By Bryan Levine, SunCoast Sports
ST. PETERSBURG — Spring training in Port Charlotte flew by and baseball season is already here.
The Tampa Bay Rays had plenty of positives to draw on this spring, specifically how well ace Chris Archer looked the entire duration, and how bright the future looks after impressive camps from many of the young prospects.
“We enjoyed our time in Port Charlotte, but were probably ready to get out of there,” manager Kevin Cash said Friday morning at Tropicana Field. “It was a long spring. It’s good to be back in our home ballpark here. For a lot of guys who are new to playing everyday out here, it’s good to get them acclimated to the clubhouse, to the field, to the roof, to all those things.”
Despite the 68-win season they’re coming off, there is positivity around the Rays’ clubhouse
“I think we’re super-talented,” Archer said. “We need to remain healthy, and we have a few guys who need to get healthy. With our ability to pitch, and the upgrades we’ve made … I’m really looking forward to it. It’s baseball, anything can happen. That’s the beauty of this game.”
A little over five weeks ago we asked five questions the Rays needed answers to by the end of spring training. Let’s revisit those questions before raising new ones for the regular season.
First, we asked will the Rays sign another bat, specifically a right-handed one.
At the time, it appeared as if the Rays had an outside shot to sign Matt Wieters. The catcher ended up signing with the Washington Nationals, who then released Derek Norris.
The Rays signed Norris last week and he will be the starting catcher. They backed that up with trading for Peter Bourjos, who is more of a glove than a bat. Both hit from the right side.
So the answer is yes, they did sign additional bats.
Second, can they stay healthy?
No, they couldn’t. Key members of the bullpen in Shawn Tolleson (right flexor strain) and Brad Boxberger (lat issue) will begin the season on the disabled list. Tolleson’s injury has landed him on the 60-day DL.
Not only did those two players not stay healthy but a pair of players they were counting on – shortstop Matt Duffy and Colby Rasmus – were never able to fully heal from their offseason surgeries. They, too, will begin the season on the DL.
Third, who will be the No. 5 starter?
It seemed as if Matt Andriese had that role locked up from the start of games, even though his numbers were less than stellar. In four major league outings this spring, Andriese had a 6.75 ERA over 10.2 innings and pitched into the fifth frame just once.
Fourth, which catchers will make the team?
If you guessed Derek Norris and Jesus Sucre would be the catchers to start the regular season, you need to play the lottery. Both of them are proven defensively, but will need to bring their bats this year, too.
Norris hit just .186 in 125 games last season. In 88 career games, Sucre is a lifetime .209 batter. The Rays will count on both of them to improve those numbers.
Finally, how will Brad Miller adjust to playing second base?
As Cash pointed out early in spring, he not only adjusted well, but is playing all-star-caliber second base.
Miller fancies himself a solid fielder, and he proved it playing the new position over the last five weeks.
“I feel like I’ve gotten a lot of good work in. We’ve attacked it from day one, and we’re going to continue to build that foundation,” Miller said. “Just getting the reps and comfortability (is where I’ve seen progression). Getting to see a lot of different balls off the bat, we play pretty extreme at the second-base position for both righties and lefties.”
Here are five new questions that will need answers during the regular season:
No. 1: If Dickerson is the leadoff hitter, how’s he going to adjust to that role?
According to Dickerson, 2016 was the first time in his life since he picked up a baseball bat that he’s actually struggled.
He’s had a strong spring, batting .375 with four home runs, but how will he do as a leadoff hitter, which he will presumably do against right-handed pitchers.
“I think maybe playing at home (could be challenging to leadoff),” Dickerson said. “You have two minutes (to get ready). It’s pretty rushed and you don’t get to go through your normal routine. Besides that, I take it as a normal bat. I won’t over think it.”
Dickerson has 140 career plate appearances as a team’s leadoff hitter and has hit just .230 with 29 hits and 12 walks in those at-bats.
No. 2: How will Tim Beckham do as the starting shortstop?
The Tim Beckham and Rays saga is a long and drama-filled story. The former No. 1 overall 2008 draft pick will get another shot to prove himself, as he’s slated to play an important role for Tampa Bay this year.
With Matt Duffy still struggling to get healthy, Beckham will have to hold down the position in the meantime.
“He’s going to be at short a lot right now, but when Matt comes back, his versatility is going to be a big thing for our lineup,” Cash said.
No. 3: Will the back-end of the rotation hold up?
Blake Snell and Andriese didn’t have the kind of springs that exude confidence. We’ve already noted Andriese’s numbers, but Snell had a similar 6.16 ERA in 19 innings entering Friday’s tuneup outing where he went but Snell had a similar 6.16 ERA in 19 innings entering Friday’s outing where he went four frames and allowed two runs on four hits and two walks while striking out four.
Will the Rays stick with both of them the entire year? Will they look elsewhere for a starter? Will Chase Whitley or Jose De Leon be called up? Could Austin Pruitt be moved from the bullpen to the rotation?
No. 4: When will Jaime Schultz be called up?
Schultz had a fantastic spring with a 1.84 ERA in nine appearances. It was assumed he was ahead of Pruitt in the chances of making the team.
Cash said “we could see him here real soon” and he also added Schultz would pitch out of the bullpen with Triple-A Durham. That lays the groundwork for a potential early-season promotion.
Jumbo Diaz did nothing to impress in his limited time with the Rays, and Schultz’s MLB service-time clock hasn’t begun yet. Based on a silly MLB rule, if the Rays keep him in the minors for the first 12 days of the season, they get an extra year of control on his contract.
Don’t be surprised to see Schultz in a Rays uniform by the time they head to Boston two weeks into the season.
No. 5: Just how well are the Rays going to do?
As Archer noted Friday morning, the Rays are in the best division in all of sports. It’s going to be tough to get to the playoffs. More than likely, four teams are fighting for second place behind theRed Sox.
The Rays have a starting rotation to compete with any team in baseball, but an injury-depleted bullpen could do them in.
“Expert” projections have the Rays finishing anywhere from third to fifth. They’re likely better than the 68-win team they were last year, but probably not better than an 81-win team in 2017.