Margot embracing role of 'Papa' to Rays' kids

April 1st, 2022

PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. -- When  walked into the Rays’ Spring Training clubhouse alongside Randy Arozarena on Thursday morning, Wander Franco immediately stood up to greet him. When Margot stopped for an interview on his way to go hit, Arozarena waited for him. When Arozarena was pulled aside for a separate conversation, Margot bounced over to talk -- and, for a moment, sing -- with Luis Patiño in front of his locker.

Wherever Margot goes, it seems like, his teammates follow.

“He's like the father of the group,” Patiño said through interpreter Manny Navarro. “He helps us out a lot.”

Margot doesn’t command as much attention as the Rays’ top stars, like Franco, Arozarena and Brandon Lowe. He may not be leading team meetings like fellow veterans Kevin Kiermaier and Mike Zunino. But ask around Tampa Bay’s clubhouse, and you’ll realize Margot is in the middle of a lot of what the Rays do, offering integral leadership for the club’s Latin American players to go along with the valuable role he plays on the field.

“He's just very comfortable here, and this spring, you can tell he has even taken it a step farther of kind of being a leader,” manager Kevin Cash said. “They really value his friendship, that relationship, and it's impressive. He's a really good guy. … You watch a lot of our younger players just kind of flock to him, and if you're going to go to somebody, Manny's a pretty good pick.”

The way Margot performs helps in that regard, too. Margot totaled 2.8 WAR per Baseball Reference last season, and Cash called him “incredibly valuable” to the team’s success. He’s an elite defensive outfielder at all three positions -- he started in center and went 2-for-3 with a pair of RBI doubles in the Rays’ 9-3 win over the Red Sox on Friday afternoon at Charlotte Sports Park -- and ranked sixth last year among all qualified defenders, regardless of position, with 16 outs above average.

Offensively, Margot puts the ball in play and hits well against left-handed pitchers, with a .273/.346/.406 slash line when facing southpaws last season. His 98 OPS+ in 2021 was the best mark of his career. He might even tap into more power this year, as he said he put on 7 or 8 pounds of muscle over the offseason.

“The way he plays the game -- I mean, he runs everything out, he gives quality at-bats, he's a good teammate, he's supportive,” Cash said. “He understands, at certain parts of the year, his role might not be [starting] every single day of the week, but he's always ready when he's maybe not in the lineup. That goes a long way, certainly within our team.”

Margot isn’t exactly a graybeard, even if Patiño did call him “papa.” He’s only 27 years old, the same age as Arozarena and only six years older than Franco. But he’s entering his seventh year in the Majors, his sixth full season, and he has accumulated more service time than anyone on Tampa Bay’s roster but Corey Kluber, Kiermaier, Zunino and reliever Matt Wisler. He’ll make $5.6 million this year, his final season before reaching free agency.

Younger teammates say they can learn from his experience, as he is always willing to provide information or guidance with a positive, professional attitude.

“I think I've had the most experience of those guys, and if they can pick up anything they can learn from me, that's all I can do,” Margot said through Navarro. “Just letting them know that we're all on the same page, and we all want to come in with the same intensity.”

Patiño, who met Margot during their time in the Padres' organization, said the outfielder was the first player to reach out when the Rays acquired him from San Diego in the Blake Snell trade. On days they’re both in the starting lineup, Arozarena always tries to pick Margot’s brain about the opposing pitcher -- especially if it’s someone Margot has faced before. In the outfield, Arozarena said, Margot will help his teammates with their positioning.

This time last year, Margot -- acquired from the Padres for reliever Emilio Pagán just before Spring Training began in 2020 -- said he felt more comfortable entering his second season with the Rays. Now, with another year of experience under his belt, it’s even clearer to see.

“He’s a good person, he’s a great teammate, and he’s a great human being,” Arozarena said through Navarro. “With the experience that he’s had with this team, it really helps us ask him some questions and get tips from him. The way he looks at the game has helped me look at the game a little differently.”