As the Tampa Bay Rays were getting ready for pitchers and catchers to report on Friday for the opening of spring training, President of Baseball Operations Matt Silverman and manager Kevin Cash met with the local media for their customary pre-spring media session at Charlotte Sports Park on Thursday afternoon.
Silverman and Cash answered some essential questions concerning the team, but also spoke of the improvement to the offense, the pitching, catching situation and overall viewpoint of the makeup of this year’s potential roster.
Over the past few seasons, some of the local media and baseball pundits had high expectations as the team entered spring training for the various upcoming seasons. Many projected the Rays to contend for the top spot in the highly competitive American League East and to further that with a trip to the World Series.
Last spring, under the first year of Kevin Cash and Matt Silverman the outlook on paper projected success. It was a given that the team was returning four starters, as Matt Moore would be the only missing piece while recovering from Tommy John surgery. A revamped bullpen that was stronger, despite Jake McGee’s absence because of late off-season surgery and as well the potential for better offensive production with the addition of a healthy Desmond Jennings and newcomer Steven Souza Jr.
However, what was on paper did not pan out as the bottom fell out with numerous injuries to the rotation, bullpen and positional players that resulted in 21 players totaling 26 stints on the disabled list that subsequently required four of the five starters spending all or a majority on the disabled list and the Rays needing to make 145 roster moves.
This spring is somewhat different as both Silverman and Cash feel that this year’s prospective squad is a better club all around as they have the depth, the potential to produce far better than last year defensively, offensively and with a year under-their-belts [Cash, Silverman] will do things a bit differently in certain aspects. One thing though is for certain, the Rays believe they will field a team that will play meaningful games in September.
A major area of discussion during the media session revolved around the pitching from the starters to bullpen. In 2015, Cash was often criticized how he handled the starters which was pulling them too early in games – as evident by the fact that the Rays starters were pulled prior to the third time through the order more than any team in the American League. They faced a league low of 899 batters after the second time through the order.
Cash said that this season he’s better prepared for that. The one thing going into this spring that will be a little bit different is the fact the Rays plan “to challenge some of our pitchers to extend themselves a little bit from the bullpen.”
The rotation looks very promising as Chris Archer (12-13, 3.23), Jake Odorizzi (9-9, 3.35), Drew Smyly (5-2, 3.11), Erasmo Ramirez (11-6, 3.75) and Matt Moore (3-4, 5.43) are the likely candidates to open the season as the starting five. Smyly and Moore both spent a majority of the season on the disabled list last season enter camp healthy and Alex Cobb should return sometime in July following his Tommy John surgery which could really make the rotation very strong.
As for the bullpen, last year for the most part, the relievers came in for just one or two outs mostly due to the fact that the starters were pulled early in the game taxing the bullpen arms thus making it difficult to piece together the innings and having fresh arms available.
The bullpen to some extent has undergone a makeover and it’s possible that it could lead to “a little bit different bullpen dynamic.” Cash said that this is still a work in progress. Meaning that Cash and Silverman are looking for some multiple-inning bullpen pitchers, rather than pitching to one or two batters/one inning.
“Let’s have some guys who can get us four, four-plus outs and add to the dynamic of how we want to run things. But I don’t think anything is set in stone, like we have to have an eight-inning guy,” Cash said.
“There’s going to be competition in that bullpen, Silverman acknowledged: “We can’t replace Jake McGee’s performance and productivity, but we feel like we have a lot of good arms who will compete. We’ll see how it shakes out this spring and throughout the year.”
Danny Farquhar, Enny Romero, Steve Geltz, Alex Colome, and newly signed Ryan Webb are the principal arms in the pen with Andrew Bellatti, Matt Andriese and non-roster invitee Dana Eveland looking to lock up one of the two final pen spots. Closing out the games is Brad Boxberger, looking to continue on his 2015 success as the AL save leader.
To add some veteran depth to the bullpen, the Rays signed Webb a ground ball specialist and double-play inducer to a one-year, $1 million deal plus incentives. “A nice element to have,” Silverman said.
A native of Clearwater, Fla., Webb was selected by the Oakland Athletics in the fourth round of the 2004 June Draft out of Clearwater Central Catholic High School. A veteran of seven major league seasons Webb has compiled a 17-18 record and 3.35 ERA in 357 appearances, all in relief. Last season he pitched in 40 games for Cleveland with a 3.20 ERA (50.2-IP, 18-ER) after spending most of April in the minors. He recorded a 3.65 groundball-to-flyball ratio, fifth highest among American League relievers.
Also big on media day involved questions concerning the players that the team is looking for to have a bounce-back season. Heading the list would be Desmond Jennings who in 2015 played in just 28 games and who really hasn’t performed up to his projected potential. Jennings over his career has yet to play in more than 139 games and over this period of time, he has spent numerous times on the disabled list with significant knee injuries and an assortment of nagging injuries.
“Desmond’s in a good spot,” Cash said. “We all know it was a trying season for him, between the knee, and at the end of the year with the tooth, the infection. That caused a considerable amount of pain.
“He’s incredibly talented,” Silverman said. “When he’s on the field. He’s got a chance to be the best player on the field. We see him healthy. He should be full go this year and he adds a dynamic element to our lineup and our outfield.”
“It’s not easy, but we look at historical track records. We look at the character of the guys and those are the guys we bet on,” said Silverman. With that, Silverman noted that Steve Pearce and Logan Morrison who were both acquired during the off-season fit into the “bounce-back” category.
Although last season was somewhat productive, Pearce had a down year (numerous injuries) compared to what the Rays have seen in prior years and specifically how he tormented the team at Tropicana Field.
Logan Morrison is another guy we’re hoping for a bounce back. “He’s a good hitter. He’s got power. He played in another difficult ballpark and we think coming into the AL East, they’re some friendlier ballparks and that’s going to help him. It helps a lot of hitters’ confidence to be able to hit in some of these smaller ballparks,” said Silverman.
Steven Souza Jr. had a rough 2015 as he dealt with numerous injuries throughout the season. Because of this, his inconsistency at the plate (144 strikeouts) compared to just 84 hits and a .225 average were unexpected. Many thought he lacked confidence, but that was not how Cash saw it. “I don’t look at Souza as lacking any confidence whatsoever. I’m really excited to see him. He’s another guy, a young player, he comes in and here you go, ‘You’re hitting second, you’re playing right field,” said Cash.
Behind the dish sits Rene Rivera, a pitchers best friend. “I think Rene came into situation he had never been in. We kind of just said here it is: it’s your job (referring to being the No. 1 catcher). A lot of that he handled well, but some of it, when he struggled he got off to a real slow start, it just kind of spiraled from there, said Cash.
It’s no secret that the Rays have always been extremely cautious with their pitchers that have suffered injuries. They are always at the top of their game when it comes to rehabilitation, the various protocols and very cognizant of injury prevention.
Matt Moore and Drew Smyly, two-fifths of the starting rotation missed significant time in 2015 following Tommy John surgery and a shoulder tendinitis. Booth pitchers will head into spring training with a clean bill of health and are both full go. Silverman said, “There shouldn’t be any restrictions on them and there will be discussions with the medical staff on managing their workload.”
The bottom line… are the Rays a playoff team in 2016?
“Since 2008 we come into camp thinking that our team can compete for the playoffs. We felt that way last year. We felt that way the year before, and we feel that way this year. That’s the goal,” said Silverman.
Based on all everything that Silverman has done, pundits met Tampa Bay’s offseason with mixed reviews. Sports Illustrated gave the Rays a “D+” grade for not making enough moves. Baseball Prospectus’ PECOTA projection predicted 91 wins and an American League East crown for the Rays.