In the final weeks prior to Spring Training, MLB.com will be going around the horn to examine each area of the Rays' 2019 roster. This installment focuses on Tampa Bay's first-base options.
ST. PETERSBURG -- Throughout the offseason, the Rays have prioritized having quality depth throughout the roster as the team hopes to compete for a postseason spot in 2019. Despite being able to accomplish that goal in certain areas, when you look through the projected Opening Day roster, there's one obvious question for Tampa Bay: Who's going to play first base?
With C.J. Cron and Jake Bauers no longer part of the organization, the Rays don't have a proven Major League first baseman on their roster. The club feels confident that one or two players will step up during Spring Training and fill the need it has at first base.
Projected starter: Yandy Diaz
Diaz was the big return from the deal that sent Bauers to the Indians, and as of now, he's the projected starter at first base for the Rays. Due to a crowded Cleveland infield, the 27-year old had just 109 at-bats last season, but he showed enough promise at the plate for Tampa Bay to deal for him this offseason.
"We really like his bat," said Rays vice president of baseball operations Chaim Bloom. "We think there's a lot of upside there. He's a very talented hitter. Hits the ball to all fields. He hits the ball really, really hard. He has the chance to drive the ball more as he continues to mature as a hitter."
The home run numbers aren't quite there for Diaz, as he connected on just one roundtripper last season, but his ability to hit the ball hard has the Rays optimistic that they can help Diaz tap into his power more as they continue to help him develop. The fact that Diaz finished the 2018 season with an average exit velocity of 92.1 is a good sign for Tampa Bay. While his hard-hit percentage went down from 50 percent in '17 to 44.4 percent in '18, Diaz was still able to improve his barrel percentage from 3.3 to 4.4 percent.
Third base is the primary position for Diaz, but he's capable of playing first. Diaz played nine games at first base in 2018, and he didn't commit an error in 58 chances. His ability to play the position will be a focal point as the Rays enter Spring Training, but the team feels confident that Diaz is the man for the job.
Other options behind Diaz: Ji-Man Choi, Daniel Robertson
Choi is the only player on the roster who started a game at first base for Tampa Bay last season. The problem, however, is that he played in just one game last season, and the team is unsure of what he can provide in that spot. Choi will mostly serve as the team's designated hitter against right-handed pitching, but he'll be next in line at first if Diaz is injured or needs a day off.
Robertson, on the other hand, can play just about anywhere on the field. Last season, he made 29 appearances at shortstop, one at first base, 39 at second, 19 at third and four in left field. He doesn't have much experience at first, as that lone appearance lasted just two innings, but he's the player on the Rays' roster that has many gloves in his locker.
Who else is in the Pipeline?
No. 13 Nathaniel Lowe
No. 17 Joe McCarthy
Neither Lowe nor McCarthy will crack the Opening Day roster, but there's a good chance that you'll see both of them at the big league level at some point this season.
Lowe played at three Minor League levels in 2018, and he slugged at each stop. He finished the season with 27 home runs and 102 RBIs en route to being named the Player of the Year in the Rays' farm system. The decision to trade Bauers was partly made because Tampa Bay expects Lowe, who was selected in the 13th round of the 2016 Draft out of Mississippi State, to arrive at the Major League level in '19.
McCarthy, however, fractured his right hand playing in the Arizona Fall League in November, but the club expects him to be fully healthy for Spring Training. The 6-foot-3, 225-pound left-hander moves well for his size, which allows him to play the outfield. McCarthy is trying to continue to build his confidence after collecting an .818 OPS across three levels.