ST. PETERSBURG — The Rays are predictably optimistic heading into Thursday’s season opener against Detroit.
They return the core of the team that made the playoffs last year (and some of whom have done it four times), with a couple added benefits.
Three key players who missed extended 2022 time due to injuries — Wander Franco, Brandon Lowe and Manuel Margot — are back and healthy. And two young players who struggled last year — Josh Lowe and Luke Raley — won roster spots in appearing to benefit from the experience.
Spring training, despite being relocated from their Port Charlotte base due to Hurricane Ian damage, went relatively well, with starter Tyler Glasnow’s oblique strain the only major injury.
Players and staff rave about the camaraderie, family atmosphere and unified focus.
And there is a strong feeling that the sting of last year’s second straight first-round playoff loss provides significant motivation and championship aspirations.
“Back in ‘18 and ‘19, it was ‘Make the postseason,’ and we’ve done that for four years straight,” Brandon Lowe, their longest-tenured position player, said Wednesday.
“Now it’s ‘Go out and win, we’re gonna go win a championship.’ That’s the goal of the clubhouse. Everybody in this locker room has the same expectations, to go out there and play postseason baseball. But this year, we really want to bring home some hardware.”
Or, as manager Kevin Cash said: “You get greedy. And that’s OK to get greedy in wanting to be really good. Our last two exits were not very satisfying. This group, I know they appreciate that, and we’ll work towards advancing further.”
To do so, the Rays will need the standard benefits that championship teams tend to enjoy: relatively good health, unexpected contributions, setbacks to key rivals and a handful of good breaks and lucky bounces.
But a strong case can be made that they also need to get off to a good first month.
In exploring limited options during the offseason and deciding to not address the need for a productive left-handed hitter, the Rays are putting a lot on Raley and the two Lowes. While Brandon has a track record — a .916 OPS in 2020, 39 homers and 99 RBIs in 2021 — neither Josh nor Raley has had much success in the majors.
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Showing they weren’t March mirages and can carry their spring success into April would boost the team’s performance and their personal confidence.
“That’s very fair,” Cash said. “You want them all to get off to great starts; that’s unfair to expect that everybody on the team will. But I think the guys that we saw come up last year and struggle, it might be more of a benefit to them to have some early success.”
And while Brandon Lowe (back), Franco (quad/wrist) and Margot (knee) went through the spring playing well and feeling good — though Franco did have some concerning right quad tightness last weekend — they also could benefit from some early positive reinforcement. Same with the players who had good showings in the World Baseball Classic, like Randy Arozarena and Isaac Paredes.
Especially since any combination of slow starts will lead to revisiting their offseason strategy and reviewing 2022′s offensive struggles.
There is also a competitive advantage in starting well.
The Rays play 26 of their first 32 games against teams that were .500 or below last year — including four that lost 100 games — and likely won’t be much better: Tigers, Nationals, A’s, Red Sox, Reds, White Sox (twice) and Pirates.
Then starting May 5, they play 23 straight games — in 24 days — against 2022 contenders expected to be strong again: The Yankees (twice), Orioles, Mets, Brewers, Blue Jays and Dodgers. (Plus, starting April 7, they play 52 games in 55 days overall.)
General manager Peter Bendix their focus should be on their own play — “It depends less on the opponent, I think, than our own execution” — but that a strong April would definitely help.
“A quick start can absolutely build confidence,” he said. “I think with this club right now, with a lot of good vibes, a lot of positive feelings around a lot of our players, a good start would help reinforce that.
“But also I think back to how many times we’ve started like 1-8 and made the playoffs. And at the end of the season, every game counts the same.”
For a team with championship aspirations, every edge can matter.
“Obviously the way we get there is to take it day by day,” reliever Jason Adam said. “But if you look at the big picture, we have a phenomenal group of guys, incredibly talented, a bunch of overachievers.
“So I think to just get to the playoffs again, and get eliminated like that, that would definitely be a disappointment. I think ultimately what we all want is to be playing deep into October and bring home a World Series win.”
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