Jones: Spring could be the best of Rays’ season

The Rays hope to competitive in 2018, but it feels like a season for rebuilding.
Rays general manager Erik Neander, center, and Chaim Bloom, senior vice president of baseball operations, left, listen as manager Kevin Cash speaks during a pre-spring training news conference.  (Chris Urso, Times)
Rays general manager Erik Neander, center, and Chaim Bloom, senior vice president of baseball operations, left, listen as manager Kevin Cash speaks during a pre-spring training news conference. (Chris Urso, Times)
Published Feb. 13, 2018

PORT CHARLOTTE — The highlight of the Rays' 2018 season might have been Tuesday.

That's when the Rays' brass opened spring training with an annual news conference.

It was a beautiful day, the type of day that reminds you everything that's great about spring training.

Blue skies. Freshly-cut green grass. Hope springs eternal. Anything is possible. All that good stuff.

Even with the Rays, spring training comes with a heavy dose of optimism. The feel-good vibe was the theme Tuesday.

Too bad they actually have to take the field.

Let's be honest. There really is not much reason to have optimism for 2018.

Even more depressing, it could only be the start of a rebuilding project that could take years.

Not that anyone with the Rays will use the word "rebuilding.''

"How to label the year, I'm not sure what would be most appropriate," Rays general manager Erik Neander said. "But … the talent is there. Whether it can mature fast enough for this to be a really successful year remains to be seen. But we're excited about the talent."

Still, it's hard to think about all the so-called talent that's coming up when you consider all the talent that has left.

Neander called it a "unique offseason." Rays fans would call it a depressing one.

The Rays traded the best player in franchise history. Not only that, but Evan Longoria was still Tampa Bay's best every-day player. Alex Cobb, the Rays' best starting pitcher, is gone, too.

"(Longoria) will definitely be missed," Rays manager Kevin Cash said. "You don't have the type of career that he did with the Rays and not miss a guy like that. The same can be said for Alex Cobb."

Those aren't the only two.

Logan Morrison, who led the team in homers, isn't back. Neither is Tommy Hunter, who was second on the pitching staff with 61 appearances. Neither is former all-star reliever Brad Boxberger.

Others could soon follow. Like 2017 saves leader Alex Colome. And reliable starting pitcher Jake Odorizzi. And Corey Dickerson, the team's top hitter in 2017. Maybe even Chris Archer, who still passes for an ace on this team.

Take all that away from a team that won only 80 games and what reason do you have to believe things are getting better? The Rays have had four losing seasons in a row. Feels as if No. 5 is on the way.

"The successes we have this year are going to depend on two things," Neander said. "The health of our veteran players and guys who are going to establish themselves at the major-league level. And then second, the younger talent that we have and how that breaks in and how that breaks through and what they can provide. It's not easy to come of the major-league level for the first time and have immediate success. I think for us to compete we're going to need some guys to step up and provide that. Certainly I think the talent is there for that to happen."

But that seems more likely to happen in 2021 than this season.

The problem the Rays face this season, as it has faced most seasons, is trying to navigate the fine line of building for the future while being competitive in the present. It's a near-impossible task, especially when the owner wants to slash the payroll to under $75 million when $75 million is what rivals such as the Yankees and Red Sox spend on their outfields alone.
While the Yankees load up with superstars, the Rays try to keep pace with youngsters.

"The successes this organization has had over the past 10 years has been by way of young players stepping up and taking on greater roles and carrying us forward," Neander said. "And 2018 is no different than any year prior. We've been very dedicated to building up our system over the last three, four, five years and really throughout. It's something we have to do. But we've really made some positive strides the last three or four years here and I think that's something that can carry us forward."

There are some promising young kids coming. Some might even make an impact as soon as this season or next. Maybe Matt Duffy will finally make on the field and do something. Maybe Brad Miller will bounce back from a terrible 2017. Maybe Steven Souza, Jr. will keep improving. Kevin Kiermaier, too.

The pitching staff could be decent if Blake Snell continues to develop and Jose DeLeon arrives.

And, yes, there will be room for a kid or two, like Christian Arroyo, the infielder acquired in the Longoria trade.

Look, there's nothing wrong with rebuilding. There's nothing wrong with starting over. There's nothing wrong with getting young and building for the future. And it's unreasonable to expect Tampa Bay to spend money like New York and Boston.

The Rays won't use the word "tanking" because they don't consider this a total tank job. They aren't looking to bottom out like the Astros or Cubs once did. They hope to be competitive.

Too bad that doesn't seem realistic at the moment.

So enjoy spring training. It might be the best part of the Rays' 2018 season.