Next man up: It hasn’t been a good spring to be a Rays pitching prospect. Both Brent Honeywell, who has yet to debut in the majors, and Jose De Leon, who has pitched briefly for two teams the last two years, hurt their elbows and are heading for major surgeries. Forgive any young Rays pitcher who feels a twinge. Shortstop Willy Adames is healthy and trying to supplant Adeiny Hechavarria, who is proving to be harder to move than his career .291 on-base percentage would suggest. Adames hit .277 and had a .360 on-base percentage last year in AAA, walked 65 times, hit 10 homers and stole 11 bases, but fanned 132 times, the fourth straight season he’s fanned 100 times. He’ll start the season in AAA.
What he said: Rays pitching coach Kyle Snyder on the team’s plan to use a four-man rotation and the fifth game as a bullpen game: “It’s going to give us a better opportunity to take our best 12 pitchers instead of stockpiling starting pitchers (at Durham).” What he meant: “It was either that or Austin Pruitt every fifth day.”
Three reasons it will be a good year: 1. The Rays were eighth last year in MLB in ERA at 3.97, if third in the AL East, and three starters and closer Alex Colome, who saved 47 games, return. The question is how long Chris Archer remains a Ray. Archer has a .667 career OPS against, has led the AL in starts two of the last three years and losses in the third, and is, by the standards which the Phillies are paying Jake Arrieta, inexpensive. The Rays have $9 million and $11 million options in 2020 and 2021 on Archer. For most teams that’s a bargain, but for the thrifty Rays, that’s a burden. 2. Forget the shock of the Evan Longoria trade, Except for 2016, he hasn’t been that good the last four years. The Rays traded Longoria, their longest-tenured player this offseason, who was Rookie of the Year when they went to the World Series in 2008 and a staple in the decade since. Longoria has hit 261 home runs, won three Gold Gloves and done enough in his career that if the journey to the Hall of Fame was a rounding of the bases, he’s at third with 90 feet to go. Longoria is only 32, which means he’s there with one out and should make it the rest of the way. But Longoria isn’t aging like Adrian Beltre. Other than 2016 when he hit 36, he’s hit 22, 21 and 20 homers in the last four seasons, his on-base percentage hasn’t topped .320 and his slugging percentage hasn’t topped .435. In his first six years, his slugging percentage was never worse than .495. The Rays acquired Christian Arroyo, a young infielder without Longoria’s power but with .300 potential, some good preseason publicity in Tampa area native Denard Span’s return and a couple of young, wild hard throwers. It’s not what Longoria would have returned four years ago, but it might be more than he should have off three of the last four seasons. 3. Outfield defense. The Rays have collected center fielders with the idea a bad one will make a better corner outfielder than an average one of those. Span might have been a -2.4 defensive WAR in center in San Francisco, but he should be able to handle left field indoors in Tampa; Carlos Gomez might have been an average centerfielder n Texas, but he should be an above-average right fielder in Tampa. Neither is replacing Kevin Kiermaier, who missed 64 games last season and a third straight Gold Glove because of it. Just to be sure, the Rays also have Mallex Smith, who manned center field in Kiermaier’s absence.
Three reasons it won’t: 1. The Rays set a team record by hitting 228 home runs last year, but most of the the players who hit them are gone. Longoria hit 20 homers last year and he was fourth on the team. He’s now a Giant. Logan Morrison hit 38, and he’s a Twin; Steven Souza hit 30, and he’s a Diamondback; Corey Dickerson hit 27, made the All-Star team and was designated for assignment; he’s now a Pirate, and the pitcher he was traded for, Daniel Hudson, didn’t make the Rays’ Opening Day roster despite a $5.5 million salary, or almost as much as Dickerson. Players who hit 172 of those 228 homers aren’t Rays anymore. The leading returning home run hitter is Kiermaier, who hit 15 in about 60% of a season. 2. The Rays’ plan of every fifth start being a Bullpen Day is likely to go down with the 2003 Red Sox’s closer by committee as a bad idea gone bad. The No. 2 starter, Blake Snell, averaged 5.1 innings per start last year; the No.3 starter Jake Faria averaged 5.2 innings per start and the No. 4 starter, Nate Eovaldi, missed last year to injury. Forget every fifth day being a Bullpen Day; every game not started by Archer will be a Bullpen Day, too. 3. The Rays’ infield with first baseman C.J. Cron will be Adeiny Hechavarria and his .291 on-base percentage at shortstop; a platoon of Joey Wendle (lifetime .338 on-base in the minors) and Daniel Robertson (.206/308/326 as a rookie last year) at second; and Matt Duffy, who missed 2017 to injury and has a career .719 OPS, at third. Who knew Tim Beckham would be missed so badly?
Team song: Bruce Springsteen: Land of Hope and Dreams (as picked by Rays owner Stuart Sternberg in a Q&A with the Tampa Bay Times)