PORT CHARLOTTE — Even more so than the romantic aura of opening day, the start of spring training is the time for ultimate optimism, and Rays officials predictably shared plenty during a Monday media session in advance of today's first workout.
The boldest came from third-year manager Kevin Cash, who insisted the Rays had enough talent — returning and added — to make the large leap from last year's 68 wins to reaching the playoffs.
"We expect to be playing games in October," Cash said. "That's the goal. We're confident with what we've done this offseason. We're confident with the core guys that we had finishing the year. … We're optimistic with our pitchers."
There are legit reasons, starting with the reasonable assumption that the starters will be closer to expected form this year, for their confidence. But there are also a lot of things, in addition to good health, that have to go right, and a few to maybe go wrong with other teams.
Even better than PolitiFact, time and 162 games will prove the ultimate fact-checkers.
Though they mentioned almost all the key returning and new players, it seemed clear several are being counted upon heavily: relievers Brad Boxberger and signee Shawn Tolleson regaining past form; first baseman Logan Morrison and outfielders Corey Dickerson and Steven Souza Jr. continuing late 2016 ascensions; and shortstop Matt Duffy showing that, healthy, he can be the impact player they expected in dealing Matt Moore for him and prospects.
First at second
The biggest spring question is replacing Logan Forsythe at second. Cash said, "I don't think anything has been defined," and he is "excited" about possibilities that include Tim Beckham, Nick Franklin, Brad Miller, right, prospect Daniel Robertson and possibly others.
But the reality is that their planned alignment works best if Miller, shifted last year from shortstop to first base, is able — and, as important, willing — to play second. That leaves Morrison and Rickie Weeks (or a right-handed bat to be acquired) to play first, Beckham and Franklin as versatile bench guys who can play anywhere and Robertson at Triple A.
Neander made several mentions of the flexibility and options they have in assembling the final roster. That's the positive way to look at what could be some concerns, such as Duffy moving back to short after playing third for the Giants and Miller to second, Franklin playing and Beckham learning the outfield, newcomer Mallex Smith trying the outfield corners and catcher Mike McKenry sampling first base.
"We have a lot of guys that we're asking to do something that they haven't done recently or haven't done before with respect to putting the team together," Neander said. "So we want to get to camp, give these guys an opportunity to play, to jell, to see how it all kind of fits together and what it looks like. But we by design kept things open enough to have the flexibility to where if there's something else we can acquire from outside of our current group, we're going to be open to doing that."
After missing out on Chris Carter and checking in on several other right-handed bats, the Rays seem — for now, anyway — willing to give Weeks, the 34-year-old veteran signed to a minor-league deal, the chance to be that occasional DH and maybe first baseman. "His main focus is to come in here and be a pretty big bat for us against left-handed pitching," Cash said. For what it's worth, Weeks, though in only 76 plate appearances for Arizona last year, did hit .284 with a 1.010 OPS vs. lefties.
Touted prospect Jose De Leon, acquired for Forsythe, is technically considered a candidate for the No. 5 starter's job (that is likely to go to Matt Andriese). But De Leon missed some time last season with shoulder issues, and when Bloom said they want to make sure to "build up his innings responsibly," it's clear he has no need to find an apartment yet in St. Petersburg.
With five players coming off surgeries, the Rays are going to be cautious and not as concerned with opening day as the rest of the season. Thus, while Duffy (heel) should be good for April 2, they're not committing yet on Morrison (wrist), outfielder Colby Rasmus (hip, core muscle) or Souza (hip). And though catcher Wilson Ramos is eyeing a May return at least to DH, June is more likely and Bloom acknowledged they really don't know yet what's realistic.
Okay, none of the Rays officials actually said the free agent catcher's name. But the switch-hitter is still on the market, the Rays are talking to him and they can offer a good fit with the chance to be the primary catcher for at least most of the season, pending Ramos' rehab schedule. And what Neander did say when asked about an external addition was they have enough flexibility that "there's a lot of different ways we can maneuver the group we have to be opportunistic about adding just about anyone."