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Here’s why the Rays are in a better place

Rays Tales | The additions of Mike Zunino and Michael Wacha fill key holes and provide some stability.
The Rays' Mike Zunino, right, is congratulated by Kevin Kiermaier after hitting a solo home run during the second inning of the American League Championship Series Game 7 against the Houston Astros on Oct. 17 in San Diego.
The Rays' Mike Zunino, right, is congratulated by Kevin Kiermaier after hitting a solo home run during the second inning of the American League Championship Series Game 7 against the Houston Astros on Oct. 17 in San Diego. [ DENIS POROY | Special to the Times ]
Published Dec. 19, 2020
Updated Dec. 19, 2020

The Rays still have some work to do.

They need another big league-ready catcher, plus one or two others to have in reserve. More pitchers capable of starting/working bulk innings, at least on minor-league deals. Overall roster depth, an essential element for success. And, at some point, a decision on whether to trade top starter Blake Snell and/or star centerfielder Kevin Kiermaier, and the roster re-shuffling that would be required.

But they are a more complete team now than they were a few days ago.

By bringing back Mike Zunino to be at least part of the catching tandem, and bringing in starter Michael Wacha to replace Charlie Morton in the rotation as a veteran presence, the Rays addressed their biggest holes.

Could they have done better? Probably. Under their limited financial parameters? Maybe not. How Zunino, who got $2 million plus an option (with a $1 million buyout), and Wacha, who signed for $3 million, play will provide the true answer.

But having them is better than having questions.

“These are areas of need, clear needs for us,” general manager Erik Neander said Friday. “Steps in the right direction and players that were priority targets of ours. So to get them in, given our need to create greater length and depth within that (pitching) group, that was satisfied with Michael, and with Z, it’s been a winning recipe for us.

“We’re not expecting anything above and beyond what Z has provided to us, but believe that’s a winning recipe. To have him back, you know continuity is not always our thing. It doesn’t mean it’s not important, it’s just kind of the reality of our circumstances at times. And to have a catcher (for) three years, this is something we really appreciate, the institutional knowledge that he has, with our pitchers, with our philosophies, and the way that we can work together to better ourselves and to continue to improve, is of great value.

“And it helps to have Wacha. ... Yeah, it takes a little stress off because you’ve got a few guys in the door that we really like and appreciate. But at the same time, it’s Dec. 18 and we wouldn’t be doing our jobs if we didn’t keep a whole lot of that stress still active and continue to look for ways to make our club better, not just in 2021 but for the foreseeable future.”

Rules of engagement

With all 30 managers doing Zoom calls throughout the week, there was lots of talk about potential rule changes. One that got a fair amount of support was limiting defensive shifts, either by keeping two infielders to each side of second, or positioned on the dirt, or both. Given how often and aggressively the Rays shift, that wouldn’t seem good for them. Neither was something mentioned by Colorado’s Bud Black (but no others), that teams would “lose” their DH once they pull their starting pitcher, which he said would discourage using openers. With the expectation the DH will become universal, that would be a way to keep National League-style strategy late in games. … All managers were pretty much in step, saying they were planning for spring camps to open as scheduled in mid-February for a full 162-game season, while acknowledging they know it could change based on coronavirus concerns. St. Louis’ Mike Shildt said he expects “some definition” with an announcement from MLB by early January.

Wacha, Wacha

Tampa Bay Vipers linebacker Lucas Wacha (45) emerges through smoke onto the field before the start of the XFL home opener against the Houston Roughnecks on Feb. 22 at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa.
Tampa Bay Vipers linebacker Lucas Wacha (45) emerges through smoke onto the field before the start of the XFL home opener against the Houston Roughnecks on Feb. 22 at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

Wacha pitched only one 2014 game at Tropicana Field, but enjoyed a quick trip to the area this past February, coming to see his brother, Lucas, play linebacker for the Tampa Bay Vipers in the short-lived XFL season. “It was fun,” Wacha said. “I was able to head over there and see a game (at Raymond James Stadium). … I got to see the city a little bit and see St. Pete and everything that goes on around there. It was pretty awesome.”

Rays rumblings

In signing Wacha and Zunino, the Rays filled their 40-man roster, meaning any further additions require a subtraction. ... Among other points of contention between the owners and players are the service time cutoff for Super 2 status and a fourth year of arbitration eligibility (and the ensuing increased salary), which looks to be around 2 years and 130 days. Pitchers Ryan Yarbrough (2.147) and Yonny Chirinos (2.137) apparently made it; infielder Yandy Diaz (2.122) and reliever Diego Castillo (2.118) did not. ... A common reason cited in the Wacha and Zunino signings, and others previously, is the open and honest communication they had with Neander. ... ESPN announced its first 11 Sunday night games and two other national games, and the AL champion Rays aren’t in any of them. You’ll see lot of Yankees, Mets, Phillies and Braves. … One of the reasons Dave Dombrowski took the Phillies top job rather than stay with the group trying to get a team for Nashville, per The Athletic’s Jayson Stark, was being told by Major League Baseball officials expansion was years away and “there was no scenario in which any club would be moving there (or anywhere) anytime soon.” … Manager Kevin Cash told MLB Network Radio on SiriusXM he’d like to check out the WWE ThunderDome wrestling shows being staged at the Trop without fans. … Infield prospect Xavier Edwards, who is hosting his third annual XE9 kids camp next weekend, said he welcomes the internal competition with high-profile teammates Wander Franco and Vidal Brujan. “It’s motivation to elevate my game and get that much higher and be the best player I can be to help this organization win,” Edwards said. “Definitely it’s fuel to the fire, a fire that’s already burning hot.” … The Salute to the Troops pregame show from July 4, 2019, won a Suncoast Emmy award for the Fox Sports Sun crew: Brad Bartle, Mark Rickles, John Tackett, Rich Hollenberg, Tricia Whitaker. ... Angels manager Joe Maddon, who took the Rays to the 2008 World Series and lost, said the current team should be proud of its 2020 accomplishment even though it didn’t end well: “(Cash is) outstanding, and they’re going to win the World Series down there eventually.” … Braves manager Brian Snitker is thrilled they signed Morton after the Rays declined his $15 million option: “You look at the body of work and what he’s done, and he’s the modern-day John Smoltz in the postseason. ... What he can provide to our young guys, things he’s been through in his career, he’s a guy, he’s a No. 1. I think it’s great (we) got him so soon.” ... Red Sox manager Alex Cora raved about the power of new outfielder Hunter Renfroe, the ex-Ray, and said “there’s a few things (their hitting coaches) have recognized watching video” to help him. ... Holiday gift idea? The 2020 World Series video, narrated by Vin Scully and Dodgers-centric, is now available via mlb.com and elsewhere.