ST. PETERSBURG — Spring training is going to be unusual enough for the Rays this season, with the relocated and split camp sites, three coaches promoted from the minors, a focus on league-wide rules changes, and 12 players and 10 staff members missing time due to the World Baseball Classic.
But none of those may be the oddest part when the Rays start assembling this week at Disney’s ESPN Wide World of Sports.
For a team that typically remakes its roster extensively each offseason, there will be — surprise — only two new faces on the 40-man roster: free-agent starting pitcher Zach Eflin and Rule 5 reliever Kevin Kelly.
“Yeah,” general manager Peter Bendix said, “it’s certainly different than it’s been the last few years.”
It’s not like the Rays didn’t make changes, as they dropped 16 players from their season-ending roster, including veterans Ji-Man Choi, Kevin Kiermaier and Mike Zunino.
And they did try to make more additions, specifically to boost their offense, pursuing Sean Murphy via trade, and Michael Brantley and Brandon Belt in free agency while inquiring on others. Had they paid the price and been successful, they would have pronounced themselves better for it.
But rather than pursue lesser options or change just for the sake of doing so, they decided — at least for now — to stick with the talented group they have and to feel good about it.
Which makes “continuity” their buzzword for the spring.
Their hope is that some of the young players who got chances last year will break through, and that two top-shelf players who missed extended time with injuries, Wander Franco and Brandon Lowe, will bounce back.
“Often times, the turnover that we end up making is not necessarily our first choice, right?” Bendix said. “It’s not something that we’re always looking or hoping to do.
“But it’s a result of trying to build the team as strong as possible every given year and keeping an eye on the future and ensuring that this window of contention stays open for as long as possible. Sometimes that means making difficult or unpopular short-term decisions that we hope are going to pay off in the long term.”
Instead this offseason, the Rays hung on to some veterans who might have brought attractive trade returns, signed three key players to multiyear deals that can extend their stay by buying out free-agent years, kept young hitters who last year weren’t ready or able to help, and promoted prospects to the roster knowing more are coming.
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“Generally, we’re always trying to build that next year’s team to be as strong as we possibly can,” Bendix said. “And this year, that led to us having this continuity and banking on some of this continuity, allowing our young players to grow and develop together and see if we can kind of gain from the experience that they’ve had up until this point.”
Teamwork can make the dream work
Part of that is thinking the collective experiences of the last few years, from the 2020 World Series run and American League-leading 100 wins in 2021 to disappointing back-to-back first-round playoff exits, can boost the players individually.
“There’s a benefit to going through these highs and lows of multiple 162-game seasons together,” Bendix said. “There’s a benefit of sharing the successes, sharing the failures, sharing the frustration of how the season ended last year in Cleveland, sharing the expectations for this year’s team knowing that we have this much talent, knowing that the task of competing in the AL East is as daunting as any division in any sport.
“But sharing all of those things together, there’s an added element that you can’t quantify, that you can’t teach, that we’re hoping allows these guys to maybe mature, maybe grow a little bit more than they would otherwise.”
Manager Kevin Cash has a similar view from field level, acknowledging the loss of leadership from veterans like Kiermaier but also suggesting the young players they kept should benefit from their journey. Even more so given the constant flux of last season, when injuries and inconsistent performances led to an ongoing series of acquisitions and call-ups as the Rays used a team record-tying 61 players.
“We’d like to think that it’ll work to our advantage, with the continuity and the relationships that were built and having a very similar group,” Cash said. “I think we’re going to see more comfortable young players.”
Cash noted the struggles had by some, such as Taylor Walls (who hit .172 with a .553 OPS), Josh Lowe (.221, .627), Vidal Brujan (.163, .487), and even Franco (.277, .746) “to an extent with injuries and stuff.” Jonathan Aranda (.192, .596) is another. From that group, only Isaac Paredes, who faltered in 2020 and ‘21 opportunities with Detroit, contributed extensively, although his 20 homers and .740 OPS were somewhat offset by a .205 average.
“You’d like to think they’re going to be better for it,” Cash said.
Another key word: Camaraderie
There also are benefits — tangible talent-wise but also intrinsic — to keeping some of the veterans. Specifically the three (infielder Yandy Diaz, and pitchers Pete Fairbanks and Jeffrey Springs) who agreed to the multiyear deals that delayed free agency and, likely, eventual trades. Tyler Glasnow, Manuel Margot, Franco and Brandon Lowe previously made similar commitments.
“For a lot of us,” Fairbanks said, “this is a place that we know that we want to be, and it’s a (coaching) staff that we really, really respect and appreciate, and it’s a group of guys that we want to be around.
“When you’re able to have that come together and then be able to get it done on the (business) side of things, I think it kind of speaks for itself.”
That camaraderie also should be a benefit.
“That kind of close-knit bond of guys who are all pulling in the same direction and all want the best for each other, that’s a really important thing,” Bendix said.
Would the Rays have liked to have made some significant additions, and thus changes, to their team from last season?
If they’re being honest, absolutely.
But they’re convincing themselves, and pitching to others, that keeping what they have can be good enough.
“It’s something that we talk about, the value of continuity,” baseball operations president Erik Neander said. “It’s often been hard for us to make that happen here with the right mix of players. I think we’re in a really fortunate spot where we can do that right now. ...
“We think really highly of this group. And we believe in the continuity when we can make it happen.”
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