ST. PETERSBURG — The Rays open spring training this week, feeling they have improved from last season’s surprising 90-win success and are positioned to contend for an American League playoff spot. But so much will happen with them and others over the next 6½ weeks to shape their chances, and the accompanying expectations and predictions. As the Rays head for the 11th spring to Port Charlotte, here are 10 of the people we are most curious about seeing. Not necessarily the most important people or best players on the 65-man roster, more, for one reason or another, 10 of the most intriguing:
Perhaps the biggest question going into camp, besides how many days manager Kevin Cash gets shut out fishing, is, Who’s on first? Or, more specifically, who’s going to be there come opening day. The Rays plan to spend a lot of time seeing if the lefty swinging Choi can play there, and well enough to not be a drag on their top-notch defense. If he can, expect something of a platoon with Yandy Diaz, with some DH duty mixed in. If Choi, who played some first with the Angels and Yankees, can’t then he’ll just DH, and there’s an opening for the increasingly versatile Brandon Lowe, who also will get a spring look. This all could be moot in a few months if prospect Nate Lowe (no relation) continues his rapid ascent.
There’s several reasons, starting with how much the Rays gave up to get him — cornerstone prospect Jake Bauers plus $5 million. Next, how confident the Rays are, with adjustments to his swing, Diaz can become an “absolute beast” at the plate. Third, just how bulked up he really is, given the eye-opening Twitter photo that posted shortly after his unexpected acquisition from Cleveland. Diaz is slated to get most of his time at first, but also plays third (and maybe outfield), and will get a quick introduction to the value the Rays put on defense. His versatility adds options to manager Kevin Cash’s plans to rotate and rest guys, and will lead to Matt Duffy also getting a look in the outfield.
Acquired as one of the pitchers to be named later in the Steven Souza Jr. trade to Arizona, Poche threw himself into the plans with a dazzling 2018 season at Double- and Triple-A. The lefty struck out 110 in 66 innings, allowing a 0.82 ERA and .151 average, and earned the impressive, albeit unofficial, title as “the most unhittable arm in the minors” from fangraphs.com. Poche most likely begins at Triple-A, but is the closest to helping at the big level of the advanced group of prospects that includes Nate Lowe and righty reliever Ian Gibaut.
There’s some pretty big arms and increasingly well-known names among the Rays pitchers, but a key to the makeup of the staff may be Font. Healthy after an impressive nine-game run that ended with a June 29 lat strain and out of minor-league options, Font could share opener duties with Ryne Stanek on the days when Blake Snell, free-agent addition Charlie Morton and Tyler Glasnow aren’t starting. Font could join Yonny Chirinos and Ryan Yarbrough as bulk-inning guys (we still need a better name for that role) working behind openers. He could be part of the bullpen by committee that will include Jose Alvarado, Diego Castillo, Chaz Roe and two others from the group of Jalen Beeks, Jake Faria, Adam Kolarek, Emilio Pagan, Austin Pruitt, Hunter Wood and maybe rookie Colin Poche. (Plus, Stanek can also be used at the back end of games.)
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The Rays signed him because of his success as a veteran starter with experience in big games (like final out of the 2017 World Series big). His reputation is even better as a clubhouse guy, the kind who finds way to make everyone around him better. He’s also known for being an all-star caliber interview, with thoughtful, honest and refreshingly non-cliché answers. And we’ve heard he plays guitar, makes a mean cup of coffee, knows his way around the grill and smoker, is into video games and woodworking. And then there’s the CFM nickname, newspaper sanitized as Charlie Freaking Morton.
Being honest, we’re quite intrigued by what Erlichman, who’d spent five-plus years crunching numbers in the front office, will be doing as a uniformed process and analytics coach. And by how J-Money, as he’s known, will go about it and is received by players and others, as the Rays break yet another barrier. The main purpose is for Erlichman to provide another perspective on what, how and why the Rays are doing things, and spring will be a feeling-out process for all parties. Overall, there will be a re-calibration of the coaching staff, which also lost Rocco Baldelli and Charlie Montoyo and added Paul Hoover and Rodney Linares.
The wonder of Wander is a bad word play but a good topic, as there’s understandable curiosity and considerable interest in the teen idol (he doesn’t turn 18 until March 1) who has rocketed to the top five prospect status in the game. The infielder won’t be around the big-league team, nor will intriguing two-way prospect Brendan McKay, but worth tracking down on the back fields or in minor-league exhibitions.
Free-agent starter Charlie Morton comes with the more impressive resume and bigger paycheck, but the Rays are quite excited about the addition of Zunino (even though they stayed in on the trade talks for J.T. Realmuto). Zunino should replace some of the power they lost with C.J. Cron, add defense in several ways behind the plate and provide more-vocal guidance for the pitching staff. Plus he, Morton and outfielder Avisail Garcia bring experience and leadership to a mostly young (though well-behaved) clubhouse that has shed Carlos Gomez and Sergio Romo, who were leaders but at times also distractions.
For all the moving parts, the Rays actually go into camp with their roster fairly set. If all are healthy, the only “battle” seems to be for the final position player spot, with Brandon Lowe likely having an edge over outfielder Guillermo Heredia. But that is all based on the assumption that Meadows, who cooled after an impressive May debut with Pittsburgh and spent most of 2018 at Triple-A, shows he is ready and able to play on a regular basis, at the plate and especially in the outfield. The Rays’ thought is that knowing for the first time he has clear path to be in the majors will make him relaxed and confident. At least they’re hoping.
We know how much confidence the 23-year-old spews, and are maybe are even a teensy bit guilty of encouraging him at times. Honeywell will surely talk big again, but otherwise the spring is about restraint, keeping him from doing too much as he completes recovery from the Tommy John surgery to repair the elbow he blew out in his first live batting practice last year. Honeywell projects to be an impact starter, and is on schedule to throw rehab games in late April or May and make that long-awaited debut in June. And then there will be even more to talk about.
Contact Marc Topkin at email@example.com. Follow @TBTimes_Rays.