Thursday, December 14, 2017
Tampa Bay Rays

Rays can pitch it. Can they catch it?

PORT CHARLOTTE

Pitching and defense.

For years, that has been what we've always talked about when talking about the Rays. Pitching and defense.

They can't hit much. They don't score a bunch of runs. They aren't going to club you over the head with their bats. But, boy, can they pitch it and catch it. That has been the backbone of a franchise more likely to win games 2-1 as opposed to 8-7. Been that way ever since the Rays got good.

But 2016 might see a change in the club's DNA. They can still pitch it, maybe as well as any team in the big leagues. But now they hope to knock it around the yard a bit, thanks to the acquisition of several big bats meant to put some bop in the lineup.

Here's the question, though: might the Rays sacrifice some defense in order to add some offense? If there's one story line to pay close attention to this spring, it's seeing if the Rays can still flash the leather.

"Well, we're going to find some stuff out here in spring training," manager Kevin Cash said.

You have to be careful not to over­analyze spring training. Sometimes you can read too much into numbers, such as batting averages and ERAs. Pitchers are working on pitches. Hitters are working on swings and stances. Minor-leaguers litter the lineups every day. Numbers get skewed.

Defense, however, is another story.

"Defense probably shows up more than anything," Cash said. "The defense is really something we can get a pretty good sense of from a spring training standpoint."

At first glance, it seems as if the Rays still have plenty of good defense, anchored by Gold Glove-winning centerfielder Kevin Kiermaier, who might be the best defensive player in all of baseball.

"In recent years, it's just one of those things that we're a team that is not going to score a ton of runs," Kier­maier said. "This year, we're going to be a lot better offensively, but pitching and defense has been our thing. That's the way we set ourselves apart from the rest of the teams in MLB. Anytime we can prevent runs, that's what we do."

Assuming Desmond Jennings and Steven Souza Jr. stay healthy, Kiermaier thinks the Rays have the best defensive outfield in the majors.

"We've said it's going to be a No-Fly Zone," Kiermaier said. "We can all run above-average, and we're going to use our athleticism to our advantage. … Anything that is hit in the air with some height to it, we expect to catch it."

The big factor will be catching (and accurately throwing) balls hit on the ground. Third baseman Evan Longoria owns two Gold Gloves and remains one of the top defensive infielders in baseball. Logan Forsythe was steady last season at second base, committing only seven errors in 470 chances at the position.

James Loney, assuming he stays in Tampa Bay, is a slick-fielding first baseman and even if Loney doesn't stay, Steve Pearce and Logan Morrison are considered solid.

The key to it all? Shortstop Brad Miller, known more for his bat than his glove, will replace the steady Asdrubal Cabrera.

"We had Asdrubal Cabrera, who was as good of a shortstop through most of the season as anybody," Cash said. "Not that (Miller) has big shoes to fill, but we had a lot of consistency out of that position last year. That's our main goal. We want to be consistent. Make the everyday play. If you make the one beyond that, great. But make the everyday play."

That's all Miller is looking to do.

"You don't have to do anything too crazy," Miller said. "I think that's something you learn. You want to make every play, but it's really about catching the balls hit to you, throwing it to first and catching the outs. We're not trying to do everything spectacular, but you've just got to make the plays hit right at you."

Some deep analytical numbers suggest that Miller is actually a better defensive shortstop than Cabrera, especially because at this point in their careers, Miller can get to more balls. However, Miller committed 14 errors in 89 games at shortstop last season for Seattle. His inconsistency (just a .964 fielding percentage) led the Mariners to think Miller was better suited for an outfield/utility position.

"I pride myself on being the shortstop and helping my pitchers out," Miller said. "Defense is a critical part of what these guys have done in the past and what we're about now."

It's what they've always been about, right? Well, maybe not. While the Rays have a good reputation for being a good defensive team, last season's numbers hint that the defense wasn't as good you might think.

Only nine teams committed more errors than Tampa Bay (95), yet the Rays had fewer chances than any team. Their .984 fielding percentage was 23rd overall.

Those numbers need to improve this season, as well as getting consistently good play from the catcher position.

The Rays will pitch. They might even hit. But they've got to field to have a chance.

Something to keep an eye on this spring, or else you might want to close your eyes come the regular season.

 
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