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Rays see the results of keeping a good, young core group together

HOUSTON — The Rays saw a lot on the weeklong trip that ended with Wednesday's game against that Astros, beyond the street hustlers prowling in Times Square and the urban cowboys and girls parading through H-town.

There was an impressive debuting rookie and a roll call of big-name old-timers in New York. A pair of aces and the relentlessness of a team on a mission to control again in Houston.

Most relevant, real-life examples of seeing how much the Yankees and Astros benefitted from bringing a core of young players up through their system together, just as the Rays are in the process of doing.

"It takes time,'' Rays manager Kevin Cash said, "but any good team, somewhere in there is a nucleus or core group of players that have come up through the system, and a lot of them have come up together. We have the pieces.''

That's not to predict Willy Adames is going to be as good as Houston star shortstop Carlos Correa. That Jake Bauers will impact a lineup as much as Aaron Judge or Gary Sanchez does in New York. Or that Brent Honeywell, when healthy next season, will have the success of Lance McCullers or Luis Severino.

And it needs to be pointed out that the kids can't, and don't, do it alone, given the ample, and excessive, money both the Astros and Yankees spent to supplement the core group with high-end talent.

But, there is something to be said for what the Rays are preaching about transitioning to a group of talented youngsters who played together, won together, bonded together in the minors, and now are driven to succeed together in the majors.

"It gives you a sense of brotherhood with those guys,'' said McCullers, the Tampa product who graduated the Houston system with Correa and since-traded Vince Velasquez in 2015. "People you live with in the minor leagues, you ride the buses with, you win championships with in the minors — you have an expectation to continue to win together, and to continue to push forward.

"You kind of pull for each other more than the average guy. You want everyone to do well, but those guys you got drafted with and came through with are close friends. They become part of your inner circle, part of your family. You definitely find yourself gravitating toward those guys. And you definitely find yourself wanting to succeed, and when you do it together, it makes it that much more special.''

McCullers said there also are tangible benefits, especially for a kid suddenly being counted on to produce in the pressure-packed, and at times gruff, world of the majors. Some things as basic as having someone you trust to ask a question of or share a concern with, or to grab dinner with in an unfamiliar road city.

"You feel more comfortable, and it gives you the ability to play at a higher level,'' he said.

Yankees manager Aaron Boone quickly adapted a similar view from his perspective.

"There is no question the bond that these guys have,'' he said. "Sometimes that can develop quickly. But certainly when guys have come up together and been on the bus rides together and been through the ups and down together, that bonds you. And that only makes you grow closer and hopefully allows you to be better at understanding and knowing one another. And, ultimately, playing together in a better way.''

Boone knew from afar in his role as an ESPN analyst how many good young players the Yankees had brought up, and when he got the manager's job this season, he got a sense of how special that group is on and off the field.

"They already in a lot of ways are leaders on our club, and many show signs of being great culture drivers,'' Boone said, crediting his veterans for guiding and empowering the newbies, allowing them to be "comfortable in their skin" from the start. "So we're blessed to not only have good young players but maybe better young people.''

Having guys who are buddy-buddy or goody two-shoes obviously isn't enough.

They also have to be top-notch players.

"That helps,'' Astros manager A.J. Hinch said. "Talent helps.''

Plus, Hinch said, the timing of the promotion to the majors is a factor because there is always some final developing to be done in the bigs.

"The learning curve at the major-league level is steep for some, and it's quick for others,'' Hinch said. "The faster you can start that when the player can handle it, the more the benefits will show up.''

Bauers, who, like Adames, was acquired as a Class A minor-leaguer, said there's no reason the Rays can't have the next great rising core.

"For sure it might be,'' he said. "I think it's underhyped how good our young players are. … It's a group of good overall baseball players who know how to win. There may not be a guy who is going to hit 50 homers, and there might not be a guy who is going to win a Cy Young, but all those pieces together and when everyone is playing well, that's a winning team.''

Marc Topkin can be reached at [email protected] Follow @TBTimes_Rays.

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