Among several themes to note in the first week was an obvious fundamental difference to the Rays' pregame preparation this season, as they restructured their schedule to put more of an emphasis on fundamentals.
The Rays are starting earlier, spending more time on the field and working diligently on specific defensive and baserunning drills under the new plan, which manager Kevin Cash said they will stick with all season at home.
"We're going to focus on fundamentals," he said, "and this allows the guys to do so in a good working environment."
Rather than take the field as a group for pregame work around 4:15 as in years past, the Rays are doing several things differently.
Among the smaller changes: bunting practice (for those who want it) and other early hitting work start at 3, and pitchers going out to stretch, play catch and run at 3:45 without having to dodge batted balls.
Among the larger ones:
• Infielders take ground balls, and outfielders fly balls for 10-15 minutes starting at 4:10 rather than between swings of batting practice. Though not quite "old-school" infield practice, which only the Twins seem to take regularly, it provides time for individual work and infield drills, such as Tim Beckham and Brad Miller practicing double plays, and a safer environment.
"This allows the guys to focus on what they're doing without having balls thrown everywhere and hit around them," said Cash, who did drills this way when playing for the Red Sox and coaching the Indians. "And it allows the infield to work together."
• Players work on baserunning after their turn in the batting cage, simulating specific situations as set by outfield/baserunning/1B coach Rocco Baldelli.
"We know we can't replicate in-game situations," Cash said, "but just get acclimated, familiarize yourself by being at second base and seeing balls come off the bat."
Improving baserunning was a spring-long focus, with Baldelli drilling them on being more aware of the situations (such as checking positioning of the fielders before the pitch) and smarter in their decision making.
"It's a reminder to keep doing what we're doing effortwise but also using our heads at the same time," Baldelli said. "We don't have to challenge the defense every time."
To reinforce that, he had a sign installed in the clubhouse that reads:
Run the bases hard, but take what the defense gives you.
The Rays last year made 52 outs on the bases which, per baseball-reference.com, only was 19th most in the majors, though their 15 at third was top five.
Still that was too many for Baldelli.
"I'm glad we spent as much time on it as we did this spring," he said. "I think we put ourselves in a much better position than we have in the past."
Overall, bench coach Tom Foley said the players have been open to the additional work.
"Haven't had one complaint," he said. "They know. … We've got to get better. Simple as that."
Something you should know
The Rays jet north after today's game, notable not only as the first road trip in big-league luxury for rookies Daniel Robertson and Austin Pruitt (and his first visit to New York) but also their first experience with the revised meal/tip money rules under baseball's new labor agreement. Rather than getting $100.50 a day and paying roughly $70 in daily "clubhouse dues" to cover food and beverages, they now get $30 a day while the Rays pay the host teams to supply three meals lunch (breakfast for day games), pre- and postgame, plus snacks, drinks, etc. The players — with a minimum salary of $535,000 and an MLB average of $4.47 million — say they don't expect much impact, and will still tip as in the past. (How it affects the clubhouse staffs might turn out to be different.) On off-days, players will get $102.
Some things we think we know
• When OF Colby Rasmus (hip, core muscle surgery) comes off the disabled list, possibly by the end of this week, OF Mallex Smith seems likely to be sent down.
• Among reasons for not pursuing released (and former teammate) OF B.J. Upton is commitment to giving OF Peter Bourjos, who they've liked for a while, an opportunity.
• RHP Austin Pruitt's spot in the bullpen is tenuous; if they need a fresh arm due to heavy use, his spot is the one where they can rotate since he has options.
On the day (Wednesday) that St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman pitched a plan for a new stadium on the Trop site, the Rays and Yankees, in Game 3 of the season, drew just 12,737. … The Rays' season-opening payroll of around $69.5 million ranks 28th (ahead of Padres and Brewers); they were one of 21 teams to go up from last year. … Saw Bucs QB Jameis Winston last week pictured wearing his Yankees cap. … Kevin Cash didn't make Bovada's top 10 list of the first manager to be fired; Pittsburgh's Clint Hurdle is the "favorite" at 7-2. … The Rays will mark the franchise's 20th anniversary season in 2018 with a uniform patch and other ways, but what about the 10-year event of the 2008 team managed by you know who? … The Archer or Aristotle Trop scoreboard feature is clever, though what if the Rays pitcher tweets a quote from the Greek philosopher? … Boston TV station WCVB must be a little behind the times; its Thursday scoreboard listed the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, as they were last known in 2007. … Former big-leaguer Jerry Hairston Jr., now a Dodgers broadcaster, tweeted that MLB shouldn't put a team in Las Vegas but should "move Rays to Montreal and stay in AL East. Good rivalry w/Jays." … In the self-promotion department, we've started a Rays Tales podcast, available on tampabay.com and through SoundCloud and iTunes.