PORT CHARLOTTE — The Rays kicked off spring training on Tuesday with their introductory spring training news conference at Charlotte Sports Park with manager Kevin Cash, vice president of baseball operations and general manager Erik Neander and vice president of baseball operations Chaim Bloom offering their insight on the upcoming season.
Here are five things we learned:
The opener is here to stay
Cash said that the team plans to enter the season with three starting pitchers — Blake Snell, Charlie Morton and Tyler Glasnow, in no particular order — and use the opener strategy with the other two spots. While Giants pitcher Jeff Samardzija ripped the opener usage earlier this week, wondering why players didn’t push back, Cash said his pitching staff was all in last season in order to win games, which the Rays did.
“We certainly value our players quite a bit, and I think looking at what these guys did, whether it was the opener or the bulk guy that followed, they had pretty special seasons. ... They bought in, and we’re going to need that again, but I also think they also value and cherish winning games, and that helped us to win games.”
Added Neander: “We have a young roster. They’re willing to do whatever I think is asked of them, and trust. I think they appreciate the trust they have in Kevin and the staff to put them in the best position to succeed and we saw what is possible when we have that in place. The way last year went and the success they had, it helps going into this year that the intent behind that is to win games.”
If there’s any pressure to build on last season, it’s not coming from Kevin Cash
The Rays' second-half surge put them in the playoff picture in September and while their 90-win finish left them out of the second AL Wild Card spot, but there doesn't appear to be any pressure from within entering this season. Cash made it clear. The Rays realize the division they are in, one that saw the Red Sox and Yankees record triple-digit wins on their way to the postseason, and he hopes the team's young nucleus will handle any added expectations in the same way they did last season, but also benefit from the experience of being immersed in meaningful late-season baseball.
“I think we’ll control them from inside,” Cash said. “From being around these young guys that didn’t have a ton of experience who really carried themselves really well in some high-pressure environments at the end of the year playing in some exciting ballparks in just a lot of tight ballgames. I expect we’ll learn from that and continue to grow and put it to use.”
Don’t expect a flurry of spring training trades like last season
Last February, the Rays made a flurry of spring training trades, dealing veterans like right-hander Jake Odorizzi, Steven Souza, Jr., and Corey Dickerson before Grapefruit League games even started. But now that the club has built its young core — and it’s a group that’s proven to be competitive in the AL East — any moves will Rays make will be with an emphasis on getting the team to the postseason.
“There’s no question that last year, the opening part of camp was different than most,” Bloom said. “Our whole goal here has been to get to the point where we had a core of players that could compete in the division and compete for the postseason and that we could roll forward with. And if you look at what happened on the field last year and started to take shape as the year went on, we certain feel that is something that’s building here. You never tune out completely the possibility of some kind of move, but we’re at the point where we want to be competing for the postseason, so anything we do will be with that in mind.”
Rays will look at many players at first base
After trading Jake Bauers, the Rays enter spring with the first base position unsettled. Right-handed hitting Yandy Diaz, the key piece coming back in the Bauers deal, and left-handed hitting Ji-Man Choi will offer a platoon options at the position. Brandon Lowe — who played second and both corner outfield spots last season — should also see time at reps and rising prospect Nate Lowe will also see some time there. The spring training reps will be important to see who will be the best fit defensively, especially given most players in that group aren’t considered natural first basemen.
“We’re going to learn a lot about first base,” Cash said. “We all talk about how much we care about our defense and securing the baseball and that’s a big spot. I think the more information we get on how these guys complement the rest of our infielders will be really beneficial through spring training.”
Right now, there’s no defined closer, and that’s no big deal
Cash said there's no urgency to name a closer, and added that late-inning arms like Jose Alvarado and Diego Castillo could be used in the ninth or earlier into the game depending on the game. With Sergio Romo gone, no Rays reliever has more than Alvarado's eight saves, and Alvarado was used in a variety of situations.
“We’ve had this conversation many times over many years and I personally like the flexibility, you can win games in the sixth, seventh, eighth inning,” Cash said. “Why wait? We’ve got a bunch of guys we feel will find their way into the ninth inning and have success. ... They’re special pitchers and to know we have those two arms complemented by some other guys whether its Ryan Stanek and Chaz Roe, we’re confident that they can continue doing what they can do and we can continue to match up with them however we see fit.”
Contact Eduardo A. Encina at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @EddieInTheYard.