ST. PETERSBURG — For the Rays, or any other team, the sobering truth about getting through the major-league season is going to be avoiding coronavirus infections that could have a dire impact and end the season at any time.
But if there is a 60-game season to be played as planned starting July 24, the biggest element to making it successful is going to be adaptability.
A group that can be versatile in its play and flexible in its thinking would seem to be favored by the impact of an abbreviated training camp, especially on pitchers; the intensity of a 60-game season compressed into 66 days; and the restrictions, precautions and rule changes that will make this season more vexing.
And the Rays believe they have the right men for that job in the 60-player pool they set Sunday to fulfill their still-grand expectations.
“We expect to contend,‘' general manager Erik Neander said on a Zoom media call. “We expect to compete.‘'
While some rightful attention is being given to the Rays’ somewhat risky decision to include promising but young prospects such as infielder Wander Franco and pitcher Shane Baz, the key to their roster composition is the mix and depth of talented players that can serve, and thrive, in different roles.
The 37 players projected to have the most impact — barring injuries and infections that could force them out — at least in making up the 30-man active roster that will start the season, are in the group that will be working out in camp at Tropicana Field, with the first official session set for Friday. (The other 23 players will be in a group working out in Port Charlotte, though they can be considered for roster spots.)
The Trop troop showcases much of why the Rays believe they can be successful, and it looks much like the group that was on the squad or under consideration when camps were shut down in mid March.
From the 18 pitchers, there are legitimate front-line starters such as Charlie Morton, Blake Snell and Tyler Glasnow. There are additional starters in Ryan Yarbrough and Yonny Chirinos, and needed options to cover bulk innings, especially early, that include Anthony Banda, Jalen Beeks, Brendan McKay and Trevor Richards. There are dynamic relievers with an assortment of wicked weapons, with veteran Aaron Loup, a nonroster addition, likely to join the mighty mix.
And from the 19 position players at the Trop, there is a combination of power and patience at the plate, plus tidy defense and some speed, packaged with the depth and interchangeability to attack teams in different ways.
Even with the extra three months he has had to think about it, manager Kevin Cash is going to have a hard time choosing a starting outfield every day (and occasionally a designated hitter when Jose Martinez isn’t there) from the group of Kevin Kiermaier, Manuel Margot, Austin Meadows, Hunter Renfroe and Yoshi Tsutsugo, and at times Brandon Lowe.
“Really, really, really like the group we have,” Neander said. “I think everything that we said at the beginning of (spring) camp holds today.
“The position player side, I think we’ve got a group that allows us a lot of flexibility with how we match up on any given night. … There’s a lot of different ways we can put a starting lineup together, and I think that’s something that will certainly help us.
“Back in March and before this (season-delaying pandemic) began, we knew we were going to be sending some major-league-caliber players to (Triple-A) Durham. That was important with respect to the depth we built up. Given some of the uncertainties for this season, we’re just all the more thankful we have that in place.
“Certainly on the pitching side, versatility and adaptability has kind of been our thing,” Neander said. “And we’ve got a lot of pitchers that are conditioned to suit us in a lot of different roles, and we’re likely going to need to take advantage of that.
“The depth that we have I think is something that should really help us navigate this and allow us also to be responsible in the early going with how we build our length, our bulk guys, starters as we go along.”
The 80 miles between Tropicana Field and the Charlotte Sports Park isn’t the only barrier between the groups of camp players. While the players at the Trop were chosen because they are considered most likely to stock the initial 30-man opening day roster, the group in Port Charlotte offers a combination of veterans (to some degree) to provide depth and prospects who will benefit from the development time given the lack of minor-league play this year.
If the Rays need more pitchers, there are several with big-league time, such as John Curtiss, Sean Gilmartin and Ryan Sherriff, who could help. And some impressive young arms might be ready, such as Shane McClanahan and Sam McWilliams.
Similarly, several versatile position players who’ve been in the majors, or are close, could step up if needed, such as Brian O’Grady and Dylan Cozens.
Another factor in keeping the groups mostly apart — with separate coaching staffs and little, if any, shuffling players between the sites — is for health and safety reasons, to limit exposure to each other and, as with every action these days, the virus.
The Rays aren’t limited to using only the 60 players in the pool, but if they want or need to add help from the outside, they either have to have a player on the virus list or 45-day traditional injured list, or they have to make room by releasing, trading or placing a player on the restricted or suspended list. So there is a cost to upgrade.
For that reason, two of their 60-man roster decisions are worthy of debate.
One is to go with the full 60 rather than save a spot or two for potential additions, which seems to support the confidence in the group Neander said they have.
The other is to include promising prospects such as Franco and Baz, who realistically are unlikely to get to the majors this year under almost any circumstance, as well as a few others, such as catcher Ronaldo Hernandez and pitcher Joe Ryan.
It’s a bit of a gamble, but one the Rays believed was worth taking.
“I think it’s reasonable to expect, even given some of the unknowns in play for this season, that to cover 60 games, it’s unlikely that we’re going to need all 60 (players),” Neander said.
“So first and foremost, we prioritized what we felt we needed to help our major-league club and then hit a point where we had some spots we felt we could with, where if things go haywire, we’d have some pleasant surprise from guys in our system that kind of identified the next wave of sorts. That one could potentially be well down the list in terms of major-league options for us, but (those players could) obviously benefit developmentally from that experience as well.”
Here is the Rays’ 60-man list (players in the Trop group in bold; *-not on 40 man roster):
LH Jose Alvarado
RH Nick Anderson
LH Anthony Banda
RH Shane Baz*
LH Jalen Beeks
RH Diego Castillo
RH Yonny Chirinos
RH Dylan Covey*
RH John Curtiss*
RH Oliver Drake
RH Pete Fairbanks
LH Josh Fleming*
LH Sean Gilmartin*
RH Tyler Glasnow
RH Andrew Kittredge
LH Aaron Loup*
LH Shane McClanahan*
LH Brendan McKay
RH Sam McWilliams*
RH Charlie Morton
LH Colin Poche
RH Trevor Richards
RH Chaz Roe
RH Joe Ryan*
LH Ryan Sherriff*
RH Aaron Slegers*
LH Blake Snell
LH D.J. Snelten*
RH Ryan Thompson*
LH Ryan Yarbrough