Most to prove in Rays spring training? That’d be Jose Alvarado

Rays Tales | Also, the trend of hiring outside of pro baseball to staff the minors continues and why you won’t see Kevin Kiermaier at Fan Fest.
Tampa Bay Rays pitcher Jose Alvarado looks on from the dugout in a Rays-Orioles game at Tropicana Field on Sept. 3.
Tampa Bay Rays pitcher Jose Alvarado looks on from the dugout in a Rays-Orioles game at Tropicana Field on Sept. 3. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]
Published Feb. 1, 2020

ST. PETERSBURG — There will be suggestions, including here, on which Rays players you should pay most attention to when spring training opens. The one team officials will be watching most is reliever Jose Alvarado.

That’s because no other player has a bigger spread between how much impact he could have on the Rays’ chances for success.

What started with a dazzling first six weeks turned into a lost 2019 season for the hard-throwing lefty. Family issues first distracted him, then led to him missing a month to go home to Venezuela. After a late June return he was limited to nine games thanks to an oblique strain and season-ending elbow inflammation. Net result: 1-6, 4.80 record, 27 walks in 30 innings (with 39 strikeouts), two blown saves in seven chances.

“I think it’s just a matter of getting him back to where he’s comfortable, making sure he’s quiet in his mind as much as he can (be), and going out there and doing what we all know that he’s capable of doing," pitching coach Kyle Snyder said. “Spring is going to be a pretty big hinge for him, and he knows that. Just being able to come in, get out there as often as possible, get his feet back beneath him and his confidence back.

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“He very easily could be as good as any reliever in the game (this) year. That’s the thing."

Alvarado, 24, was considered healthy by the end of the season, Snyder said, and was on a light throwing schedule while spending the offseason in Venezuela, starting to play catch in November.

Getting him right mentally and physically are equally important.

“I expect Jose to come in and compete just like anybody else," Snyder said.

Personnel department

Three of the six new coaches hired to the minor-league staff — Greg Brown, Rolando Garza, Frank Maldonado — came from college programs, which has become something of a trend among big-league teams seeking staffers to process and deliver information in different ways. Rays vice president Carlos Rodriguez said it wasn’t by design: “We were casting a wide net in targeting really high-quality people, and it so happened that some of those folks were outside of professional baseball." Plus, there were some connections: Garza, from Pepperdine, briefly worked previously for the Rays; Maldonado, from Greensboro College, has coached at USF and Tampa. …. Having hired Halee Williams as rehab athletic trainer and Jenny Garcia and Carla Hodel as mental performance coaches (starting in May), the Rays are adding a women’s locker room as part of renovations at their Port Charlotte spring/minor-league facility. … Garcia played for the Colombian national softball team.

Related: Rays’ minor-league staffs have a major new look

Rays rumblings

Tampa Bay Rays hitting coach Chad Mottola is headed to the Triple-A International League Hall of Fame.
Tampa Bay Rays hitting coach Chad Mottola is headed to the Triple-A International League Hall of Fame. [ BILL KOSTROUN | Associated Press ]

The popular Friday $7.11 ticket deal with 7-Eleven has been dropped, as the Rays are working on finalizing several new “ticket products” to be unveiled sometime after the Feb. 8 Fan Fest. Also, the promotional schedule will be announced this coming week. … Congrats to hitting coach Chad Mottola for being elected to the Triple-A International League Hall of Fame; he played parts of nine seasons there with six teams, winning league MVP in 2000. The timing is interesting given that Mottola was taken fifth overall in the 1992 draft and the next pick, a guy named Derek Jeter, is also going into a Hall of Fame this year. … Invitees to spring camp will include pitcher Ryan Sherriff and outfielder Dylan Cozen, two former big-leaguers who signed two-year minor-league deals in returning from injuries. Others expected include pitchers Josh Fleming, Sam McWilliams, Phoenix Sanders (of USF), Tyler Zombro, outfielder Miles Mastrobuoni. … Centerfielder Kevin Kiermaier will miss next weekend’s Fan Fest due to a longstanding commitment to a friend’s out-of-state wedding. … TV pre- and post-game host Rich Hollenberg has another job calling college basketball games mostly for ESPN, and Saturday was to mark a personal milestone: The Oklahoma-Oklahoma State matchup on ABC was his first appearance on a broadcast network. … Just by signing Yoshi Tsutsugo for $12 million over two years, the Rays spent more on free agents this off-season, per data, than the Red Sox, Cubs, Indians, Rockies, Mariners, A’s, Royals, Orioles. And just less than the Dodgers and Cardinals. … When the Astros visit April 13-15, it will only be Dusty Baker’s second trip to the Trop as a manager, and first since 2011 with Cincinnati. Related, it doesn’t seem right that Baker now gets to manage the American League team in the All-Star Game; better it be Aaron Boone of the Yankees, who lost in the ALCS to Houston.

Ex-Rays/locals rumblings

Infielder Matt Duffy, who the Rays designated for assignment, clearly has a lot to prove after missing most of the past 3 ½ seasons with injuries, getting only a minor-league deal from Texas, worth $1 million with $1.5 million of incentives in the majors. … After our recent story, Tampa-based sports agent B.B. Abbott surpassed his goal of raising $100,000 for pediatric cancer groups in climbing Mount Kilimanjaro and is now aiming for $125,000. (Donate here). … Among eight former Cubs hired to do analyst work on their new Marquee TV are ex-Rays Lou Piniella, Carlos Pena and Jason Hammel. … Other recent signings: Tampa-born ex-Rays outfielder Matt Joyce, after a decent year off the Braves bench, with the Marlins; Seminole High pitcher Joey Krehbiel, who debuted in 2018 with Arizona, a minor-league deal with the Twins; utility man Emilio Bonifacio, who spent 2019 at Triple-A Durham, a minor-league deal with the Nats. … Outfielder Peter Bourjos, who played 2017 with Tampa Bay, is retiring and joining the Rockies as an advance scout.

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Key dates

Feb. 8: Fan Fest, 11-3, Tropicana Field. Free, ticket required through MLB Ballpark app on mobile device

Feb. 12: Spring training news conference, Port Charlotte

Feb. 13: First workout, pitchers and catchers, 11 a.m., Port Charlotte

Feb. 18: First full squad workout, 11 a.m., Port Charlotte

Feb. 22: Exhibition opener, at Red Sox (Fort Myers), 1:05 p.m.

Feb. 23: Home exhibition opener, vs. Yankees (Port Charlotte), 1:05 p.m.

March 26: Season opener, vs. Pirates, Tropicana Field, 4:10 p.m.