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Why winning the Cy Young will only make Rays lefty Blake Snell work harder

What, you might ask, could the All-Star pitcher have to improve on? He has a list.
Blake Snell gave plenty of thanks when accepting his AL Cy Young award last month. [MLB.com video]
Blake Snell gave plenty of thanks when accepting his AL Cy Young award last month. [MLB.com video]
Published Feb. 13, 2019|Updated Feb. 13, 2019

PORT CHARLOTTE — Blake Snell is in a good place.

Back among his Rays teammates. Back working at the job he loves. And back to proving to the remaining doubters that he’s among the best at what he does.

If you thought winning the American League Cy Young award after a spectacular and historic 21-5, 1.89 season might dull Snell’s motivation, he has a fastball up and in for you.

"Every year I’m more motivated, I feel,'' he said Wednesday, on the opening day of spring workouts. "I feel I get more and more excited, too. I feel like I gained a lot of ground last year to be excited about, but also still knowing I have a lot of work to do to get to where I want to be at the end of the day. … “I feel like there is a lot of room still to get better.''

What, you might ask, could Snell have to improve on?

He has a list.

“Being able to go deeper into games is something that I want to focus on,’’ he said. “Consistency in the strike zone, it needs to be better. … I think those two go hand in hand. And it will help me be a lot better.''

That all sounds good, especially for a 26-year-old coming off his first full season in the big leagues. But there’s been lots of players who take a star turn and then slack off or get big-headed.

“You never truly know until you see it happen,’’ said third baseman Matt Duffy, one of a few veterans among the Rays. “But he’s saying all the right things.’’

Manager Kevin Cash is betting, as you’d expect, on Snell being just as driven.

“Knowing Blake Snell the last couple years, he’s been pretty consistent the way he’s carried himself in the clubhouse,’’ Cash said. “I thought he really handled some difficult situations really well last year. Maturely. The All-Star Game, with all the talk (about not initially being named to the team), he could have come out and done some things that probably weren’t in his best interest. He chose to kind of let other people do his talking. The maturity he has shown throughout the course of the year was pretty remarkable.’’

But also, Cash said, “he’s a big kid. He likes to go out and pitch and dominate every fifth day for us. And I don’t think that’s going to change.’’

Snell said as much, that the doubleheader challenge of pitching again at an elite level and helping the Rays get to the playoffs is plenty to keep him engaged.

But pitching coach Kyle Snyder, closer to Snell than anyone with a different last name, said some additional motivation is mounting.

Evidence entry No. 1? MLB Network’s recent Top 10 Starting Pitchers Right Now! rankings, which somehow had Snell 10th, behind several legit aces but also the Yankees’ Luis Severino and Cleveland’s Carlos Carrasco.

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“If anything, he feels disrespected by some of these recent lists,’’ Snyder said. “He’s like, “Dude, I’m over this. I was the Cy Young award winner in the friggin’ American League and now people are telling me I’m not a top 10 pitcher?’ Blake has always been that way. He loves it.’’

Snell offered a somewhat more diplomatic take in front of the cameras on Wednesday, saying he sees things like that list, pays attention “for maybe a second,’’ and moves on.

“It doesn’t bother me,’’ he said. “You can rank me whatever you want to rank me, I don’t care. You can rank me one, you can rank me 100. I’m gonna come out and show you. I’ve got work to do. I’ve got to learn. I’ve got to get better. It does help. It helps. At the same time, I’ve only had one good year. I look at it that way. I’ve got to stay consistent at being good. And that’s hard to do at this level. So I’ve got to keep finding ways to get better and better. You’ve got to earn that respect, so I get it. I’m not mad about it.’’

Snell is still a goofy kid at times, tweeting incessantly about playing video games, joking about how he missed the rehearsal for teammate Jake Faria’s November wedding, insisting that in an off-season that included winning the Cy and Warren Spahn (best lefty) awards plus trips from his Seattle-area home to Dallas, Las Vegas and the Rose Bowl game (he’s a huge Washington fan), his favorite activity was playing with his dog, a chocolate lab named Junior after you-know-who.

But there is a serious side in there, too.

Snell said there has been “nothing” in the way of talks with the Rays about a multi-year contract recently (after some discussions in previous years) and he didn’t see much point at this time given the payoff (potentially $6-million-$7 million) that awaits him after this season when he graduates from three-plus years of making just over the major-league minimum ($555,000 this year.)

“Arbitration is next year, why would I be interested?’’ Snell said. “The Rays would have to do something crazy, and you know as well as I do … ‘’

He also shared some frustration about the collapse of talks to get the Rays a new stadium in Ybor City, though he expressed some hope. “You feel like the fans feel, you’re upset,'' he said. "You want the new stadium. Ybor City is a perfect spot; a lot of people that can show up and support. That’s something that all of us want. Everyone wants a new stadium. … So to not see it happen, yeah, it’s frustrating. But we understand, too, they’ve got a lot of business to take care of to make that happen. They’ll find a way to make it happen. You’ve just got to be patient.’’

Snell needed more than patience to handle the struggles during his way to the top of the mound, including two demotions to the minors during a rough 2017. He scoffs at the suggestion of any supposed pressure in repeating success or dealing with the spoils.

“I don’t feel any pressure,’’ he said. “I keep focusing on (that) I’ve just got to get better. And I think that allows me to kind of nick all the outside stuff. … Just focusing on getting better allows me to stay calm and relaxed.’’

And in a very good place.

Contact Marc Topkin at mtopkin@tampabay.com. Follow @TBTimes_Rays.

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