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Jones: Questions mark start of Rays spring training

PORT CHARLOTTE

Rays president Matt Silverman and manager Kevin Cash sat down Thursday afternoon in a setting that was just about perfect.

Just above the rightfield wall at Charlotte Sports Park, the sky was a breathtaking blue and the ballpark's grass was a spotless green. And the sun, as well as the Rays' optimism, was so bright that you had to wear shades.

It was a beautiful day. The first day of spring training always is. Too bad the season has to start.

Because, you get the uneasy feeling that once we go from talking the talk to walking the walk, things might not be all that sunny.

Officially, pitchers and catchers won't report until the weekend, but already, the Rays are hard at work for a 2016 season that feels like a potluck dinner. You're not exactly sure what you're going to get.

One flashy computer program is picking the Rays to win the division. Plenty of smart baseball people see the Rays bringing up the rear.

Silverman and Cash, naturally, are looking on the bright side. The more they talked Thursday at the news conference to kick off spring training, the more they tried to convince us that the Rays have a playoff team.

But the more you look at this lineup, the more cloudy the outlook becomes.

"We feel like we upgraded the talent on our roster and added some power that has been lacking in recent years, especially the trades we were able to make to bring in some guys with some thump,'' Silverman said. "(We) feel like we're more balanced and a more formidable club going into the season.''

Sounds great. But are they really any better than last season's 80-win team that finished next-to-last in the American League East?

"I feel like we're a better club this year,'' Silverman said. "Last year, the injury bug really got us. … But I look at the club this year and feel like the overall talent level is higher. The talent is there. The belief is there within the clubhouse. And it's just a matter of going out there and winning ball games.''

Ah yes, that pesky little part about actually winning ball games.

What will it take? A whole lot of things going right, that's what. Like a starting rotation that must stay healthy. Like a bullpen that still needs to plug a couple of holes. Like a lineup that needs to produce more than 3.98 runs per game, which was next-to-last in the American League last season.

The starting rotation looks like a strength. And the bullpen always manages to work itself out, especially with pitching coach Jim Hickey in charge.

But, if you're looking for a reason why this team might take a step back — something like the 75 or so wins I predict — it's because of a lineup that is long on questions and short on recent production.

Some of the faces might be new, but new doesn't necessarily mean better. Logan Morrison hit .225 last season. Steve Pearce hit .218. Corey Dickerson was a heck of a hitter in the high altitude of Denver, but just so-so everywhere else. New shortstop Brad Miller hit .258 last season. To be fair, all have a little bit of thump, as Silverman calls it.

Meantime, the returning faces didn't fare a whole lot better. Steven Souza Jr. hit .225 and had nearly twice as many strikeouts (144) as hits (84). Desmond Jennings played only 28 games last season and has never met expectations. Evan Longoria, who turns 31 this summer, is coming off a season in which he produced only 21 homers and 73 RBIs — the worst numbers of his career other than his injury-plagued 74-game season in 2012.

Kevin Kiermaier and Logan Forsythe had nice seasons, but let's not get too carried away. Kiermaier hit .263 and Forsythe hit .281 and both will need to prove they can do it again.

Put it this way: Is there one guy in this lineup who you would look at say, "Yep, you can absolutely rely on him to put up big offensive numbers?''

Yet Silverman truly believes that this team will hit, that they will score runs and that more runs will produce more victories.

This past offseason, in many ways, is the start of a referendum on Silverman. These are his players. This is his team now.

Last offseason, he unexpectedly took over for Andrew Friedman. He had to find a manager to replace Joe Maddon. He spent as much time taking care of the front office as he did the clubhouse.

But this offseason was all about baseball.

"It just felt a little more manageable on all fronts,'' Silverman said. "With Kevin in the office a lot this offseason, helping and pitching in … we were able to focus on planning and execution as opposed to last year, really, just trying to make sure we kept the ship together.''

To be fair to Silverman, he isn't playing with Monopoly money like the Red Sox or Yankees. He can't afford to go out and sign big names off the showroom floor. Instead of getting Chris Davis or Yoenis Cespedes or even Ben Zobrist, he has to look for bargains on the used lot.

The Rays have a little more than a month to get ready for the 2016 season. Maybe over that time, we'll see a team that proves they can hit and produce runs. I have serious doubts. I see storm clouds ahead.

But, hey, at least Thursday was sunny.

Tampa Bay Rays President of Baseball Operations Matt Silverman, left, and manager Kevin Cash talk with reporters during press conference at the Tampa Bay Rays Spring Training facility at Charlotte Sports Park in Port Charlotte, Fla. on Thursday, Feb. 18, 2016.

WILL VRAGOVIC | Times

Tampa Bay Rays President of Baseball Operations Matt Silverman, left, and manager Kevin Cash talk with reporters during press conference at the Tampa Bay Rays Spring Training facility at Charlotte Sports Park in Port Charlotte, Fla. on Thursday, Feb. 18, 2016.

Jones: Questions mark start of Rays spring training 02/18/16 [Last modified: Thursday, February 18, 2016 10:03pm]
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