PORT CHARLOTTE — How this season plays out will be one of baseball's bigger mysteries.
Rays officials are adamant that with a remixed roster emphasizing pitching and defense and a more contact-oriented offensive approach they are good enough to compete. Some scouts and observers suggest more middling, though with a chance to surprise. And there are the doom-and-gloomers, including some longtime fans, predicting 100-plus losses and Major League movie conspiracy theories with Stuart Sternberg in the role of Rachel Phelps, wanting the team to lose to hasten a move.
But next season, and the year after?
The Rays could be in a very promising position.
If — and that is a big first word — they hit with most of the advanced prospects they've assembled, led by Willy Adames and Jake Bauers, the Rays would have a core of young and inexpensive players surrounding Kevin Kiermaier and (if not traded) Chris Archer.
And a low enough payroll that they could in theory be in position to add some major talent through trades or even free agency. (So, Bryce Harper … ?)
"Our staff has done a wonderful job of greatly strengthening our talent pipeline," GM Erik Neander said. "It takes alignment, commitment and patience to do it properly and we've seen that to the fullest. As that talent rises to the major-league level, and merges with the pieces already in place, we believe we will soon be well positioned for another run of sustained success."
Looking ahead, the Rays have only $15.5 million committed for 2019 to Archer and Kiermaier. With closer Alex Colome likely traded, only three of their other seven arbitration eligibles seem likely to be back: 1B/DH C.J. Cron ($2.3 million this year), INF Matt Duffy ($930,000), RHP Matt Andriese ($559,400 this year, first time eligible in '19).
With so many young players making near the $555,000 minimum, the Rays could have the bulk of their team covered in the $35-37-million range (or in the mid-$40s with Colome, $5.3 million this year), and the flexibility — if they feel the team is positioned to win based on the young players — to add on significantly. There's a lot of ifs.
In waiting once again for INF Brad Miller to get back on the field, it's worth noting the Rays could opt to cut him loose and pay only one-fourth of his $4.5 million non-guaranteed arbitration salary. … If so, they could use that money to add another infield bat, maybe like Neil Walker. … As much as Tampa-resident OF/DH Jose Bautista would be a convenient sign, and Bovada online oddsmakers have the Rays 8-5 favorites, the fit just may not be right. … The cost of a callup: Because RHP Jose De Leon spent one day with the Rays last season, he can't be optioned injured to the minors, and thus will spend all season on the big-league DL rehabbing from upcoming Tommy John surgery, getting pay and — perhaps more costly — service time.
Expect a more baseball-centric presentation before and during games at the Trop, with changes in music (plus addition of an organ), videoboard programming and in-game host, hopefully one who screams less. … SI.com's Jon Tayler gave the Rays a D for their offseason, saying they may not be "that bad" but their "cowardly and insulting moves designed first and foremost to save money are hard to stomach." … Installation of the new Trop turf is expected to be completed this week. …. Prepping for the regular-season, the Rays are next to last in the majors in spring attendance, their average of 3,743 better than only the Reds (3,422). … Interesting pitch by Rays brass suggesting making the roof retractable at the planned new Ybor stadium would be a "community decision" — spending the extra $150 million — because it would be of more benefit for off-season events. … Replacement giveaways are being lined up for two planned Steven Souza Jr. items. Maybe they could repurpose some of the hugging dolls to resemble also traded Evan Longoria, Jake Odorizzi and Corey Dickerson for long goodbyes. … Ex-Ray Tim Beckham, now the Orioles third baseman, told the New York Times' Tyler Kepner that he wears No. 1 as a symbol of his confidence in himself: "If you give me the opportunity to play every day, I think I'm the best shortstop in baseball." … SI.com also ranks RHP Jake Faria one of the top AL sleepers for fantasy baseball picks. … The 20-year history book will be available at the team store by opening day.