ST. PETERSBURG — The drive from the Rays’ Dominican Republic academy in Guerra to Sabana Grande de Boya takes about 45 minutes, and Jose Siri was smiling pretty much the whole way.
Manager Kevin Cash made a quick mid-January trip south and summoned Siri to share the team’s 2023 plans for the multi-talented outfielder. In short, he was going to be their starting centerfielder and, for the first time, could use the spring to prepare for the major-league season rather than having to impress to win a job.
“I appreciated that he was there and did it in person, and that drive back home felt really good,” Siri said via team communications manager Elvis Martinez. “In my mind, it was just more that I don’t have to worry about if I’m in a slump a little bit or I have to compete with someone for the position. Just go out and play your game freely and enjoy the game and do your best.”
The Rays tried that tactic prior to the 2019 season with outfielder Austin Meadows, who they similarly acquired the year before in a deadline-day trade, and it paid off tremendously. Meadows took full advantage of the lane provided, hitting .291 with 33 homers, 89 RBIs and a .922 OPS, earning selection to the American League All-Star team and a 14th-place finish in league MVP voting.
Cash said it’s not quite the same, as Meadows was 23 and getting his first real chance, with 59 big-league games and parts of six seasons in the minors. Siri is older, at 27, and has been around more, with a decade in pro ball, including 125 games with the Astros and Rays.
“But knowing that he’s got six weeks to prepare, hopefully that helps his head and his mindset that he can challenge himself a little bit on the type of hitter and overall player he wants to be,” Cash said.
Siri said he appreciates the Rays’ decision and wants to reward them for giving him a chance he didn’t get in Houston.
“It feels really good that they trust you, that they’re putting that confidence in you,” he said. “I think I have a lot to work on and to show. After the trade, you go through that process of adjusting to a new team and learning everybody and how the organization works and things like that. But this year is a fresh start. I’m here from the beginning. I’ve made adjustments since last year. And I’m looking forward to it.”
The Rays practically drool over what Siri could become if he puts it all together. He has a rare mix of tools with the power, speed and arm strength to be an impactful and game-changing player, living up to his lightning-themed nickname — “El Rayo” — with some merchandise coming soon.
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“His athleticism,” Cash said, “is fun to watch.”
One key is getting him to show more of what hitting coach Chad Mottola calls “easy” power — “he doesn’t have to reach back for more” — without losing the ability to have the quality at-bats he showed last year.
“He probably put together better at-bats than maybe what his track record was, but with that we didn’t maybe see the power that he has (four homers in 178 plate appearances),” Cash said. “He’s got a lot of power. He’s gonna have to find that balance of what he’s most comfortable doing.”
The Rays also are hoping Siri will find the right mix of the enthusiasm and exuberance he plays with while channeling the energy the right way.
“The idea is not letting adrenaline take over everything,” Mottola said. “That’s in the box, in the outfield, everywhere. He worked on it in winter ball, and at times it showed up and at times it didn’t (such as his animated reaction after getting ejected from a game for protesting a strike call). So it’s a work in progress, for sure.”
In a way, that sums up everything about Siri, who said he welcomes the chance to step in for three-time Gold Glove winner Kevin Kiermaier.
“Yes, sir,” he said in English, before adding in Spanish, “I think you guys saw a little bit last year what I can do.”
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