

“I try to be a pretty free spirit and a good locker room guy, and I pride myself on being a good personality when times are going good and bad. I try to be the best teammate I can be,’’ Sanders said. “There’s things you can see with body language. The way you talk. I try to be personable, try to be just who I am.’’

Or educational.

“You see how those veteran guys carry themselves,’’ Sanders said. “Charlie won a World Series. Snell won a Cy Young. I’m pretty sure those guys have some wisdom. Even if you don’t have that big of a conversation with them, you can just watch them. Oliver Drake is a guy that had been a journeyman and he had a really good year pitching in the big leagues and he’s still the first guy here every day and he’s sweating.’’

The opportunity is a good one in so many ways.

Contact Marc Topkin at Follow @TBTimes_Rays.