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Who are the 10 Rays to watch most this spring?

There are no major holes, but a lot to be sorted out when the Rays open camp Thursday in Port Charlotte.
Yoshitomo Tsutsugo speaks with reporters during news conference Tuesday, Dec. 17, 2019 in St. Petersburg. The outfielder/third baseman was signed to a two-year, $12-million deal, with the Rays also paying $2.4 million to his Japanese team. [CHRIS URSO | Times]

This story was updated after Saturday night’s trade of reliever Emilio Pagan to the Padres for outfielder Manuel Margot.

ST. PETERSBURG — For a team that won 96 games last season, took the Astros to the decisive game of the American League Division Series and kept most of their key guys together, the Rays open spring training in Port Charlotte this week with a lot of questions.

Not necessarily problems. Not major issues. Not big holes.

But lots of things to figure out over the next 6½ weeks.

Many revolve around where free-agent addition Yoshi Tsutsugo, the lefty slugger signed from Japan, plays. The Rays will look at him in left field and third base, and maybe first, hoping he does well enough to be used more than just at designated hitter. (Especially since they also traded for Jose Martinez, a righty hitter who they’d be just fine seeing only with a bat.)

Related: MLB: Montreal sharing plan ’100 percent’ best way to keep Rays in Tampa Bay

Where Tsutsugo fits could impact a half dozen others, including who gets the final roster spots.

The health of several players who were injured last year, such as Blake Snell, is relevant. So, too, the progress/regression of rising young players like shortstop Willy Adames.

There will be considerable discussion over constructing what is now a 26-man roster. A key point will be whether to start with the maximum 13 pitchers, or open with 12, and thus 14 position players. As will building a bullpen to deal with the new three-batter minimum requirement for relievers. Also, being best prepared, especially pitching-wise, for a challenging early schedule, with 35 games in 37 days (including 30 in 31) after the March 26 opener.

And that’s just what we know now. That said, here are the 10 players of most interest:

10. Wander Franco

[ALLIE GOULDING | Tampa Bay Times]

That Franco wasn’t invited to big-league camp isn’t a surprise, given that he’s just 18 and has played only two pro seasons, topping out at advanced Class A. But he also might have the most talent of any player the Rays have, ranked the game’s top prospect by just about every expert based on top-of-the-chart tools and makeup.

Most likely you’re going to have to catch the switch-hitting shortstop in a back-field workout or a minor-league exhibition. But he will be among the minor-leaguers reporting for early workouts, and sometimes the Rays slip those guys into big-league spring games. Can’t blame manager Kevin Cash for wanting to get a peek. Or Franco wanting to make a good first impression, even if won’t reach his goal of playing in the majors as a teenager some point this season.

9. Austin Meadows

[ALLIE GOULDING | Times]

The exhibition season can become extension season for Rays officials, which could be a potentially good thing for rising young players such as Meadows, Willy Adames and Tyler Glasnow. After getting caught up on all their camp-opening business (and replacing all the execs who got general manager jobs elsewhere), the Rays will start focusing on the future, deciding which players are worth investing in with long-term deals, weighing what they consider the right value versus the player’s view.

Often times, it’s much more talk than action, but some deals do come together. Last spring they approached a half dozen players and signed two, Blake Snell (five years, $50 million) and Brandon Lowe (six years, $24 million, with another $25 million possible). Ryan Yarbrough and Yonny Chirinos could also be extension candidates this spring.

8. Mike Zunino

[DIRK SHADD | Tampa Bay Times]

Catcher is one position where the Rays clearly took a step back, allowing Travis d’Arnaud to leave as a free agent and not doing much to replace him. They doubled down that Zunino won’t (can’t?) be as bad offensively as last year, hitting .165 with nine homers and a .544 OPS, and because he does a lot defensively.

A good spring would do well to assuage any concerns, and maybe a bad showing would push the Rays to the trade market. As for a job share? The only options brought in to compete with Michael Perez were two veteran journeyman-type signed to minor-league contracts, Chris Herrmann and Kevan Smith. Herrmann has more versatility, Smith a better bat, and probably a better chance.

7. Randy Arozarena

[JEFF ROBERSON | Associated Press]

There doesn’t appear, assuming everyone is healthy, to be a lot of other competition for jobs. Maybe some jousting for the final spots in the bullpen, especially with Emilio Pagan traded, maybe depending on how Jose Alvarado and Peter Fairbanks look and how many bulk-inning guys are needed. The most interesting battle may be for the last seat on the bench. Eleven players seem set with the Saturday night addition of outfielder Manuel Margot, and two other spots will go to lefty-swinging, super versatile Joey Wendle and the backup catcher.

So Arozarena, acquired from the Cardinals in the deal that cost prospect pitcher Matthew Liberatore, seems likely haded to Triple-A now, with infielders Michael Brosseau and infielder Daniel Robertson competing for the last spot, and a lot of elements factoring into the decision. The Rays think quite highly of Arozarena, acquired from the Cardinals, and until the Margot trade it looked like his speed and defense, especially as a backup in centerfield, could help. Brosseau, who debuted last year, provides the most versatility, and some pop. Robertson has the slick glove, able to fill in smoothly around the infield on a team that prides itself on run prevention. If something changes, Nate Lowe could also end up in the discussion.

Related: Montreal group leader: Rays plan ‘is real,’ details to be set in 2020

6. Hunter Renfroe

[ORLANDO RAMIREZ | AP]

Infield prospect Xavier Edwards is considered a big part of the return for trading Tommy Pham to the Padres, but Renfroe is the guy who goes into the lineup, and thus the spotlight.

The Rays have much to learn about the power-hitting, smooth-fielding, hard-throwing outfielder, such as whether he’s better/more comfortable in left or right, if he can be more than a platoon starter versus lefty pitching, how his 30-plus homer power transitions to hitting in the AL East, and more. The addition of Margot eliminates the need for Renfroe to fill in in center for Kevin Kiermaier.

5. Tyler Glasnow

[DIRK SHADD | Tampa Bay Times]

There are some questions about each of the Rays top three starters, who, if healthy, have the chance to be among the game’s toughest trios. The biggest involve Glasnow, who not only is coming off the forearm injury that sidelined him for a big chunk of last season, but had a wrist procedure in November.

There’s also potential residual from the pitch tipping issue in his final playoff start. Then again, Glasnow had a miserable showing last spring (0-5, 10.38) and got off to a sizzling start (6-0, 1.47), before his May injury, so who knows what matters in February and March.

Like Glasnow, Blake Snell also returned from an extended injury absence (elbow surgery to remove bone chips) to look sharp in limited duty in the postseason. He heads into camp healthy, stronger and supposedly very motivated. The senior member, Charlie Morton, is coming off the heaviest workload of his career, and, now 36 and in the final season of his contract, figures to be handled gently early on, hoping there is no carryover impact. With the stout early schedule, the Rays will count heavily on all three.

4. Yandy Diaz

[DIRK SHADD | Times]

The Rays are expecting a lot from Diaz, which could be a stretch given that he had three stints on the injured list season before making his dramatic final day return and homering twice in the wild card game. The Rays need to be sure he is over last year’s foot issues. Seeing him with more flexibility and fewer muscles might help.

Diaz looks to be the primary third baseman, with the potential to flip on occasion to first. But with the departures of right-handed hitters Jesus Aguilar, d’Arnaud, Matt Duffy, Avisail Garcia and Pham, Diaz’s role in the lineup is magnified. Similarly, spring will be a good checkpoint for Brandon Lowe, who had a lengthy absence due to leg injuries.

Related: MLB may cut cord on video during games

3. Ryan Yarbrough

[DIRK SHADD | Tampa Bay Times]

After literally changing the way the game was played by implementing the opener strategy in May 2018, could the Rays drop it, or at least make it just an occasional thing, and go with five traditional starters?

That’s possible. A lot of will depend on how Yarbrough and Yonny Chirinos look and feel in the spring, as well as what the team’s forecasting data says. Both pitched well enough at times last season to “graduate” to full-time starter status. The key will be what’s a better plan for the team overall. A decision isn’t likely until late in the spring.

2. Jose Alvarado

[DIRK SHADD | Times]

No one will be more closely monitored than Alvarado, as the Rays are hoping he moves past all the issues, mental and physical, that turned what started as a dazzling 2019 season into a lost year. They will do what they can to help him.

When right, Alvarado can be among the game’s most dominant lefty relievers, and obviously that’s what the Rays are looking to see this spring. But even that won’t be fully telling, as they won’t know how he handles the pressure of meaningful games until he gets there.

1. Yoshi Tsutsugo

[CHRIS URSO | Times]

Figuring out where Tsutsugo is going to play looks to be the biggest issue to be sorted out this spring. But that won’t be the only reason he will be at the center of attention.

Just the fact that the Rays signed him, and at, for them, a hefty $12 million over two years in something of a win-now move is notable. The list of Japanese sluggers who transitioned well to the majors is not long, so there will be scrutiny as he faces pitchers with higher velocity and broader repertoires. Plus, he has to make a transition culturally, and initially in small-town Port Charlotte. There is expected to be a heavy presence of Japanese media chronicling every step. Konnichiwa.

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

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