TAMPA BAY, Fla. (FNN SPORTS) – The Tampa Bay Rays are a sexy preseason pick to make noise not only throughout Major League Baseball, but in the AL East. There are two major problems with that named the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees.
Last season was a lesson in how you can be misplaced behind the two behemoth TV teams as the Rays finished 90-72 after starting 4-13. It was their sixth 90-win season since 2008, making them one shy of the Dodgers and Red Sox, who had seven each.
As the Rays start spring training in a few weeks in Port Charlotte, Florida, the one thing that resonates with that 90-win season is that they were no doubt one of the top 10 teams in the league when the season ended, but were looking up at the 108-win World Champion Red Sox and the 100-win Yankees.
If you placed Tampa Bay in the National League, they would have tied for the NL East pennant with the Atlanta Braves or would have been neck-and-neck with the Colorado Rockies for that second wild card spot.
Coulda, woulda, shoulda…2018 is in the books.
Moving forward, the Rays have lofty goals of competing with the Red Sox and Yankees, which is a viable possibility.
Let’s look at the team by position as the Rays open their spring training schedule on February 22, and then almost a month later, the regular season is unveiled with a four-game series against the Houston Astros at Tropicana Field.
Cy Young Award winner Blake Snell returns as the ace of the staff after a breakout season where he finished with an amazing 21-5 record and a 1.89 ERA while striking out 210 batters. Free-agent Charlie Morton came over from the Houston Astros in December and he figures to be in the starting rotation. His two seasons in Houston were filled with plenty of accolades as he became the first pitcher in history to get the win in Game 7 of the ALCS and Game 7 of the World Series in the same season. Ryan Yarbrough won 16 games last season and will join Snell and Morton to give Tampa Bay a really strong three-man rotation. Yonny Chirinos and Tyler Glasnow are strong candidates to round out the five-man rotation and Wilmer Font and Jake Faria should push for positions in the rotation. Tampa Bay could use the “opener” strategy for its fourth and fifth starts because that strategy became a part of the pitching repertoire last May.
Manager Kevin Cash did a really unique thing with his relievers over the last month of 2018 when he divided innings between seven or eight relievers in one game with the “opener” approach. The “opener” strategy sees a hard thrower come out of the bullpen to open the game before giving way to the next pitcher, who works for one or two innings. At certain points, the Rays used seven or eight pitchers in one game. It’s a fascinating strategy that shows an open style of thinking, which is definitely needed in the MLB today. The approach forces the opposing hitters to continually process different styles and tendencies of so many pitchers throughout a game. Closer Sergio Romo was the first to do this last season, but his retirement forces the Rays to look for a new stopper, which could be Jose Alvarado, who had the second most saves, albeit only eight. A multitude of pitchers would be in the hunt for the opener role, including Hunter Wood, Diego Castillo, and Ryne Stanek. It seems Tampa Bay needs an experienced closer as they bring forward young players in that bullpen.
Mike Zunino comes over from the Seattle Mariners after spending the first six seasons of his career as a solid part of the Mariners’ attack. He came into his own as a power hitter in the last two seasons as he hit 25 and 20 home runs, respectively. Because catcher was a key area of need, acquiring Zunino came with a price as the Rays traded talented lead off hitter Mallex Smith. The likely backup is Nick Ciuffo, who was a late season call-up and could be a power bat once he figures out major league pitching.
The Rays will start out with Yandy Diaz, who comes over from the Cleveland Indians where he spent 2018 between the parent club and AAA Columbus. Diaz is known as a good contact hitter who sports a low strikeout rate and can also fit at third base as well. Avisail Garcia, who recently signed a one-year deal, is another option at first as well. He is looking for a bounce-back year after struggling last season with the White Sox. He is generally known as a ground ball hitter, which is good at Tropicana Field since it is known that the ball goes to the outfield and dies on long fly balls. Nathaniel Lowe and Brenden McKay are also prospects that fit in at first base.
Joey Wendle batted .300 last season and became a favorite at ‘The Trop’ with his solid contact with the bat, his hustle on the bases and in the field. Wendle hit a torrid .358 over the last 30 days of the season as he led Tampa Bay with 33 doubles and was second in RBI with 61. Daniel Robertson also figures at second as well as third and short after a left thumb injury ended his season in early August. Robertson hit .262 over 87 games. The duo could platoon based on the pitcher since Wendle is a left-handed batter while Robertson is a righty.
Matt Duffy looks like the man at third although he doesn’t have a power bat. He was out last season due to quad issues, but still played 132 games and batted .285 which was his best since 2015 with San Francisco when he checked in at .295. Duffy is a contact hitter and will be set in more situations where he can improve on his 44 RBI of last season. Diaz and Robertson could figure into the situation at third as well.
Willy Adames could be the next superstar to wear the Tampa Bay uniform. He was called up from AAA Durham last season and finished with a .278 batting average and 10 home runs in his 85 games. He is a patient batter although he amassed 95 strikeouts against 31 walks. He looks like the one Tampa Bay player who could be in for a breakout season because he is solidly set at shortstop and Robertson could figure in here as well as his substitute. Wander Franco, a switch-hitting power hitter, could join the team at any time or even make the opening day roster. He is a shortstop, but has versatile tools which could fit around the infield. Franco is also known as the top player in the Tampa Bay system and could make immediate impact.
The Rays could be solid in left after acquiring Tommie Pham from the St. Louis Cardinals last July. However, Pham is headed to arbitration with the team as his status in Tampa is up in the air. He didn’t help anything in the offseason with his comments about the lethargy of the Tampa/St. Pete fan base when it comes to the Rays. He hit .275 with 21 home runs in an injury-plagued 2018. Wendle could slide into this position from second base as could utility man Brandon Lowe who needs to pick up his .233 average after making his first start in the majors last season in logging 43 games.
Tampa Bay boasts one of the rising stars in baseball in centerfield in Kevin Kiermaier who has two Gold Gloves in his five seasons with the Rays. He is an ultra-aggressive presence on the base paths and in the outfield, which may have lead to his previous injury issues. He played in a career-low 88 games last season with only seven home runs. 2018 became his most frustrating season in the bigs. With the Mallex Smith trade, Tampa Bay has to bank on Kiermaier sustaining his health, otherwise there will be a huge hole in the outfield.
Austin Meadows is set to start in right after enjoying his debut in the majors last season as he appeared in 59 games as he came over in a trade in July. Meadows has to produce from the beginning and needs to at least sustain his .287 average that he garnered between Tampa Bay and Pittsburgh last season. Garcia could work his way into right field, which would provide conceivably more pop in the lineup as of right now. Guillermo Heredia, who came over in the Smith-Zunino deal, is an excellent fielder and another viable piece to the puzzle. The Mariners managed to get him onto the field the last two seasons since he has been in the majors generally for the 2017 and 2018 campaigns. He is more of a contact hitter, but needs to ramp up last season’s .236 batting average.
Ji-man Choi checks in as the DH because he needs a breakout year where he is more consistent with his power. Choi came over from Milwaukee last season and appeared in 49 games and could also figure in the mix at first base as well as the outfield, if need be. Garcia is a logical choice in the designated hitter spot as well should Choi struggle or need to play left field.
Tampa finished without making the postseason in 2018 for the fourth season in a row. The Rays are still in talks about potential free agents; infielder Josh Harrison’s name has been in the news as a potential signing. Tampa Bay needs a solid closer, another starter and potential outfield depth. A third-place finish is once again likely, but the team showed last season that if it had gotten off to a better start that it could at least have pressed the Yankees for second in the AL East and gotten one of the two wild cards.
Ken Cross is a sports contributor for Florida National News. | email@example.com