ST. PETERSBURG -- It’s finally almost time for the Rays to get back on the field. How does that sound?
All Rays players are set to report on Wednesday, with the first workout scheduled for Friday. It’ll be a unique and challenging season for the Rays and all other teams in the league, largely due to the uncertainty of playing in an unprecedented season.
Because of that, the Rays Inbox is back after a three-month layoff, and I’ll try to answer as many questions as I can. Let’s get to it.
Who are players we should be looking out for with the shorter season?
For their 60-man player pool, the Rays decided to go with most of the players that were invited to the original Spring Training, so nothing really changes when it comes to identifying some of the players that could take the club to the next level.
On the offensive side, Yoshitomo Tsutsugo and Mike Zunino are two players that could elevate the Rays to become a potent offense. Zunino struggled all of last season at the plate, but some mechanical changes during the offseason had him believing that he was going to turn it around in 2020. With 60 games, the at-bats will be limited, but Zunino certainly has the ability to hit 15 or 20 home runs.
For Tsutsugo, it’s all going to be really interesting -- and new. Yes, he got plenty of reps during Spring Training, but it’s worth watching just how much -- or if at all -- the stoppage affects his adjustment to the Majors from Japan. He was starting to get a better feel of Major League competition as spring moved along, but now he’s going to be limited to facing the Tampa Bay pitching staff on a daily basis. But with how good the staff is, it might actually serve him.
On the pitching side, José Alvarado is the key in the bullpen. When he’s on, as he was in 2018, he can be dominant. But when he’s off, as he was in '19, there’s a conversation to be had about whether he belongs on the active roster. During the spring, Alvarado came in very focused and showed glimpses of his talent. If he throws strikes, he’ll be another weapon in a Rays bullpen that was absolutely dominant last season.
I know Choi is in the States. What about Yoshi?
OK, so, yes -- Ji-Man Choi has been in his Arizona home for almost a week and will be traveling back to St. Petersburg in time to get tested and for the first workout. Tsutsugo’s timeline is a little bit choppier, as he has proven to be very reserved, but Rays general manager Erik Neander told reporters that Tsutsugo is fully expected to arrive in the United States in time to get tested and begin workouts on Friday.
Will fans be able to attend games at all this season?
This will all depend on how things go over the next couple of months. However, the Rays and the city have had conversations about allowing a limited number of fans at some point this season. Like a lot of things this year, this is still unknown.
With the risk of losing your starters due to injury/COVID-19 at nearly any point of season, is it likely the Rays carry six "starters," like a Trevor Richards, on the active roster and keep two guys ready to go at any day?
Good question, and we’ll certainly get a better idea of how the Rays feel about their group over the next couple of weeks. Aside from having guys ready just in case of infection, the Rays will also be cautious about the starters’ workload at the beginning of the season. Remember: Pitchers usually get six weeks to get ready during a normal Spring Training, but that’s being cut down to three weeks during Summer Camp. Pitching coach Kyle Snyder always prioritizes the long-term health of pitchers, so don’t expect anything less here.
There’s also the fact that the season begins with 30 players on the active roster before whittling down to 28 and then 26, so it’s almost guaranteed that Tampa Bay will start the season with either a sixth starter or a couple of pitchers that can give them bulk innings. Brendan McKay, Jalen Beeks, Richards and Anthony Banda are the most likely candidates.
With so many changes, how do the Rays get into rhythm in such a short schedule?
Their youth is going to really come into play this season, on and off the field. Most of the Rays are young and energetic, and that should really help them out in a season where they’re going to be even more self-motivated due to having no crowds.
As far as strategy goes, the Rays like to play the matchups, and having 30 players for the first two weeks will give manager Kevin Cash and the staff a lot of options.
With the Rays' greatest strength being depth, do you see them using pinch-runners/hitters more often? Hook starters even earlier than they already do? Or because there are so little starts available this season, do they let their guys go even deeper into games than before?
This is something that we’ll see over the next couple of weeks, but you should absolutely expect the Rays to pinch-hit a lot this season. The offense is built for matchups, and that will certainly be the case at the end of games with the new three-batter minimum rule. Whether they have 30, 28 or 26 players on the roster, Cash will always go to the best matchup.
With the pitchers -- and it always goes back to matchups with the Rays -- I wouldn’t expect the starters to go much deeper into games even with fewer starts. Charlie Morton, Tyler Glasnow and Blake Snell will benefit from only making around 10 starts, but don’t expect too much of an innings increase. Like I said, Snyder prioritizes long-term health.