Fennelly: Rays' Corey Dickerson slims down in chase for bigger production

It's about strengthening strengths and reducing weaknesses, he says.

Published March 8 2017
Updated March 8 2017

TAMPA

Corey Dickerson is half the man he used to be.

We don't mean it how you think, and not half, anyway. But Dickerson did shave 25 pounds from his 6-1 frame and reported to spring training a svelte — you heard me, svelte — 200 pounds. Hey, bud, can you still hit home runs? Just asking.

"Of course," Dickerson said.

Dickerson, 27, owns one of those bats the Rays will need to produce to have any chance at winning many more games than the 68 they brought in last season.

He batted leadoff Tuesday at the Yankees and hit his second home run of the spring. But the questions remain. Can a guy who hit just .245 in his first season with the Rays, with only a .293 on-base percentage, really bat first? And can he play leftfield?

Reasonable questions. There were a lot of those about Dickerson before last season, too. Like his departure from the expanses and thin air at Coors Field. Like the adjustment to American League pitching. Like the move from leftfield to DH.

"DH-ing was probably the biggest of those, simply because he hadn't done it," Rays manager Kevin Cash said. "There's a lot of time in between at-bats. I thought we saw in the second half, he started to know the pitchers more. …"

Maybe all of that played into Dickerson's early struggles in 2016. He was hitting below .200 as late as June 20.

But this man can hit.

He finished with 24 home runs and 70 RBIs, decent enough work. And he ended on a roll, batting .326 with eight doubles, eight home runs and 16 RBIs over his last 24 games. He tied a career high with those 24 homers and set career highs in doubles (36) and extra-base hits (63).

"If that's the bottom for him, that tells you what he can be," Rays hitting coach Chad Mottola said. "If that's his worst year, that's wonderful."

Still, that start gnawed at Dickerson. It was an earthquake. It shook him. It didn't help that he was coming off an injury-plagued 2015 with Colorado.

"I'd hit my whole life," Dickerson said. "I felt like I was trying to make up at-bats I missed from the year before, trying to gain trust of my teammates. Of course you change roles. That's difficult. … Be honest with you, it can drive you crazy. It definitely ate on me. It was embarrassing."

He changed his stance more than once. He choked up on the bat. He was a little lost.

He began to come around after the All-Star break. Mottola joined the Rays as hitting coach in September, replacing Derek Shelton. He had a simple message for Corey Dickerson: be Corey Dickerson.

"When Chad came over — nothing against Shelty, I loved him — Chad said, 'Going forward, I don't want to see you choke up or change stances. … You can't be somebody else.' "

After his strong finish, Dickerson followed a rigorous offseason regimen, anchored by cycling and Pilates, to cut weight.

"This is what I used to weigh," Dickerson said. "This is about strengthening my strengths and reducing my weaknesses. You free your mind a little bit. You don't hurt. You can get in shape the way you want to."

With an eye toward the outfield as much as DH. And he wouldn't mind leading off. Dickerson sometimes batted leadoff for the Rockies.

"I like knowing that I'm going to be up there first, knowing I'm going to get to hit multiple times, maybe a few more times in a game," he said.

As for the outfield, it's on his mind.

"Every day. It's just a pride thing to me. It was motivation for me to show how athletic I am. In Colorado, I played 40 games in center and never made an error."

Kevin Kiermaier appears safe for now.

The Rays would settle for Dickerson's bat. All of it.

 
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