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The Rays lineup could be a daily exercise in creativity this season

Defense remains strong up the middle, but could get a little wobbly elsewhere as the Rays try to figure out the best place to slot everyone in.
The Rays have no worries about Yoshitomo Tsutsugo's bat, but they're going to watch him closely in the spring to figure out whether he fits better at third base or a corner outfield position. [SHIZUO KAMBAYASHI  |  AP]
The Rays have no worries about Yoshitomo Tsutsugo's bat, but they're going to watch him closely in the spring to figure out whether he fits better at third base or a corner outfield position. [SHIZUO KAMBAYASHI | AP]
Published Jan. 14

ST. PETERSBURG — So the offseason shopping list is mostly complete. Right-handed power hitters? Got ’em. Depth in centerfield? Covered. Emergency catchers? Found two of those.

For a team coming off 96 wins, the Rays were not shy about tinkering with their offense this winter. Three of their top four run producers from last season have left town in the past two months and at least three new bats have arrived.

Of course, that’s nothing new around here. With low payroll comes high turnover. As players advance into their arbitration and free agency seasons, the Rays readjust the roster to keep salaries manageable.

The trick is covering all of their different needs with so many players coming and going.

Related: Tickets for Rays spring training games on sale Friday

And that makes the current configuration interesting because Tampa Bay typically values versatile players, yet seems a little top heavy with a handful of, shall we say, limited gloves.

Between Ji-Man Choi, Yandy Diaz, Yoshitomo Tsutsugo and Jose Martinez, the Rays have four players who are probably best suited for designated hitter, although they will end up sharing most of the playing time at first base and third base.

Meanwhile, there are only three pure outfielders (Austin Meadows, Kevin Kiermaier and Hunter Renfroe) guaranteed big-league jobs. Even with Major League Baseball’s expanded 26-man roster in 2020, that’s not going to give manager Kevin Cash as much flexibility as he would probably like.

All of which could make spring training more interesting than usual as the Rays tinker with players in unfamiliar jobs.

The key seems to be Tsutsugo. No matter where he plays, he will likely be a defensive liability. But the Rays are hoping he has just enough foot speed to occasionally fake it in leftfield, otherwise he’s probably destined for third base, which means Diaz might spend a lot of the spring learning to be Choi’s platoon partner at first base.

Martinez got most of his playing time at first base for St. Louis in 2018 and did not look terribly impressive. He moved to rightfield in 2019 and looked worse. That means, except on rare occasions, he could be Tampa Bay’s principal designated hitter.

Related: Rays trade a top pitching prospect for immediate offensive help

The limited flexibility between those four players means the Rays may have to get creative with the rest of the roster.

First of all, let’s assume the Rays are carrying the league maximum 13 pitchers. Run prevention is the franchise’s identity, and the Rays will not risk being shorthanded on the mound.

In that case, you have two catchers (Mike Zunino and either Michael Perez, Kevan Smith or Chris Herrmann), the three outfielders (Meadows, Kiermaier and Renfroe), the four sluggers (Choi, Diaz, Tsutsugo and Martinez) and three middle infielders (Willy Adames, Brandon Lowe and Joey Wendle), which means only one roster spot remains.

There are probably two ways that could be filled. The first is using newly acquired Randy Arozarena as a swing outfielder. The benefit to this is he could be Kiermaier’s backup in centerfield. The downside is the Rays would probably prefer to see him getting more consistent at-bats in Triple-A, at least early in the season. Also, that would leave Tampa Bay thin with middle infielders.

So that means the more likely outcome is Daniel Robertson or Mike Brosseau taking the 26th spot. Robertson is more versatile in the infield (he can play shortstop) but is not as capable as Brosseau as a fill-in outfielder. In this scenario, Renfroe would probably be Kiermaier’s backup in centerfield with Wendle in emergency situations.

Got all of that? Because it could make for some fascinating viewing during exhibition games.

Robertson, Brosseau and Wendle could all be moonlighting in the outfield during the spring, while Diaz may need a first baseman’s mitt. On top of all of that, the Rays have to figure out where Tsutsugo will fit most comfortably.

Related: One hot summer in Memphis convinced Rays this was a deal worth making

The good news is the offense looks like it’s been revamped and possibly improved. The losses of Tommy Pham, Avisail Garcia and Travis d’Arnaud could easily be offset by Tsutsugo, Renfroe and Martinez, as well as the continued growth of Meadows, Adames and Lowe.

All that remains is figuring out where all of the pieces go.

John Romano can be reached at jromano@tampabay.com. Follow @romano_tbtimes.

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