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Rays ready to pick up where they left off

When spring training was halted, the team was two weeks and a couple of decisions away from being set to open the season.

ST. PETERSBURG — So, where were we …

When spring training was paused as the Rays were in the final innings of their March 12 game against the Phillies in Port Charlotte, they were two weeks and a couple of interesting decisions away from opening the season.

Most spots on the then 26-man roster seemed set, with the backup catcher and final bullpen jobs to be decided. The only real injury issue was Blake Snell’s elbow, and it didn’t seem of much concern. Batting orders, defensive platoons, designated hitter rotations and pitching plans were being discussed.

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And the Rays were confident of having what general manager Erik Neander termed “a really special season,” expecting to get back to the playoffs after making it as a wild-card last year and taking Houston to a fifth and final game in the division series before being ousted.

With Spring Training 2.0 officially set to open Wednesday — with the completion of intake testing for COVID-19 the most telling addition to the reporting day docket — and the first official workout on Friday, here’s a look at what the Rays had accomplished before the shutdown and where they are now:

Roster moves

Pitcher Shane Baz, one of the Tampa Bay Rays' top prospects, delivers from the mound while playing in the St. Petersburg International Baseball Series at Walter Fuller Complex last March. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

The 60-man player pool announced Sunday pretty much includes the group the Rays had in the original spring training, with the addition of three top prospects — pitcher Shane Baz, infielder Wander Franco and outfielder Josh Lowe, plus infielder Esteban Quiroz, who was acquired in late March to complete an earlier trade. Forty of the 42 players who were still in major-league camp when it was halted are back, missing only pitcher Brooks Pounders (released) and catcher Brett Sullivan (not invited). The other 16 had already been sent down.

Players for Spring 2.0 will be split into two groups, with 37 at the Trop who will comprise the bulk of the active roster and 23 in Port Charlotte to provide depth and get development opportunity. The active roster will be 30 for opening day, then reduced after two weeks to 28 and another two weeks to 26.

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Players still have to be on the 40-man roster to be activated that could lead to some additional moves. Though the 60-player pool is set, changes can be made but at a cost, as players have to be traded or released to be taken off, unless they are on restricted, retired or COVID-19 or 45-day injured lists.

Here is the current roster (with players in the Trop group in bold, and those not on the 40-man roster with an asterisk):

Pitchers (30)

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

Catchers (5)

Ronaldo Hernandez, Chris Herrmann*, Michael Perez, Kevan Smith*, Mike Zunino

Joey Wendle (18) takes batting practice on opening day in 2018. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

Infielders (15)

Willy Adames, Mike Brosseau, Vidal Brujan, Ji-Man Choi, Yandy Diaz, Lucius Fox, Wander Franco*, Brandon Lowe, Nate Lowe, Jose Martinez, Kevin Padlo, Esteban Quiroz*, Daniel Robertson, Taylor Walls*, Joey Wendle

Outfielders (10)

Randy Arozarena, Dylan Cozens*, Kevin Kiermaier, Ryan LaMarre*, Josh Lowe*, Manuel Margot, Austin Meadows, Brian O’Grady, Hunter Renfroe, Yoshi Tsutsugo

Five battles

The expanded roster to start the season may at least delay some of the decisions the Rays were facing when the limit was 26 players, but the discussions will be ongoing:

Non-roster veteran Aaron Loup was making a strong pitch in battling Jalen Beeks for a spot in the bullpen, joining two other lefties, Jose Alvarado, who seemed of sound arm and mind after a lost 2019, and Colin Poche. If Loup is in, someone would have to be dropped from the 40-man roster to make room.

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With Loup and/or Beeks in, another decision between right-handers eventually could come down to talented but inexperienced Pete Fairbanks vs. Andrew Kittredge, who has more time in the majors and the ability to work multiple innings.

The Rays' Michael Perez catches a pitch during the fifth inning of a spring training game against the Baltimore Orioles last March in Port Charlotte. [ Times (2019) ]

Lefty hitting Michael Perez seemed the frontrunner for the backup catcher job behind Mike Zunino, though non-roster veterans Chris Herrmann (also a lefty swinger) and Kevan Smith were, and still are, in consideration.

Daniel Robertson has apparently edged out Mike Brosseau and Nate Lowe for the second utility infielder spot, with his ability to play shortstop a benefit. Brosseau’s ability to play the outfield and how comfortable the Rays are using newcomer Yoshi Tsutsugo at third on occasion will also factor in.

Jose Martinez was competing with himself to show that he could improve his footwork and overall defense at first base enough to get occasional starts. That would allow the Rays to get his potent right-handed bat in the lineup (and give Ji-Man Choi a break) against some left-handed pitchers, and be able to rest/rotate in others in the designated hitter spot. When camp was halted, it was still a work in progress.

Five questions

How will Blake Snell deliver?

Tampa Bay Rays pitcher Blake Snell reacts after loading the bases vs. the Toronto Blue Jays on walks. He was removed from the game in Dunedin on March 9 in the bottom of the first inning. [ SCOTT KEELER | TAMPA BAY TIMES ]

Snell was going to be on somewhat limited duty coming off an injury-interrupted 2019 season; then he was sidelined early in the spring with elbow soreness that required a cortisone shot. He insisted he was fine and wouldn’t be set back much going into the season, maybe a week. He spent much of the shutdown focusing on conditioning and rest, going home to Seattle and resuming throwing off a mound the second week of June.

Snell joined the informal workouts at the Trop this week, and according to manager Kevin Cash, looked “awesome” in a Tuesday bullpen session. Snell also may want to address the controversial comments he made in May about not wanting to take the risk of playing if his salary was significantly reduced, most pointedly saying, “I’m not playing unless I get mine, okay?”

How will Yoshi Tsutsugo adjust to the majors?

The free agent from Japan seemed to handle most of the myriad adjustments in changing leagues, culture, language and splitting time between third base and leftfield, except one: The steady stream of high-velocity pitching he will face.

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How will the pieces fit together?

Manuel Margot plays catch during a voluntary workout at Tropicana Field on May 25. [ WILL VRAGOVIC | Tampa Bay Rays ]

Cash acknowledged the challenges of getting enough playing time for everyone but never had to give an answer as there was time to figure it out. Eventually the Rays will need a plan, specifically in the outfield, where there’s a case for Kevin Kiermaier, Manuel Margot, Austin Meadows, Hunter Renfroe and Tsutsugo to play most days, and the potential for Brandon Lowe to get some time.

Who will be the closer?

No one will get the title, nor is likely to hold the job all season. But Nick Anderson, after his dazzling 2019 showing following the trade from Miami, seems likely to get most of the opportunities early. Diego Castillo and Jose Alvarado are among other options.

What about the opener?

The Rays weren’t abandoning their innovative pitching strategy, but didn’t see it as a big part of their 2020 plans initially, aiming to let Yonny Chirinos and Ryan Yarbrough work as traditional starters along with Charlie Morton, Tyler Glasnow and Snell. But it could be more in play now. With the abbreviated training period after a long layoff, there are questions of how many innings pitchers can work early on. Beeks, Brendan McKay and Trevor Richards can also be used to build some breaks into the rotation, and behind openers.

Worth noting

Meadows was in talks with the team about a multi-year extension during the spring, and Glasnow had also been approached. Adames, Chirinos and Yarbrough were among other candidates.

Tampa Bay Rays rookie pitcher Shane McClanahan warms up on the mound in the bullpen area with Rays pitching coach Kyle Snyder (on right) watching during a player workout at Tropicana Field on Jan. 24. [ DIRK SHADD | Tampa Bay Times ]

Though unlikely to make the original 26-man roster, outfielder Randy Arozarena, acquired from St. Louis with Martinez for prospect Matt Liberatore, made the best first impression in camp. And if there is room on the 30-man roster, he could be an intriguing weapon with his speed. Also impressive were lefty Shane McClanahan, a 2018 first-round pick, and versatile outfielder/infielder Brian O’Grady, acquired from the Reds.

Morton was in line for the first opening day start in what could be the last season of his 13-year career, as the Rays hold a 2021 option.

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McKay was set back by some early camp shoulder soreness, which also led to the suspension of taking batting practice, but has been throwing regularly at the Trop.

* The batting order will be constantly evolving, but the initial plan was for Meadows, a lefty swinger, and Yandy Diaz to split time at leadoff.

Camp notes

The Rays had an informal workout Tuesday at the Trop for about 14 players who completed their intake testing, with the others set to be tested Wednesday, then waiting 24-36 hours isolating for the results and clearance. … General manager Erik Neander told 95.3-WDAE they expect some positive tests: “You look at the numbers across the United States and local — but our players are coming from all over — I think odds are that we might experience some cases.” … The full 37-man squad is expected at the Trop for Friday’s full workout. Outfielder Yoshi Tsutsugo arrived back in the United States on Monday after spending most of the shutdown in his native Japan. First baseman Ji-Man Choi returned last week from his native South Korea to spend time at his home in Arizona, and was headed to Tampa on Tuesday. … Workouts on Friday will be done in shifts, with players working in groups of eight to 10. … The team has not heard from any players or staff that plan to opt out of health concerns.