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What’s the catch? Rays are hoping better defense

The Rays made improvement a spring focus.
Kevin Kiermaier will be  running  down fly balls in centerfield again. [DIRK SHADD | Times]
Kevin Kiermaier will be running down fly balls in centerfield again. [DIRK SHADD | Times]
Published Mar. 27, 2018
Updated Mar. 27, 2018

ST. PETERSBURG — Deep down, Rays officials know their pitching plan of using four starters regularly and a crew of relievers when needed on a fifth day may not work, which is why they typically attach the proviso that they'll learn a lot through the first six weeks of the experiment.

And though they tout the benefits of adopting more of a contact-oriented offensive approach combined with having more speed and using it more effectively, the departures of Logan Morrison, Steven Souza Jr., Corey Dickerson, Evan Longoria and others who combined for 172 of their team-record 228 home runs may be more a drain than they expect.

But they're banking on being able to catch up to the Yankees and Red Sox in the American League East is by being better at catching the ball.

"Our defense as a whole is just really, really nice," top starter Chris Archer said. "We've got three center fielders in the outfield. Whoever plays second is going to be a really good defender. Our catching situation is the best it's been since I've been here.

"Matt Duffy has already shown how good of a third baseman he is. And (Adeiny Hechavarria) is one of the top defensive shortstops in the league. …

Added Archer: "I wouldn't be surprised if we have the best overall defense in the league if this group stays together and stays on the field."

Though the Rays are counting on the sum, the parts stack up well in their view.

In the outfield, that's rightfielder Carlos Gomez and some combination of Denard Span, Mallex Smith and just acquired right-handed hitting Rob Refsnyder in left flanking two-time Gold Glove winner Kevin Kiermaier.

Around the infield it's Duffy, Hechavarria, a slick-fielding platoon of Daniel Robertson and Joey Wendle at second, more C.J. Cron than Brad Miller at first, and Wilson Ramos and Jesus Sucre behind the plate.

"There's not a weak spot defensively out there, and that's just a beautiful thing," Kiermaier said. "On paper it looks great. Now we have to go out and perform and execute to our capabilities. But you look around and it's like – Wow, this could be a very special unit as far as our athleticism we have out there.

"I think there's going to be a lot of double plays turned this year and a lot of ground covered in the outfield."

At the same time, building confidence in their pitchers to pitch to contact,  which should allow them to throw fewer pitches and thus work deeper into games, which plays into the pitching plan.

"That's going to be big, especially with the four-man rotation we're trying out this year," Duffy said. "If they can have more confidence pitching to contact more they can get further into games just accidentally. That's going to be huge for your bullpen on a weekly basis, but also over the whole season, they're going to last longer in September."

Increasing their defensive proficiency should lead to a decrease in runs allowed, which obviously will help their bottom line.

Last season was an interesting study, as the Rays showed well in some of the advanced defensive metrics, most notably leading the majors with 88 defensive runs saved per Baseball Info Solutions and ranking fourth best by Baseball Prospectus' defensive efficiency ratings of turning batted balls into outs.

But their 80-82 record came from somewhere, and making the ninth most errors (100), posting the ninth worst fielding percentage (.983), turning the fifth fewest double plays (129) and allowing the fifth most unearned runs (66) count for something.

The Rays made improvement a focal point all spring, specifically in drills designed to be done at game speed.

"Where we're better is we're going to catch the ball better in theory,"  manager Kevin Cash said before the 2-1 loss in Tuesday's exhibition finale. "We're going to show more range, more range in the infield, more range in the outfield. We're going to make routine plays at a better clip than maybe what we've done in the past, not to say we were bad at it.

"We all know the margin of error is very slim. We play a lot of tight ballgames, that's due in large part because we've shown the ability to pitch.  One hiccup on defense can be game-changing."

And more great plays, they hope, game winning.

Marc Topkin can be reached at mtopkin@tampabay.com. Follow @TBTimes_Rays.