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AL East: Rays Spring Training preview

In this Bronx Pinstripes final AL East Spring Training preview we take a look at the Tampa Bay Rays. They’re a team that has traded star after star with third baseman Evan Longoria remaining as the only steady presence on the team. The Rays always have a supply of arms in the minor leagues, but when will the team address its continual lack of run support?

A Ray of Hope?

Team: Rays Spring Training Site: Charlotte Sports Park, Port Charlotte, Florida
Pitchers & Catchers Report Date: 2/12 Remainder of Squad Report Date: 2/17
First Spring Training Game:  2/24 at Twins

INFIELD

Longoria is entering his 10th season in the Major Leagues, all played as a member of the Rays. It’s no surprise that he recently expressed frustration at the organization when they traded second baseman Logan Forsythe to the Dodgers for 24-year old pitching prospect Jose De Leon.

“I’m surprised and upset at losing a player, clubhouse presence and friend like Logan,” Longoria told the Tampa Bay Times. “He’s a rare player.”

Longoria wasn’t alone in his dissatisfaction.

Archer also welcomed De Leon to the Rays family.

With Forsythe gone, the team will find someone or someones to make up for his loss of offense (20 home runs, 52 RBI, and 76 runs last year). One-time prospects Nick Franklin and Tim Beckham will compete for the starting job. Franklin was the 27th overall pick by the Mariners in the 2009 amateur draft. He reached the Majors in 2013 and showed promise with 12 HR, 20 doubles, 42 walks, and 45 RBI. But, he put up a weak .686 OPS and struck out 113 times in 369 at-bats. In the midst of a slump a year later, Franklin was sent to Tampa Bay as part of a three-way deal with the Tigers and Mariners that had David Price, Drew Smyly and Austin Jackson on the move.

Still just 25-years old, he may have finally made the adjustments needed to play regularly in the Major Leagues. His .270/.328/.443 split in 191 plate appearances makes him the favorite to win the second base job.

Beckham was the #1 overall pick in the 2008 draft. That’s a lot of hype to live up to and thus far Beckham has struggled at the Major League level. Though in fairness, he’s only had 401 at-bats in the last two seasons combined.

Brad Miller could be counted on for 10-15 home runs a year. Then 2016 happened. Miller slugged 30 home runs and drove in 86 runs after an offseason trade that brought him in from Seattle.  It’s up to manager Kevin Cash to figure out where to plug Miller into the lineup. Last year, he played 105 games at shortstop and 39 at first base last year.

Miller could get the lion’s share of play at first base since Logan Morrison, who came over in the trade with Miller, had a very pedestrian slash line of .238/.319/.414. He also had just 62 at-bats against left-handed pitching.

OUTFIELD

The Rays have been rebuilding their outfield over the last few seasons with mixed success. Right fielder Souza has 35 HR and 91 RBI in 826 Major League at-bats but hasn’t played more than 120 games in his first two full seasons due to injuries. Like a lot of sluggers, Souza strikes out a lot…way too much in his case. He’s averaged 151 K’s over the last two seasons, which is an unacceptable figure for a player that hasn’t yet hit 20 home runs in the Majors.  For the team to improve it’s run production, Souza will need to stay on the field and make more contact with the baseball.

Center fielder Kevin Kiermaier won Gold Glove Awards in each of the past two seasons but needs to continue to develop as a hitter. With his speed (21 of 24 stolen base attempts in 2016), Kiermaier could be an ideal leadoff hitter but he would have to up his career batting average and on-base pct. of .258 and .313.

The Rays signed free agent outfielder Colby Rasmus this winter to fill their left field vacancy. Rasmus is good for a 20-HR/20-double season, but not much more. His on-base pct. has eclipsed .335 only twice in an eight-year career. Rasmus is coming off a career-worst year – a .206/.286/.355 split – and his strikeout-to-walk ratio is in the 3:1 or 4:1 neighborhood every year.

CATCHER

The Rays signing of free agent catcher Wilson Ramos flew way under the Hot Stove radar this winter.  In his sixth full season with the Washington Nationals, Ramos put it all together last year. A .307/.354/.496 slash line with 22 HR, 25 doubles, and 80 RBI. He made his first All-Star team, won a Silver Slugger Award, and earned a two-year, $12.5MM deal as a result.

The backup job is up for grabs. Luke Maile (pronounced MAY-lee) recorded a .613 OPS in 126 plate appearances last year. Curt Casali had a miserable season at the plate last year. He hit .186 with a .609 OPS in 84 games. His defense is the only thing that kept him on the field. Veteran Michael McKenry is among the non-roster invitees in camp.

DH and BENCH

Corey Dickerson will get the bulk of the at-bats at DH and will give the outfielders a breather here and there. Acquired in a January 2016 trade with Colorado, Dickerson was a pleasant surprise for the Rays last season. 24 HR and 70 RBI were accompanied by 36 doubles and a .469 slugging pct.

Franklin, Miller, and Beckham will go back and forth between starting, coming off the bench, DH’ing and the outfield. 11-year veteran Rickie Weeks’ best days are behind him but he’ll be looking to make the squad as an infielder/outfielder.

ROTATION

In past seasons, the Rays have had pitchers like Matt Garza, David Price, and James Shields to lead their rotation. Now, it is Chris Archer’s turn. Two years ago, he led the league with 34 starts and topped 200 innings pitched for the first time. He also made the AL All-Star team and finished fifth in the Cy Young voting.

Last season didn’t go as smoothly for the 28-year old. In evaluating the effectiveness of pitchers in today’s game, wins and losses don’t matter as much as they once did. But, it doesn’t make for good times when you’ve been saddled with 19 losses, as Archer was in 2016. Neither does a 4.02 ERA and an increase in walks and a decrease, though minimal, in strikeouts. On a positive note, most of Archer’s bad outings came in the first half of the season. And, at home, he had a sterling 2.65 ERA and a 1.127 WHIP.

Jake Odorizzi’s enemy has been the long ball. The right-hander allowed a career-worst 29 home runs last season. Otherwise, “Eggs Over Easy” pitched pretty well. Lefty Blake Snell entered last season as a Top-15 prospect and made 19 starts with the Rays. Aside from control issues – 5.2 BB/9 IP – the 23-year old didn’t look overmatched.

One of the last two spots in the rotation will be filled by Alex Cobb, who is still working his way back from Tommy John surgery. Matt Andriese, who went back and forth from the rotation to the pen last year, and De Leon will battle for the fifth spot.

BULLPEN

Brad Boxberger started the 2016 season as the Rays’ closer, but Alex Colome grabbed the job while Boxberger was on the DL. Barring a trade – there have been Colome-based trade rumors – Colome will continue to close. Xavier Cedeno, Danny Farquhar, Erasmo Ramirez and Shawn Tolleson will be among the Rays setup and long men.

PROSPECTS THAT COULD IMPACT THE 2017 SEASON

De Leon will start the season at Triple-A if he doesn’t win the battle for the fifth spot in the rotation.  Shortstop prospect Willy Aames has a shot to be in the Rays lineup this Summer. In order for that to happen, Aames must continue to hit as he has so far and cut down on his errors.

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