Rays face new era, questions as spring training opens

As spring training approaches, decisions are looming.

With Matt Moore's return from Tommy John surgery targeted for sometime in June, they need to pick a fifth starter to fill in. [WILL VRAGOVIC   |   Times]
With Matt Moore's return from Tommy John surgery targeted for sometime in June, they need to pick a fifth starter to fill in.[WILL VRAGOVIC | Times]
Published February 19 2015
Updated February 20 2015

PORT CHARLOTTE — The Rays have been a popular topic of discussion throughout the offseason with Matt Silverman taking over for Andrew Friedman atop baseball operations, Kevin Cash hired to replace Joe Maddon as manager, and an extensive makeover of the roster.

Now as they are set to open their first spring training since 2005 under new management, there is still plenty to talk about as they try a new way to get back to playoff contention.

And these might be the three biggest questions they have to answer over the next 6½ weeks:

1. How is the middle infield going to be set up?

Ultimately, this question may come down to: Can Nick Franklin play shortstop?

The Rays know Asdrubal Cabrera, the former All-Star who signed as a free agent, will be a key part of their lineup and play every day. What they don't know yet is where.

Cabrera is 29, and his range at shortstop has diminished enough to where he might be a better defender at second. That would be an easier call to make if the Rays had someone — from a half-dozen candidates — show they can handle shortstop.

Franklin, acquired from Seattle in the David Price three-way trade, is atop that list, as the Rays would like to have his lefty power in the lineup. (At least against right-handers, raising the question if they'd have Cabrera go back to short vs. lefties).

Tim Beckham, the perennial prospect whose career was stalled by injury and other issues, will get a legit shot to show if, at 25, he is finally ready to play short in the majors. Hak-Ju Lee, also slowed by injury, will get a look, as will invitees Alexi Casilla and Jake Elmore.

If Franklin or Beckham or the others don't show well, and if the Rays don't trade for a glove-happy shortstop (St. Louis' Pete Kozma may be among those available), the Rays can default to playing Cabrera at short and a platoon likely of Franklin and Logan Forsythe at second.

2. Is Steven Souza ready?

The Rays will try to downplay expectations for the power-hitting outfielder acquired from Washington in the three-way deal that sent Wil Myers to San Diego, but they are counting heavily upon him to make the leap to everyday big-leaguer.

The Rays have reason to believe, based on a spectacular 2014 Triple-A season in which Souza hit .350 with 18 homers and 75 RBIs in 96 games, while posting .432 on-base and .590 slugging percentages (a 1.022 OPS).

Souza, 25, has made good first impressions, and seems ready for the opportunity. A bad spring numbers-wise won't necessarily discourage the Rays, nor did his poor showing during a few 2014 callups to the Nationals. And though they could hang on to David DeJesus and send Souza back to the minors, that's far from ideal.

Better for the Rays would be putting Souza in rightfield (and a key spot in the order) every day, with Kevin Kiermaier in center and Desmond Jennings in left (at least against right-handers), with Brandon Guyer in the mix vs. lefties.

3. Can they make their pitch?

The Rays have arguably the best top four starters in the AL East, with the only question being the order they pitch following Alex Cobb on opening day. But with Matt Moore's return from Tommy John surgery targeted for sometime in June, they need to pick a fifth starter to fill in.

The top two candidates are Nathan Karns, who debuted last season, and Alex Colome, who is out of options and thus likely to be on the team anyway, either starting or in the bullpen. Matt Andriese, Enny Romero and Burch Smith also will get looks.

Similarly, the bullpen has an open spot (or two pending Colome) with closer Jake McGee out until likely late April following arthroscopic elbow surgery.

Going in, the Rays feel good about the quantity of quality high-leverage relievers, with Brad Boxberger, Kevin Jepsen (acquired from Angels) and two former closers who are coming off rough 2014 seasons, Grant Balfour and free-agent addition Ernesto Frieri. Lefty Jeff Beliveau will be in there too.

That would appear to leave Kirby Yates and non-roster veteran Ronald Belisario the top candidates for the open spot(s), with C.J. Riefenhauser if they want another lefty.

Contact Marc Topkin at [email protected] Follow @TBTimes_Rays.