ST. PETERSBURG — The images of the Rays’ 2020 season are quite familiar.
Mike Brosseau’s September response, then October revenge against Yankees closer Aroldis Chapman. Team MVP Brandon Lowe’s highs and lows. Brett Phillips’ airplane run through the outfield. Ji-Man Choi’s stretched smile. Manuel Margot’s wall-climbing catch. Blake Snell’s reaction as Kevin Cash walked to the mound in the sixth game of the World Series that turned out to be Tampa Bay’s last.
As the Rays begin to gather again Wednesday in Port Charlotte with pitchers and catchers reporting for the opening of spring training, the team will have a different look. Faces have changed, with Snell among those who have moved on. Returning players have new pitches, batting stances and workout routines. As always, there are newcomers — some hyped, others unknown now but likely to play key roles at some point.
The six weeks of camp will be telling, as the Rays adjust to coronavirus protocols, each other and the challenge ahead. For a variety of reasons, here are 10 players we are eager to see in spring training:
10. Cody Reed, pitcher
The left-handed reliever, who is out of options (so he can’t be sent to the minors), has a chance to make a good second impression. His first was dazzling, working two scoreless innings against the Yankees after being acquired in an Aug. 28 trade from the Reds. But he pitched only once more before being sidelined by a nerve-related pinkie issue that came on suddenly and then was resolved this offseason. If he looks this spring like he did in New York, he could end up in a key multi-inning bullpen role.
9. Yandy Diaz, infielder
Diaz is said to be determined and working on his agility after a disappointing 2020. His 2019 power surge disappeared as most of his offense was singles (many opposite field) and walks before a hamstring strain sidelined him for all of September. He returned for the postseason, but concerns about his defense limited him to one start at third base, his preferred spot. Getting most of his time at DH and first base, he didn’t do much at the plate, hitting .197 with 1 RBI and a .633 OPS.
8. Hunter Strickland, pitcher
Of eight pitchers signed to minor-league deals, Strickland’s experience (parts of seven big-league seasons) and arsenal (upper-90s fastball, strong slider) probably gives him the best chance to make the team. That’s assuming he is healthy after an injury-marred 2019 and limited 2020 opportunity. Adrian De Horta and Stetson Allie, who both throw hard, could be among the leading others.
7. Yoshi Tsutsugo, outfielder
Questions about whether Tsutsugo will perform better in his second season will start early. The first was a flop after the Rays signed him from Japan for a $12 million, two-year contract (plus a $2.4 million posting fee). He struggled adjusting to velocity, amid other things, and seemed uncomfortable most of the coronavirus-disrupted season. He hit .197 with eight homers and a .708 OPS, then got only 16 at-bats (and two hits) during 20 postseason games. Austin Meadows is another with something to prove.
6. Randy Arozarena, outfielder
Similar but opposite of Tsustugo, Arozarena will be measured extensively against his mind-boggling, record-setting rampage of last year. What kind of shape is he in? How hard is he working? Did success go to his head? In 20 postseason games, Arozarena hit .377 with 10 homers, 14 RBIs and a 1.273 OPS. In his final 20 regular-season games, he hit .293 with seven homers, 11 RBIs and a 1.072 OPS. Extrapolate those 40 games over a full season, and he hit .341 on a 69-homer pace. That’s a wee bit much to ask.
5. Francisco Mejia, catcher
Going into 2018, Mejia was ranked the top catching prospect in the game by Baseball America and best overall in the Indians’ system. He was known for his “precocious talent,” switch-hitting ability and quick rise to the majors the previous September at age 21. Since then he has been traded twice, relegated to a backup role, tried in the outfield after raising questions about his defense, and posted an unimpressive batting line over 117 games: .227 average, 12 homers, .680 OPS, 84 strikeouts, 19 walks. But he is still only 25, and the “change of scenery” payoff the Rays are hoping for starts when he walks in the door.
4. Brent Honeywell, pitcher
The payoff for Honeywell’s determination in battling three years of elbow injuries, including four surgeries since his last game in September 2017, is in sight. A December elbow “cleanup” after impressive showings on the postseason taxi squad has him throwing well now in sideline sessions, and his bosses are encouraged about a multi-inning relief role. Holding him back from doing too much may be the biggest challenge, given a limited innings workload that could make it wise to start him in the minors.
3. Wander Franco, shortstop
He doesn’t turn 20 until March 1. Hasn’t played above Class A, or much competitively since August 2019. Had to quit winter ball after five games due to shoulder soreness and biceps inflammation. His boss, general manager Erik Neander, says nothing will be handed to him; that his maturity (physical, emotional, mental), daily routines and preparedness are factors; and the Rays have other good shortstops. Still, Franco, ranked the consensus No. 1 prospect in the game for two straight years, is labeled as close to can’t-miss as there is. After a spring ‘20 cameo, summer camp alternate site workouts and a spot on the postseason taxi squad, his overall spring work should provide a good gauge of his timeline.
2. Rich Hill, pitcher
The Rays went a long time, a record 896 games from June 2006 to April 2012, without having a pitcher over age 30 start a game. Now they could have a rotation of relative graybeards, adding Hill, 40; Collin McHugh, 33; Chris Archer, 32; and Michael Wacha, who turns 30 on July 1. (The signings of Hill and McHugh are expected to be finalized Wednesday). All were limited last season, which either means they are fresh or problematic. Hill threw 38-2/3 innings for the Twins, getting past the fifth inning only twice in eight starts. Wacha threw 34 innings over eight games for the Mets. Archer and McHugh didn’t pitch at all. How healthy they are, how sharp their pitches are, how ready they are to start the season, how best they can be used, are all questions for the spring.
1. Luis Patino, pitcher
The decision to trade Snell to the Padres will be analyzed on multiple levels over many years. But snap judgements will be made, and some concerns potentially eased, based on what Patino shows. The dynamic 21-year-old with the explosive arm is the key piece of the four-player return, a high-octane fastball and swing-and-miss slider two of his intriguing weapons. He pitched 14 times (13 in relief) for the Padres last year, including three in the playoffs but had made only two starts above Double-A before that. So, like the Rays’ other young pitchers, such as Josh Fleming, Shane McClanahan (who has a new slider) and Honeywell, his readiness and overall workload projections will be factors.