'Win it all this year': TB set on better sequel

February 24th, 2021

PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. -- As the Rays finished up their first full-squad workout Tuesday morning, Randy Arozarena strode down the right-field line on Field 4 at Charlotte Sports Park, bat and glove both in his left hand. Walking next to Tampa Bay’s postseason record-breaker was Wander Franco, with a bat in his left hand and a Rays-branded mask covering the lower half of his face

It was a snapshot of the team’s singular standing this spring, returning from a run to the World Series highlighted by Arozarena’s heroics while possessing the best farm system in baseball led by the game’s consensus top prospect. And it was a reminder of the organization’s greatest strength, which general manager Erik Neander cited while sitting atop the home dugout at the Rays’ Spring Training ballpark about two hours after Arozarena and Franco walked off the field together.

“We have talent and we have depth,” Neander said. “That's what you need to win a lot of games.”

Furthermore, the Rays have motivation to win two more games than last year.

They put together a season that ranks among the club’s best, going 40-20 in the shortened regular season, winning the American League East and claiming the franchise’s second AL pennant. They simply accomplished too much to consider last year a disappointment, veteran center fielder Kevin Kiermaier said. Yet they fell short of their ultimate goal, losing the World Series to the Dodgers in six games, and they reported to camp determined to take that final step forward this season.

“Coming up short like that is going to give you that drive, that motivation,” Kiermaier said. “I know I would think about it several times a week. We wanted to finish it the right way, which we didn't accomplish, and now it's just trying to figure out what can we do to get better as a team, as a whole, and try to get back to that situation and come out on top.

“We have a team that's very capable of doing that, and that's why it's a very exciting time to be a Tampa Bay Ray.”

Shortstop Willy Adames picked up on that feeling during the club’s first workout as a group on Tuesday and expressed the same level of confidence in the Rays’ chances this year. Last year, Tampa Bay used its loss to Houston in the 2019 AL Division Series as fuel to play deeper into October. Now that they’ve tasted success in the World Series, the Rays are eager to get back again.

“Everybody loved the experience there, and they want to go back and they want to win it all,” Adames said. “I know everybody's hungry, and they want to win it all this year. Me personally, I'm really excited about the team, how the team's looking.”

There are questions facing the Rays, however, as they begin their AL title defense. After Neander detailed the club’s areas of strength on Tuesday, manager Kevin Cash remarked that the only potential negative is the unknown. Specifically, it’s anybody’s guess how pitchers and position players will handle the leap from last year’s 60-game schedule to a 162-game season.

“With talent and depth, those are driving factors for us in any year, I think just all the more so this year,” Neander said. “The pitching gets the attention, and certainly our moves have been more pitching-focused, because there's been more opportunity to add on that side relative to our position-player group, but we need to make sure that this group is pretty well insulated and protected against all the unexpected outcomes that could happen this year.”

Much of the analysis regarding the Rays’ offseason moves focused on their decision to not bring back Charlie Morton and Blake Snell, two pillars of their rotation. In their place, Tampa Bay is placing bets on Tyler Glasnow, Ryan Yarbrough, a quartet of veteran free agents (Chris Archer, Rich Hill, Michael Wacha and Collin McHugh) and a bunch of young arms like Josh Fleming, Luis Patiño and Shane McClanahan. There’s plenty of talent and depth there, too, but fewer sure things than a year ago at this time. The Rays have said they’ll evaluate their options in Spring Training before piecing together a pitching plan.

“Erik and the front office, we’ve all put our heads together, and we understand we’re probably not going to be able to replace Blake and Charlie with two other guys,” Cash said during the press conference with Neander. “But we might be able to find some ways replacing all the production, the value they brought to our club, with a handful of them.”

It will also be more challenging for the Rays to develop their typical clubhouse chemistry as they proceed through a camp governed by health and safety protocols to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Adames, the energetic clubhouse presence, said Tuesday he had yet to meet Patiño, for instance, because they were stationed in different clubhouses. There are other signs around Charlotte Sports Park that this Spring Training is different, from the masks worn by players and staff to the additional workout room and dining area under tents between the parking lot and the back fields.

Then again, Cash noted that the unusual circumstances of last season actually might have helped bring that group of players closer together. In their first team meeting, held with players spread out inside the open-air stadium after their first workout, Cash and Neander made their introductions and talked through the protocols and explained that “being a good teammate falls under that umbrella” of following the rules in place.

“It seems that they all have a very good mindset right now. Excited to see each other,” Cash said. “I think we would all sign up for a very similar mindset as to what we showed coming into last spring.

“We’ll take it this spring, knowing that we just want to get a little bit better.”