ST. PETERSBURG — In an ideal world, the Rays would be taking the field in Port Charlotte this week with a full roster and a clear focus on winning a third straight American League East title.
In a slightly better world, the Rays at least would be opening spring training this week amid a flurry of business a couple days after a settlement of the labor standoff —scrambling like others to complete their team, working quickly to evaluate personnel and re-assess needs, then pursuing trades and signings (not to mention settling arbitration cases, working through a Rule 5 draft, dealing with visa issues and more).
In the real world, the Rays sit and wait, like so many others throughout the industry, hoping for a resolution sooner than later in the ongoing labor contract standoff between the owners and players union.
But let’s hit pause for a second and consider five main storylines we would be talking about if Rays pitchers and catchers were reporting Tuesday as planned:
1. Personnel matters
The Rays will be looking to add a right-handed hitter who preferably can play first base (and fill the only real open spot among position players), but that may not be a name player or even a full-time big-leaguer. A bigger deal still looms as they seek to sort out their outfield surplus, with Kevin Kiermaier or Austin Meadows (who could get a lot of time at designated hitter) most likely to go in a trade, or maybe Manuel Margot. They may move quickly, as they’d prefer to avoid trading a veteran player after camp is more fully underway, given the disruption.
2. For starters
A big issue in setting the rotation will be workload management, as the Rays will want to make sure pitchers who have innings limits and/or injury concerns will be available later in the season. That could factor, for example, into whether young guns Shane Baz and Drew Rasmussen open the season in the rotation and how much work veteran free-agent addition Corey Kluber gets. A guess would be for the rotation to initially include Shane McClanahan, Luis Patino, Ryan Yarbrough and Kluber, with Josh Fleming among the options for the fifth spot.
3. Getting relief
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As usual, staffing the bullpen will be a group effort. Pending injury rehabs, the Rays look to have a deep and, as usual, versatile corps. There would seem to be set spots for lefties Jeffrey Springs and free-agent addition Brooks Raley, plus right-handers JT Chargois, Pete Fairbanks, Andrew Kittredge and likely J.P. Feyereisen, as well as maybe Rasmussen and/or Fleming and another.
4. Medical matters
The makings of a second pretty good pitching staff will start the year working back from injuries. Tyler Glasnow isn’t likely to pitch at all in 2022, and Nick Anderson, Yonny Chirinos and Brendan McKay are expected to be out for the first couple of months. More relevant early on will be the availability of Springs (who looked ready by the end of last season), fellow lefties Jalen Beeks and Colin Poche, and right-hander Ryan Thompson.
5. Wander watch
It’s just natural, and probably a bit unfair, but there will be a lot of eyes on wunderkind Wander Franco, who turns just 21 on March 1. After a bit of a slow start following his late June promotion, Franco made an impressive debut (hitting .288 with seven homers, 39 RBIs and an .810 OPS in 70 games) and will be pressed on what he can do for an encore. The Rays were pleased enough to reward him with the by-far largest contract in franchise history, a deal that guarantees him $182 million over 11 years and up to $223 million over 12.
In a column urging MLB to move “the St. Petersburg, er, Tampa Bay Rays” 90 miles east, Orlando Sentinel columnist Mike Bianchi cites the growing media market, massive number of tourists and absence of major pro sports competition besides the “perpetually rebuilding” NBA Magic: “Geographically and demographically, I believe Orlando has more sports potential than any city in America. It’s one reason the Big 12 recently expanded to add UCF while snubbing USF.”
Right-handed reliever Dusten Knight, a 31-year-old who made his big-league debut last year with the Orioles, is an interesting addition on a minor-league deal (with a big-league camp invite) given his routine of doing backflips on the mound after recording a save. … With the uncertainty of start dates, the Rays are not planning on holding a traditional Fan Fest but expect to create opportunities for “fan/team engagement” leading up to opening day, whenever that is. … A major question about the Tampa Sports Authority stadium report involves roof options. ... There is interest in exploring options for a new spring facility in Pasco County that would include a game stadium. The lease in Port Charlotte runs through 2028. … Former Rays catcher John Flaherty tweeted that outfielder Gerald Williams, who died Tuesday of cancer at age 55, was “a great teammate who had a different way of thinking about the game and he taught me a lot. RIP Ice!” … The Rays last week provided jersey shirts and caps for 10,000 area youth league players. … Infield prospect Xavier Edwards switched agents, signing on with Jay-Z’s Roc Nation Sports. ... Mid-lockout ZiPS computer projections by fangaphs.com have the Rays going 88-74 and finishing third in the AL East.
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