Rays players and staff have been working hard for weeks, some for months, to get to this point. But with much of the conditioning, evaluating and other preliminaries now out of the way, and the exhibition season starting Wednesday, it is time to get down to some of the real work. • Every player is given detailed information during an introductory meeting with manager Kevin Cash, baseball operations president Matt Silverman, coaches and other front office staff about target areas for improvement. • Some are less tangible, such as better decision-making on the bases; some more regular season-specific, such as pitch selection and location in set counts. But there are certain "projects" that are high on the to-do list this spring and will continue to be focal points.
1. C Hank Conger's throwing
The biggest factor in deciding whether Conger is an option to make the team ahead of Curt Casali or Rene Rivera, or even to be kept at Triple-A Durham with a $1.5 million salary, is the Rays' confidence in him being able to control the running game.
That's because his numbers last year with Houston were historically bad: throwing out just one — yes, one! — of 43 attempted basestealers. (J.B. Shuck of the Angels, in case you were wondering.)
Conger said his arm is healthy and the steep dropoff from his previous performance (a decent 22.4 percent throw-out rate during parts of five seasons with the Angels) was the product of bad mechanics and worse luck.
The Rays also think he was somewhat a victim of circumstance, suggesting that Astros pitchers didn't prioritize holding on runners to give him a better chance. (Houston starting catcher Jason Castro, however, did throw out 20 of 62 for a solid 32 percent.)
"I watched all of Hank's throws last year (on video)," Cash said. "He made plenty of good throws, and then he made some throws that weren't good."
Catching coach Jamie Nelson has been watching, too, and is working with Conger from the ground up, with a plan to try first to improve his footwork then to smooth out his delivery and to quicken his release, getting more snap from his wrist.
2. SS Brad Miller's fielding and throwing
Miller came from the Mariners with a reputation as a good athlete and hard worker who sometimes gets rushed and reckless as he fields grounders and makes throws to first, the ball tending to sail.
Of the 39 errors he made playing shortstop in 264 games over parts of three seasons, 21 have been on throws vs. 18 while fielding.
"I know I've thrown really well at time and at other times I haven't," Miller said. "I know I have a strong arm, and it's just about the accuracy and getting more consistent with it. But I'm excited to have a fresh set of eyes and to go to work."
The most critical eyes belong to infield/bench coach Tom Foley, who will seek to get Miller — whom the Mariners were moving off shortstop into more of a utility role — to be more smooth and simple with his delivery.
3. Rene Rivera's hitting
Rivera was one of the biggest disappointments of the 2015 season, acquired from San Diego and handed the starting job only to lose it twice due to an abysmal performance at the plate: a .213 average and .489 on-base plus slugging percentage that was lowest of all big-leaguers with at least 300 plate appearances.
Rivera said part of the problem stemmed from putting too much pressure on himself and losing confidence, but he also knew he had to make some changes. He spent four weeks before camp at ex-major-leaguer Luis Alicea's Delray Beach academy working to make his swing more compact and simpler, primarily by lowering his hands and changing from a high leg kick to a toe tap.
The idea is to keep the bat in the hitting zone longer and to make more hard contact. In 2015, per fangraphs.com, 25.6 percent of balls Rivera put in play were classified as softly hit, 47.5 as medium and 26.9 as hard.
"We know we're not going to get a hit every time, but you want to increase the opportunity to get more hits," Rivera said.
Initial reviews have been good, Cash lauding Rivera's solid work in batting practice several times. But the real test will be if he can stick with it under game conditions and pressure.
4. RHP Brad Boxberger's fielding
Cash has already said that a priority this spring is to improve the overall defensive work by the pitchers, who made 12 errors on batted balls in 2015, and they have been doing various drills. Cash said their play was "an issue" because "when a ball is hit less than 60 feet, it's our job to get an out, and we need to convert those more than we did."
Though ace Chris Archer has had some misplays, Boxberger is the primary target for improvement, especially since as the closer he is often working with the slimmest margin where making a mistake, or not getting an out, can be pivotal.
Even though he was charged with only two errors, and allowed only three unearned runs, Boxberger said he knows his play can be tightened up.
"Improving any aspect of the game is definitely going to help in game situations, especially late in the game, a bunt here, a comebacker there where you don't turn two that can cost you the game," Boxberger said.
"It doesn't obviously have to be a SportsCenter Top 10 play, but just to make every play and make every out given to me is definitely going to improve the game."
5. An aggressive hitting approach
What started as a discussion last July about getting Steven Souza Jr. to stop taking so many good pitches manifested itself into a major shift in offensive philosophy for the Rays overall.
Initial results of the approach, which hitting coach Derek Shelton called "being aggressive on balls in the zone early in the count," were impressive, based on before and after Aug. 1 totals:
An increase of more than a run per game (3.58 to 4.69), more than 35 points in average (.239 to .275) and more homers per game (.88 to 1.29).
The challenge now is twofold:
1) To get the returning hitters to stick with it while understanding, as Evan Longoria pointed out, that pitchers will adjust: "We just can't just go up there swinging at everything."
2) To get the new additions, such as Miller and Logan Morrison (who came from the Mariners), Steve Pearce (Orioles), Corey Dickerson (Rockies) and Conger (Astros), to join in.
Marc Topkin can be reached at [email protected]. Follow @TBTimes_Rays.