As the promise of 2018 gives way to the hopes of 2019, our Roundtable writers comb through the roster to pick out some key players they will eye this spring.
The Yandy man
Marc Topkin, Rays beat writer @TBTimes_Rays: There’s several players I’m intrigued by, as I’m writing for Sunday’s Times, and Yandy Diaz. There are several reasons: How much the Rays gave up for him in prospect Jake Bauers plus $5 million, how bullish they are that he can become a huge offensive weapon, and, to be honest, to see him first hand based on that Twitter photo that surfaced in December where he was bulked up.
Meadows of opportunity
Eduardo A. Encina, Bucs/pro sports enterprise writer, @EddieintheYard: Meadows came to the Rays as part of last year’s Chris Archer trade and this season he will have the opportunity to show that deal was a good move. The former ninth overall pick has always been highly touted and now — after the team traded fan favorite Mallex Smith in the offseason — a starting spot in the Rays outfield his to win. He raked in Durham at the end of last season (a 1.167 OPS in 27 games), and has all the signs of an emerging star, especially if he can improve his plate discipline. Now his success at the big league level will determine how to evaluate the deals to trade away Archer and Smith.
The masked man
Thomas Bassinger, sports data reporter, @tometrics: I’m most curious about Mike Zunino, the catcher the Rays got from the Mariners for outfielder Mallex Smith. Smith was fun to watch, but with Tommy Pham in left field, Kevin Kiermaier in center and Austin Meadows in right, he wasn’t going to be an everyday player here. In return, Tampa Bay got a catcher whose 20 home runs last season were second most among American League backstops. He’s strong defensively, too; he’s above average at framing pitches and throwing out would-be base stealers. If he can boost his dismal 6 percent walk rate by a couple of percentage points, the Rays won’t miss Wilson Ramos.
Martin Fennelly, columnist @mjfennelly: Tommy Pham won his arbitration case against the Rays, so what has he got. This guy infused this team with energy and unblinking take-no-prisoners fire after coming over from the Cardinals. It’s going to be interesting to see if his unbending will rubs off on teammates or his individuality rubs people the wrong way. He also powders the baseball and didn’t hesitate to take on support from Rays fans after he saw that they weren’t Cardinals Nation. Tough line to draw in the dust, but this man comes to play. Will the Rays roll that way is a big question. THis team could use a leader.
The Choi of baseball
Ernest Hooper, columnist/assistant sports editor, @hoop4you: I’m intrigued with Ji-Man Choi. I’m guessing he will spend a good deal of spring training at first base, working on his fielding. He could be an even bigger piece of the Rays infield puzzle if he improves that aspect of his game and continues the impressive plate performance that helped him hit .263 with an OPS of .863. Choi could prove to be a huge steal.
I want to see what the Rays got for Jake Bauers
Frank Pastor, digital sports editor, @frankpastor66: Yandy Diaz. While I have come to trust the Rays’ front office almost universally when it comes to personnel decisions, this one continues to perplex me. Clearly, the Rays see something in Diaz that allowed them to part with a future franchise cornerstone in Jake Bauers. They like that Diaz is right-handed, that he’s versatile in the field, and that the ball explodes off his bat. But can he elevate the ball? Will that translate into power? And where will they use him in the field? I’m anxious to see.
Time to see Austin’s power
Mike Sherman, sports editor, @mikesherman: This is Austin Meadow’s big chance. The perennial prospect will be given the chance to play every day with the Rays. He batted .287 with 10 homers and 40 RBI in a 59 games last season in Pittsburgh and Tampa Bay. Project those numbers over a full season and they look pretty good. A couple of springs ago, I went to a Pirates game in Bradenton and Meadows looked like the best player on the field — and Manny Machado was playing third base for the visitors.