No Mallex Smith, no C.J. Cron, no Jake Bauers, no problem for the Rays

Once again, Tampa Bay’s front office has re-imagined the team’s roster and the metrics say the Rays have a contender.
The Rays roster has changed but the people who changed it, senior vice president of baseball operations Chaim Bloom, left, general manager Erik Neander, center, and manager Kevin Cash, shown here Tuesday during a pre-spring training press conference in Port Charlotte, still remain. CHRIS URSO   |   Times
The Rays roster has changed but the people who changed it, senior vice president of baseball operations Chaim Bloom, left, general manager Erik Neander, center, and manager Kevin Cash, shown here Tuesday during a pre-spring training press conference in Port Charlotte, still remain. CHRIS URSO | Times
Published February 12

PORT CHARLOTTE — Pitchers and catchers reported for spring training on Tuesday. Or, as its more commonly referred to in Tampa Bay:

Your blind date is here.

This is your first look at your new catcher. And No. 2 pitcher. And first baseman. And DH. And all the other available players your Rays front office hooked you up with this offseason.

It’s true a lot of teams will have a bunch of fresh faces this time of year, but Tampa Bay does seem to gravitate more toward passing flings. Sign ’em, play ’em, dump ’em.

Brad Miller hit 30 homers in 2016. He’s gone.

Corey Dickerson hit 27 homers in 2017. He’s gone.

Logan Morrison hit 38 homers in 2017. He’s gone.

C.J. Cron hit 30 homers in 2018. He’s gone.

In their place are a lot of guys who will hit some bombs in 2019 and won’t be here in 2021. And I’m sure that’s frustrating to fans who might enjoy the occasional encore. But do you know what’s even more frustrating?

Losing.

And this ability to successfully churn the roster while keeping the payroll manageable has become a Tampa Bay specialty. Do you know how many years the Rays have won 90 or more games since 2008? Six.

Do you know how many teams have had more 90-win seasons? Two. The Red Sox and Dodgers.

So is your allegiance to a name on the back of a jersey, or a logo on the front of the jersey? Because, around here, it’s hard to do both. You can’t be sentimental and thrifty, too.

If you really want to buy jerseys of Tampa Bay’s brightest stars then get yourself a Erik Neander polo. Or maybe a Chaim Bloom alternate top. Seriously, those are the MVPs in Tampa Bay.

Players come and go (and come and go) but the front office has remained fairly static during this run. It began with Andrew Friedman and Matt Silverman, and has been handed down to Neander and Bloom.

These are the people who brought you defensive shifts and run prevention calculations and relievers as openers and player control valuations.

It’s their job to find value in the expendable. To turn expensive and established players into affordable and emerging players. They followed a major overhaul in the winter of 2017-18 with another modest housecleaning this past winter. The result is a college-like reset of a professional roster.

Cron was cut loose in the offseason. Mallex Smith and Jake Bauers were traded. Carlos Gomez was not re-signed. Those four were among the team’s top six players in plate appearances in 2018.

That turnover was even more noticeable a year ago when the top four players in plate appearances in 2017 (Evan Longoria, Dickerson, Morrison and Steven Souza Jr.) were all traded or left via free agency. And none of that includes players (Miller, Wilson Ramos, Adeiny Hechavarria, Alex Colome, Denard Span) who left in the middle of 2018.

And yet the Rays went 90-72 last season, and Baseball Prospectus has them contending for a wild card again in 2019.

“The pain those (trades) might cause is not lost on us,’’ said Neander. “We know these players and we become invested in them and we do everything possible to help them succeed, and all of that just makes it harder to flip the switch and satisfy the other parts of your job description when it comes time to make a trade.

“But you have to be willing to accept that pain up front with the hope that it leads to a better outcome down the road.’’

And so 2019 brings us Yandy Diaz and Avisail Garcia and Charlie Morton and Emilio Pagan and Mike Zunino. Chances are, they won’t all work out. And chances are also pretty good that, at some point this summer, Tampa Bay fans will bellyache about what Bauers is doing in Cleveland or Smith in Seattle.

But when your payroll is a fraction of what they have in New York or Boston, this willingness to take chances and make hard choices is one of the few ways to make up ground.

So settle in and prepare to watch. On the first day of spring, the Rays are looking pretty good.

Whoever they are.

Read more:

[ Five things we learned from the Rays press conference ]

[ Jeff Samardzija wants Rays pitchers to revolt against the opener ]

[ How Charlie Morton feels to be in Tampa Bay ]

Contact John Romano at jromano@tampabay.com. Follow @romano_tbtimes

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