ST. PETERSBURG — The most basic gauge of spring training being a success for the Rays this year could be simply starting and finishing as scheduled, and staying in one place.
It’s been a while — five years, in fact — since that’s happened.
The pandemic caused camps to close early in 2020 and open late in 2021, the lockout delayed the 2022 start, and extensive damage to the Port Charlotte facility by Hurricane Ian forced the Rays to split 2023 workouts among four sites (Disney, Sarasota and two in St. Petersburg).
After more than $17 million in repairs, Charlotte Sports Park is ready to again welcome the Rays, with pitchers and catchers reporting Tuesday and working out for the first time Wednesday morning.
Good thing, because the Rays have a lot to do.
In trading four players who filled key roles and pruning a few other veterans, team officials enter camp with a series of decisions to be made on several young, rising candidates.
In some cases, they will be hoping for positive evaluations to reinforce what they hope will happen. In others, they will let competition — based more on process and preparation than statistical performance — play out.
Overall, and in contrast to some springs, there are at least a handful of spots on the 26-man, opening-day roster to be determined.
“First and foremost, we want to make sure players are in their proper place physically,” baseball operations president Erik Neander said. “We have roster flexibility, positional flexibility and an assortment of ascending players that we have expectations for.
“That combination leads to a little more maneuverability in terms of how the opening-day roster fits. That could leave this thing to be configured in perhaps a few more ways than where we have typically been going into a year.”
Aside from a March 8-10 trip to the Dominican Republic for a pair of exhibitions vs. the Red Sox, the Rays would welcome an uneventful spring. Here are 10 storylines to watch over the next six-plus weeks.
Who’s going to catch?
The Rays like to do things differently, but they’re not really going to enter the season with Rene Pinto as their only catcher.
It has looked that way this winter, as Pinto — from whom they expect big things after he hit .252 with six homers, 16 RBIs and a .723 OPS in 38 games last year — was the only backstop on their 40-man roster.
And they haven’t exactly been stockpiling candidates on minor-league deals to share the load.
A big reason why is they feel they may have that guy in camp in Alex Jackson.
Though the No. 6 pick in the 2014 draft has played only 66 big-league games (hitting .141) over 10 pro seasons, the Rays feel his combination of power and defensive skills could help them. They traded for Jackson at last year’s deadline, only to see him sidelined with a non-baseball injury after playing just 14 games at Triple A. He was re-signed after the season.
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The Rays have a couple of other in-house options in 34-year-old Rob Brantly, who has played only nine big-league games over the last six years, and Logan Driscoll, a defensive standout who worked his way up to Triple A last year.
Most likely — and more urgently if Jackson doesn’t look good or Pinto gets hurt — they will find another experienced option later this spring via trade, waivers or release.
With Tyler Glasnow traded, Shane Baz on a limited workload, Jeffrey Springs and Drew Rasmussen rehabbing until at least July and Shane McClanahan out all season, the Rays will be piecing their rotation together.
The top three spots — barring injury, which some days is really saying something — are set with Zach Eflin, Aaron Civale and Zack Littell. That is, assuming Eflin has no issues coming off a career-high workload, Civale looks more like the guy he was in Cleveland (5-2 record, 2.34 ERA) than in Tampa Bay (2-3, 5.36 ) and Littell can come close to his yeoman’s work last year transitioning from reliever to plugging a rotation.
Ideally, Ryan Pepiot, the 26-year-old acquired from the Dodgers in the Glasnow deal, and Taj Bradley, the 22-year-old coming off an impressive but inconsistent rookie season, would look good in the spring, gain confidence and grab the two other spots.
“We’re all excited to see Pepiot, who he is and what he brings,” manager Kevin Cash said. “And we want to see what Taj can do, and if he can take another step.”
If one or both falter, or a starter gets hurt, depth could be an issue.
Lefty Jacob Lopez, who is on the 40-man roster, is inexperienced. Naoyuki Uwasawa, a three-time All-Star in Japan, is in camp on a minor-league deal. So is Jacob Waguespack, a former starter who spent 2022-23 pitching in relief in Japan. Relievers Tyler Alexander and Chris Devenski will be stretched out to explore a Littell-like transition.
Jonny on the spot
The young player for whom the Rays are creating the biggest runway is Jonathan Aranda, the 25-year-old left-handed swinger.
Trading Luke Raley — and potentially still moving Harold Ramirez — opens at-bats at designated hitter and occasionally first base when Yandy Diaz needs a day off. The Rays believe Aranda can convert his sensational Triple-A performance (.328 average, 43 homers, 166 RBIs, .924 OPS in 199 games) into big-league success. So far, he has hit only .212-4-19-.656 in 66 MLB games.
“Given what he’s demonstrated at Triple A, it’s difficult to ask for him to do a whole lot more at that level,” Neander said. “He’s somebody that’s kind of in a position where you’ve got to find out kind of where he’s at and give him a better chance at that opportunity to earn a more committed role for us.”
The Rays don’t know what will happen with Wander Franco. The All-Star shortstop could face charges in his native Dominican Republic stemming from an alleged relationship with a minor and a potential suspension from Major League Baseball once the legal process plays out.
What seems pretty certain not to happen is Franco strolling into camp this coming week, or by the Feb. 24 mandatory reporting date.
Whether he is unable to enter the United States due to his legal issues, is made ineligible by being placed on MLB’s administrative leave list or stays away on common-sense guidance from his advisers, Franco — who is still owed $174 million — is unlikely to be playing ball anytime soon.
Tall order at short
With Franco’s availability uncertain at best, Taylor Walls likely out until early May due to right hip surgery (and sporting a career .189 average), questions about the defense and overall readiness of Osleivis Basabe and future star Junior Caminero, and slick-fielding prospect Carson Williams a couple of years away, the Rays went outside to get help at shortstop.
The answer was Jose Caballero, a 27-year-old spark plug-type who spent much of his 2023 rookie season in Seattle playing second base (hitting .221) but logged nearly 800 minor-league innings at short.
Caballero will get the chance to win the job, with his arm probably the biggest question, allowing the Rays to decide later what to do when Walls returns or if Caminero tears up the minors.
Backing up is hard to do
What Neander was saying about roster and positional versatility factors into the reserve infield spots, specifically who fills in at shortstop.
Isaac Paredes, the 31 homer-hitting third baseman, did it once last year but didn’t particularly like it. Curtis Mead is willing, and would be the easiest fit. His perky bat would be welcomed, but the Rays have to determine during the spring if he is defensively able.
The compromise candidate could be Basabe, who stepped in for Franco last August. Given Aranda’s limited ability to play second (and being a lefty hitter like starter Brandon Lowe) and third, the other backup infielder needs to be smooth defensively. (One other factor: New outfielder Richie Palacios also can play second.)
Caminero, based on consensus of prospect experts, is one of the game’s top three-five young players, with the potential for superstardom. But, at least to start the season, it seems unlikely he will be among the 13 Rays position players in the big leagues.
It’s not so much that Caminero is only 20, as the Rays felt comfortable enough (albeit in desperate straits given a slew of injuries) to call him up from Double A in late September and put him on the playoff roster.
More so that he has played only 223 minor-league games and just 81 as high as Double A. His defense around the infield needs work, as does his explosive approach at the plate. He’ll have six weeks to show his readiness.
The Rays checked off much of their winter to-do list, shaving salary by trading Glasnow (due $25 million) and Manuel Margot ($12 million), adding a young starting pitcher (Pepiot) and extending Cash (plus Neander).
What they haven’t done — yet anyway — is trade Ramirez, the righty-swinging DH.
Doing so would deprive them of a strong weapon vs. left-handed pitchers and a trusty pinch-hitter. But it would unclog a roster jam that could see the Rays otherwise having to limit Mead’s at-bats and/or decide between newcomers Jonny DeLuca (the better defender) and Palacios for one backup outfield spot, with the defensively challenged Ramirez in the other. The top three are Randy Arozarena, Josh Lowe and Jose Siri.
While Ramirez’s salary ($3.8 million or $4.3 million pending an upcoming arbitration hearing) isn’t that big, it could be the difference between the Rays — already headed toward their highest payroll — having some flexibility and cracking the $100 million mark.
Getting some relief
The bullpen seems relatively set, which also is a bit unusual.
The Rays return closer Pete Fairbanks, plus fellow right-handers Jason Adam, Shawn Armstrong and Devenski; along with lefties Colin Poche and Garrett Cleavinger (who missed much of 2023 with a knee injury). And they are set to complete a deal this week with free agent Phil Maton, previously with Houston.
That leaves competition for the last spot down to righty Kevin Kelly, who had an impressive 2023 debut; Alexander, the lefty acquired from Detroit; and some of the non-roster invitees. That could change if Alexander or Devenski are needed to start.
Hey, you look familiar
The group of non-roster invitees, currently at 33, always includes a few good stories.
One of the best could be Brendan McKay. After battling through a series of arm injuries, the No. 4 overall pick in 2017 seeks to return to a big-league mound for the first time since his 2019 rookie season.
Word spread among Rays staff at the end of last season how good he looked, and early word this spring has been equally encouraging.
Others who could make for interesting watching include Ronny Simon, Burch Smith, Uwasawa, Waguespack and Williams.
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