ST. PETERSBURG — Any list of what’s most important now for any athletic team should start, be filled and end with entries about health, safety and coronavirus precaution.
But as thoroughly as we’ve covered that elsewhere, we wanted to take a break and at least talk some baseball here. Specifically, revisiting where the Rays were when spring training was paused two weeks before the opener. Thursday’s start to the season against the Pirates and likely ex-mate Chris Archer was sure to be a thriller.
So here are 10 things that we think we knew about the Rays before the break:
• Charlie Morton was set to be the opening day starter for the first time in his 13-season major-league career, and was going to be touched by the honor, maybe even a tad more so because it was coming against his former team.
• At least to start the season — and given how it works around here, almost assuredly not to finish it — there was going to be a most interesting combo sharing time at the top of the order, with Austin Meadows hitting leadoff against right-handers and Yandy Diaz against lefties.
• Jose Martinez was going to cause a bit of a drag on the Rays’ lineup maneuvering given his defensive shortcomings. To get the most out of his potent right-handed bat, the Rays really needed him to be able to play first base occasionally. Depending on the day, slow progress seemed to be about the most positive description of the effort to get him up to their standards. But the opportunity as only a designated hitter, or a pinch-hitter they’re worried about putting in the field, is limiting.
• Blake Snell was convinced that his early-spring elbow pain was behind him, and adamant he was going to be ready to start the season more or less on time, most likely pitching in the seventh overall game, and first on the road, April 3 at Texas.
• The opener wasn’t going to be as much a part of their plan as in the past, but the Rays weren’t going to walk away from it either. Yonny Chirinos and Ryan Yarbrough were going to get the chance to be traditional starters, but there would still be some opener days. That’s because the rotation was not going to be just five guys taking the ball in order for six months. With Snell and Glasnow both missing major chunks of 2019 due to injury, and with Morton throwing a career-high games and innings at age 35, the workloads of all three were going to have to be creatively managed. Especially with an original schedule that had the Rays playing 30 games in 31 days (and 43 in 45), they were going to navigate the new rules requiring pitchers to spend 15 days on the injured list or option to the minors, and use Jalen Beeks, Brendan McKay and Trevor Richards to provide breaks as a “sixth” starter.
• Yoshi Tsutsugo was fine in leftfield and good enough at third base, but he was going to need some time, as expected, to adjust to the steady high-end velocity that sets the game in the majors apart from what he was used to in Japan. Even against some fringy hard throwers in spring, it was clear he needed to make some adjustments.
• Jose Alvarado looked to have a strong enough arm and be sound enough of mind coming off his lost 2019 season to go back in the bullpen. Though all things being equal, and no one being called the closer, Nick Anderson was in line to get the bulk of the save opportunities.
• Michael Perez appeared to be the leader of the three in-house candidates for the backup catcher spot. He has better defensive skills than Chris Herrmann or Kevan Smith, his lefty bat was a better fit with righty-hitting starter Mike Zunino, and his willingness to spend most of the winter working out in Tampa seemed a sign of his commitment. But there was always the chance the Rays found somebody on another team.
• Veteran lefty Aaron Loup, the long-time Blue Jay who is on a minor-league deal, was pitching his way into a spot on the staff, which would have required the Rays to trade or dump someone off their pretty-well stocked 40-man roster.
• The fit to get the right players on the roster — starting with whether they carried 14 position players or 13 — and, even more so, into the lineup was going to be an ongoing challenge. Against righties, there was going to be some combo of lefties Meadows. Tsutsugo, Ji-Man Choi, Brandon Lowe, Joey Wendle, Kevin Kiermaier, potentially Perez, plus right-handed-hitting shortstop Willy Adames (the sole, true every-day player) and one other righty. Against lefties, they’d figure to use Diaz, Martinez, Zunino, Manuel Margot, Hunter Renfroe and Adames, plus three lefties, with Kiermaier a likely candidate most days because of his game-changing defense. If they carried a 14th player (and thus only 12 pitchers), a righty-hitting infielder, such as Daniel Robertson or Mike Brosseau, still would seem the best fit.
The cone of uncertainty
Normally in the week leading up to opening day, manager Kevin Cash is deep in thought about lineup combinations and pitching matchups. Not this year, obviously. “It’s tough to process all the uncertainty,” Cash said. “Nobody to blame, so you’ll find yourself just sitting there thinking what ifs. ‘What if this? What if that? Are we playing? When?’ So many things. Personally, I try to limit that because I think it snowballs and then your mind just keeps going and you really don’t know what’s going to take place. Or I don’t.”
The season was setting up well for the Rays as three contending teams they played twice in the first 1 1/2 months — the Yankees, Indians and Astros — were going to be missing key injured players. … The next big league-wide news, apart from the first big-leaguer to test positive, will be an agreement between the owners and union on player pay, and other financial matters, and that could come early this week, since salaries start on opening day, which was to be Thursday. … Though some readers questioned Choi’s plan to go back to South Korea and Tsutsugo’s interest in potentially returning to Japan, as the virus is receding in both countries, manager Kevin Cash said the Rays told their players “do whatever you feel is best and we would support that." … Whenever the season is set to start, assuming it does, there is expected to be roughly a three-week ramp-up period, and likely expanded rosters so needed extra pitchers can be carried. … Snell posted his “all-time” pitching staff with a rotation of Randy Johnson, Tom Seaver, Sandy Koufax, Greg Maddux and Pedro Martinez, plus Mariano Rivera closing. … Rays minor-leaguers feel pretty good about the help provided, including $57 a day in expense money through April 8 and assistance with transportation costs and leases. … Ex-Ray Tommy Pham, in airing his frustration over the impact of the shutdown with USA Today before leaving Padres camp, said he lost $92,000 in the stock market just last Monday. ... Cash said he hadn’t heard anything about the more radical ideas being floated, such as teams playing into November with neutral-site playoffs and World Series in domes or warm weather cities. … From social media posts, Meadows appears to be taking full advantage of the extra free time to use his new 25-foot Sea Pro center console boat. … Cash on the crush of fans to buy Bucs season tickets after signing Tom Brady: “That’s awesome, wow." … The latest Rays top prospect list from fangraphs.com starts with Wander Franco, McKay, Vidal Brujan, Josh Lowe, Brent Honeywell, Xavier Edwards, Randy Arozarena, Shane Baz, Taylor Walls, Shane McClanahan.