PORT CHARLOTTE — There’s much Rays officials don’t know about their team, and apparently won’t for a while: how they will restructure their rotation, whether the abbreviated 2020 season will affect preparation for this season, what challenges the coronavirus health and safety protocols will present and whether Randy Arozarena will hit 60 homers this season or 70.
There’s at least one thing they are sure of — that despite parting ways with their two top starting pitchers during their annual winter roster reshuffling, they have enough good players to compete for a chance to return to the World Series.
“That depth is absolutely here, and the high-end talent, and in quantity, is also here,” general manager Erik Neander said.
Here’s 10 things we think we know after listening to Neander and manager Kevin Cash during Tuesday’s formal spring-opening media session:
• They’ll use the first month of spring to sort through their pitching options before determining how to best structure their rotation (such as whether to use openers) and who to cast in which roles after parting ways with Charlie Morton and Blake Snell. That will give them time to gauge the strengths, readiness and potential concerns for veteran newcomers Rich Hill, Collin McHugh and Michael Wacha and returning Ray Chris Archer; plus young candidates such as Josh Fleming, Shane McClanahan and trade acquisition Luis Patino.
• Whatever they decide, expect it to be a group effort. “We understand we are probably not going to be able to replace Blake and Charlie with two other guys,” Cash said, “but we might be able to find some ways of replacing all the production and the value they brought to our club with a handful of them.”
• Expect a concerted effort to take pressure off Arozarena to replicate his record-smashing level of production during the postseason (.377, 10 homers, 14, RBIs, 1.273 OPS in 20 games) — even though Cash and Neander joked Tuesday that Arozarena “better” be just as good.
• Don’t expect a timetable for Wander Franco, the game’s consensus top prospect, to reach the majors. Neander said about 350 words about Franco, who hasn’t played above Class A and doesn’t turn 20 until March 1, without even hinting at where he’ll start the season or whether he’s likely to join the Rays. “A very vague answer,” Neander admitted. “Hopefully a better one in time.”
• The Rays are aware other AL East teams, such as the Blue Jays, have gotten better. But they are not overly concerned. “We’ve got a lot of experience working in a tough division,” Cash said.
• The early heaping of praise on outfielders Austin Meadows and Yoshi Tsutsugo reporting in great shape and doing extensive work during the offseason is at least a solid way to pump them up coming off disappointing seasons. They expect Tsutsugo to be more comfortable in his second season since coming to the majors from Japan and will continue to give him work at third base, as well as first, which will be new.
• The Rays’ past success after trading big-name players gives them some cache in the clubhouse following the Snell trade, Neander said. “I think our players fully understand the talent that’s here, how good that we’ve been … and (there’s) plenty of reason for optimism moving forward no matter the decisions that have been made.”
• While there has been extensive concern and discussion industry-wide about the impact of extending pitchers to a full-season workload after an abbreviated 2020, the Rays also will be monitoring position players to make sure they aren’t at risk of injury by being over-extended for a while.
• The outfield will remain overcrowded for now as the Rays seem to have one too many for a 26-man roster with Arozarena, Kevin Kiermaier, Manuel Margot, Meadows, Brett Phillips and Tsutsugo. “We’ve got a lot,” Cash said. “Things will work themselves out.”
• After nearly a year of Zoom-only interviews, it was really good to see Cash and Neander answering questions again in person, albeit from a distance.