MIAMI — Ten games into last season, the talk among some Rays people was that they may have just witnessed the worst baseball of Manuel Margot’s career.
Or at least they were hoping.
He was 3-for-30 at the plate, looked tentative, if not a bit lost, in the outfield and seemed generally uncomfortable overall, making the unexpected eve-of-spring training trade, a swap with the Padres for reliever Emilio Pagan, appear to be a bad idea.
Now the Rays are looking at Margot quite differently.
His improvement over the course of last season and emergence during the postseason, winter work on adjusting his hitting mechanics to be more consistent, and increased comfort and trust around the Rays have the team very eager to see what he can do now.
“You can make the case that he was probably our most productive player, best player during spring training,” manager Kevin Cash said. “I don’t know how far that gets you, but, look, we’re all excited to see what this season holds for Manny.
“There’s a lot of people in our clubhouse, players and staff alike, that have recognized that it’s a different mentality (he has) than it was at this time last year.”
There were some reasons for his rough start.
On the field, Margot admitted he was putting immense pressure on himself to impress and improve right from the July 24 start of the season, though he didn’t necessarily realize how much harder he was making it for himself at the time.
“I think that’s something that happens with a lot of guys that get traded over,” he said via team interpreter Manny Navarro. “They try to do a little too much. They put pressure on themselves to perform. And I think that’s what happened to me a little bit. But definitely this year, I feel a lot more comfortable.”
Off the field, Margot, 26, acknowledged the impact of a personal tragedy, as his father, close friend and mentor, Enmanuel, was losing a lengthy battle with COVID-19. He died Aug. 4.
“It was definitely an empty spot in my soul,” Margot said. “With my mom passing away when I was really young, my dad was pretty much my mom and my dad. But it is something that happens. It is life. And you have to move on and know that he’s always going to be there with me, no matter what.”
Margot went home to the Dominican Republic for a few days after Enmanuel’s death, and seemed to return with a new purpose.
After a game to get re-acclimated, he posted two four-hit games in his next three starts, hitting .321 with a .785 OPS the rest of the way.
He was even more productive in the postseason, hitting .276 with five homers, 11 RBIs and an .895 OPS in 19 games. Plus, he made one of the most memorable plays, diving over a side wall at San Diego’s Petco Park during the American League Championship Series to make a spectacular catch.
“The biggest topic that I was hearing about when I got home (after the season) was that it was one of the greatest plays a lot of people have ever seen,” he said.
“People were just sending it to me from everywhere. I’ve seen it probably over 20 times and every single time I asked myself, ‘How did I make that catch?’ ”
The increased comfort the quiet-by-nature Margot has around the Rays is evident in many ways.
Margot is very close with shortstop Willy Adames, with whom he roomed and took turns cooking for and cutting hair with during last year’s pandemic shutdown.
“He’s in a great spot,” Adames said. “If he continues to do what he’s doing, he’s going to be huge for us.”
And Margot, making $3.4 million this season with one more until free agency in 2023, is more trusting of the staff, specifically in working with hitting coaches Chad Mottola and Ozzie Timmons.
“It takes some time to build that relationship,” Cash said. “We can be as welcoming and embracing to all the guys, but there’s an added layer when you’re talking about trying to impact somebody’s career positively. And that took a little while.
“Manny had plenty of thoughts and still has plenty of thoughts on what makes him a good player. But he seems (to be taking well to the) messages on the hitting side. My impression is he likes being here. And we really like having him because he’s a good player.”
Margot started his career with Boston, but was traded as a prospect to San Diego in the 2015 Craig Kimbrel deal. His best games last year were against the Red Sox, hitting .556 (15-for-27) over seven. The Rays open a series in Boston on Monday.
“Everyone likes to go back to show and demonstrate to their old team what they can do,” Margot said. “I’m definitely excited and I’m ready to go.”
And the Rays are eager to watch.
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