What the Rays know and don’t know about their chances

Team officials answered some of the questions at a Tuesday press conference, others are still to be worked out.
Rays manager Kevin Cash (left) and GM Erik Neander answered questions Wednesday, Feb, 12, 2020, on the eve of their first spring workout.
Rays manager Kevin Cash (left) and GM Erik Neander answered questions Wednesday, Feb, 12, 2020, on the eve of their first spring workout. [ MARC TOPKIN | Tampa Bay Times ]
Published Feb. 12, 2020|Updated Feb. 13, 2020

PORT CHARLOTTE — General manager Erik Neander and manager Kevin Cash shared plenty Wednesday about how good and how deep their Rays team will be as they expect to build on last year’s postseason appearance.

But it was what they didn’t say, or said they didn’t know, that will be their focus during the six-week spring training camp that opens Thursday — and critical to that success.

Such as, whether they tinkered too much with last year’s 96-win squad, dropping 12 players from the season-ending 40-man roster, and bringing in five new ones to play key roles.

Though they made three significant trades, let two key free agents walk and added a big one, Neander said that by their usual roster-churning standards he considered it a quiet winter.

“There were a few changes, there were a few tweaks,’’ he said. “I love the team we had last year, love the guys we had last year, including the ones that we traded. But we felt that by and large a lot of this team is still together. There were some tweaks in just making sure for depth purposes ... that we’re maybe a little better covered.’’

Such as, how they will fit together a roster and a lineup given an abundance of talent and some duplicity of skills.

There are several key questions, many starting with how Yoshi Tsutsugo, the free-agent lefty slugger from Japan, looks in the field. His being able to handle left field and occasionally third base would give the Rays needed flexibility, as opposed being limited to designated hitter duties. Especially when they already have a righty hitter, Jose Martinez, they would prefer wear no gloves others than when he’s batting.

They could use reassurance that Yandy Diaz is healthy and can move around enough at third to provide consistently okay defense, and that Ji-Man Choi maintains his solid play at first. And they have to sort out how to utilize a second defensively elite centerfielder after acquiring Manuel Margot to join Kevin Kiermaier.

“We’re as interested as anybody to see how it’s all going to come together,’’ Cash said.

There is still going to be a jam for playing time, especially in the outfield with newcomers Hunter Renfroe, Margot and potentially Tsutsugo, and returnees Austin Meadows and Kiermaier. Brandon Lowe could also be out there some, allowing Joey Wendle time at second.

Except maybe for Meadows, all are coming off seasons with some kind of pockmark that should, in theory, limit presumptions of every-day duty. As with the bullpen, expect to hear a lot of talk about “buy-in” by the players.

“This is a group of people that is competitive but a lot of them have selfless attributes, that team-first attribute that I think we’re going to need to maximize what’s going on here,’’ Neander said.

Such as, whether they improved an offense that ranked seventh in the American League last year with 769 runs and lost key hitters such as Travis d’Arnaud, Avisail Garcia and Tommy Pham.

Neander acknowledged they had to pivot from their initial plan, as free agents d’Arnaud and Garcia got more money elsewhere, free-agent Howie Kendrick took less to stay with Washington, and some undisclosed trades didn’t work out.

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“We started to adapt as the offseason wore on,’’ Neander said. “We also took some steps once we started to really exhaust things on the offensive side. We never want to force things. We ended up bringing in a few players who also can help us on the defensive side of the ball. At the end of the day, our goal is just to win by one.

“I think we’ve done enough on the offensive side to have a different look, for the guys to chip in in different ways. And I think we’ve also strengthened the defensive side of things.’’

Such as, how they will adjust their bullpen setup after trading their only reliever who had double-digit saves, Emilio Pagan.

The Rays aren’t ones to designate a sole closer. They believe in using their best relievers in the highest-leverage situations and figuring out the ninth inning when they get there. That closer by committee approach again will be the plan.

“I think that’s fair,’’ Cash said. “We feel really good about our bullpen, and bullpen depth. Those guys were pretty special last year. They worked so well together as a unit. … I think that as much as anything — their stuff is their stuff, and they’re talented — but being selfless in those back-end bullpen roles allows us to be creative and maximize opportunities for us to win games.’’

They won’t look too closely at any of the candidates during the spring except for Jose Alvarado, whose return from a lost 2019 could make a significant impact. "Put our arms around him, support him — he certainly seems like he’s in a good head space, a good mind with an off-season — and get him going,’’ Cash said. “I’m very anxious and excited to see him get on the mound and see where we picked up.’’

Contact Marc Topkin at Follow @TBTimes_Rays.