ST. PETERSBURG — Disney World really is going to be the Rays’ happy place this spring.
When team officials realized early in the offseason that they couldn’t hold spring training at their Port Charlotte complex due to the extensive damage from Hurricane Ian, they didn’t know where they were going to end up, or how badly the challenging situation could impact their preparations for the season.
They figured they could make do using Tropicana Field once they got to the exhibition season, but finding a home for the important first two weeks — when there are typically workouts spread over five fields, eight mounds and a half-dozen batting cages — proved challenging. Plus, they needed a place for their 150 minor-leaguers to train throughout March.
Several sites that had the facilities and field space they sought were booked, given that it is a peak time for college and youth baseball events.
So to end up at Disney’s ESPN Wide World of Sports complex, which has top-tier flight facilities and a history of hosting spring training — plus two, three-game Rays regular-season series in 2007-08 — worked out incredibly well. Plus, there are plenty of nearby housing options, which was another concern, and they’re still based relatively close to Tampa Bay. (And they get the added novelty of “heading north” for spring training.)
“Given the circumstances and the damage the hurricane caused to Port Charlotte, I don’t think we could be in a more fortunate position having access to Disney,” Rays manager Kevin Cash said.
The Rays will have similar field space to what they have in Port Charlotte — five full fields and an extra infield — and all the mounds and cages needed to get in their usual work.
“Everything,” Cash said.
Not all is ideal. The Rays did have to put together their own weight room in a large tent in a parking lot, and the clubhouse will be a bit cramped given the 80-player camp roster.
But whatever else needed to be upgraded since the Braves left in 2019 after a 21-year spring stay was addressed by Disney.
“They’ve really been phenomenal to work with, very accommodating and just a great partner to have,” Rays general manager Peter Bendix said. “The fields look amazing. The facilities are going to be great. …
“They’ve done a ton of work at in order to accommodate us — new lockers, new carpeting, things that I would never think about. They’ve really spruced up those areas. …
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“The space might be a little bit tight just in that I don’t think it’s designed for this many major-league players at once. But everything else that is in their control, they’ve done a fantastic job of making it really high quality.”
The Rays had a team of people on the project, and Cash credited head clubhouse and equipment manager Tyler Wall, senior baseball operations adviser Mitch Lukevics and head groundskeeper Dan Moeller for making it all work.
“They really knocked it out of the park,” he said.
Pitchers and catchers will report Tuesday, and the full squad by Sunday, with daily 9:30 a.m.-ish workouts before starting exhibition play Feb. 25 with three straight road games.
The Rays will play one game at Disney on Feb. 28 — likely with a big crowd as they host the Yankees — then shift major-league camp to the Trop, bringing most of the 80 players with them.
That will pose another set of problems, and not just for team travel and logistics director Chris Westmoreland making sure all players and dozens of staff get to the right spot and have a place to stay.
Space will be tight there, too, as the Rays will use both the home and visitors clubhouses, while the actual visiting teams will use a fixed-up auxiliary clubhouse.
The Trop has only one field, obviously, and a limited number of batting cages (three) and mounds (six, including two in their “lab” area that also could be used for hitting). Plus, it’s got a roof and is 72 degrees.
To get in extra work, and a better workout as they would in the sun during a normal spring, the Rays also will use the nearby Huggins-Stengel complex, which has a rich history as the spring base for the Yankees, Mets and Orioles. It is still the home to the St. Petersburg High team.
Players will ride in vans or drive over, with small groups doing work on the infield (which the Rays recently upgraded to major-league quality), two cages and five mounds.
That will be especially helpful on the days that there are exhibitions at the Trop, and the Rays could also stage intrasquad or even “B” games against other teams there.
Separating the major- and minor-league camps is not optimal, as there are many benefits for young players — tangible and intrinsic — to being around big-leaguers, and for the staffs to work together. Also, for front-office execs and major-league coaches to see prospects in action.
The split also creates some logistical issues.
At Port Charlotte, the Rays had the option of sending big-leaguers to play, and get extra work, in minor-league games. (A hitter needing reps, for example, could bat every inning.) That won’t be as feasible with many of those games taking place 90 miles — and likely two hours on I-4 — away.
Similarly, the Rays won’t have as much flexibility in calling up minor-leaguers for the day to provide standard backup duty (or if a planned starter or scheduled pitcher is a late scratch due to illness or injury) for home and road exhibitions, as they typically do, especially later in the spring after cuts are usually made.
Solutions could be delaying cuts to keep extra bodies in big-league camp, or bringing over a “taxi squad” of minor-leaguers for four to five days at a time.
Playing spring games under the Trop roof also will be different — hold the jokes about the Rays being used to the likely small crowds — in terms of atmosphere and ambiance.
But Cash said there are some benefits.
“It’ll help because a lot of times young players come up from Port Charlotte and they get into the Trop (for the regular season) and there’s a little bit of an issue, getting acclimated to it within the first homestand,” Cash said. “That should be eliminated.
“And, we get to sleep in our own beds.”
Rays spring schedule
Tuesday: Spring opening media conference, Disney
Wednesday: First workout for pitchers and catchers, Disney
Saturday: Fan Fest, 11-3, Tropicana Field
Feb. 20: First full-squad workout, Disney
Feb. 25: Exhibition opener, at Twins-ss (Fort Myers), 1:05
Feb. 26: at Red Sox (Fort Myers), 1:05
Feb. 27: at Orioles (Sarasota), 1:05
Feb. 28: vs. Yankees (Disney), 1:05
March 1: at Braves (North Port), 1:05
March 2: vs. Twins (Trop), 1:05
March 3: at Blue Jays (Dunedin), 1:07
March 4: at Yankees (Tampa), 1:05
March 5: vs. Orioles (Trop), 1:05
March 6: vs. Marlins (Trop), 1:05
March 7: at Phillies (Clearwater), 1:05
March 9: vs. Blue Jays-ss (Trop), 1:05
March 10: vs. Braves (Trop), 1:05
March 11: at Marlins (Jupiter), 3:10
March 12: at Mets (Port St. Lucie), 1:10
March 13: vs. Tigers-ss (Trop), 1:05
March 14: vs. Twins-ss (Trop), 1:05
March 15: at Red Sox (Fort Myers), 1:05
March 16: vs. Braves (Trop), 1:05; at Twins (Fort Myers, 1:05)
March 17: at Pirates (Bradenton), 1:05
March 18: vs. Red Sox-ss (Trop), 1:05
March 19: vs. Blue Jays (Trop), 1:05
March 20: at Braves (North Port), 1:05
March 21: at Twins (Fort Myers), 6:05
March 22: vs. Phillies (Trop), 1:05
March 24: vs. Mets (Trop), 1:05
March 25: vs. Red Sox (Trop), 1:05
March 26: at Tigers (Lakeland), 1:05
March 27: at Yankees (Tampa), 1:05
March 30: Regular season opener, vs. Tigers (Trop), 3:10
SS — indicates split squad
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