PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. -- After treading water in the American League East for the past three seasons, the Rays opted to travel in a different direction for 2018.Familiar faces such as Evan Longoria, Jake Odorizzi, Steven Souza Jr. and Corey Dickerson are gone. But the Rays kept a core group in the
PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. -- After treading water in the American League East for the past three seasons, the Rays opted to travel in a different direction for 2018.
Familiar faces such as Evan Longoria, Jake Odorizzi, Steven Souza Jr. and Corey Dickerson are gone. But the Rays kept a core group in the clubhouse, and that group believes it can be competitive this season. Leading the way are the faces of the team, Chris Archer and Kevin Kiermaier.
The Rays augmented their roster by bringing in Carlos Gomez, Denard Span and C.J. Cron. And the front office and manager Kevin Cash have decided to go with an innovative approach for the starting rotation. Initially, that plan would have seen Archer, Blake Snell, Nathan Eovaldi and Jake Faria composing a four-man staff, with a bullpen day taking the fifth spot when needed.
However, that plan will need to be tweaked since Eovaldi got placed on the 10-day disabled list to have "loose bodies" removed from his right elbow via arthroscopic surgery. They have not yet decided who will move into the fourth spot in the rotation.
What's the goal?
The Rays went for it in 2017, trading for pieces they felt would help them earn a postseason spot. That didn't work out, as they went 80-82. Feeling as though they needed to revamp their approach, they made the tough decision to trade popular players to clear payroll and add prospects.
Despite the losses of key members from last year's team, the goal is to remain competitive, while getting younger, so a core group can develop and remain competitive for a sustained run.
What's the plan?
Clearly, the Rays are hanging their hat on the future, and many of the youngsters coming up through the organization will be the faces that Rays fans will grow familiar with in coming seasons.
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Top prospects such as Willy Adames, Christian Arroyo and Jake Bauers will likely be seen this season. Brent Honeywell and Jose De Leon were projected to be part of that group, but both right-handers underwent Tommy John surgery, which means neither will pitch this season.
Other top prospects such as Brendan McKay, Jesus Sanchez, Wander Franco, Garrett Whitley, Justin Williams, Josh Lowe, Jaime Schultz and Nick Solak are not far behind. The plan is to gather enough talent until the farm system is swelling with prospects, and from that talent pool, above-average Major Leaguers will evolve through a survival-of-the-fittest process.
While the team waits for its heralded prospects to arrive, the likes of newcomers like Gomez, Span and Cron will smooth the transition from the old Rays to the new. Add to that list the players who remain, such as Kiermaier, Archer, Snell, Faria, Matt Duffy, Alex Colome, Brad Miller and Wilson Ramos, and the idea of the Rays being competitive doesn't seem quite so far-fetched.
What could go wrong?
Amid the turnover, the Rays have come up with an innovative plan to use a "bullpen day" as their fifth starter when the team needs it.
The new arrangement will put a load on the bullpen, which should be composed of a handful of pitchers who are equipped to throw multiple innings and can recover quickly.
While the idea behind this thinking is innovative, and no team has tried this approach before, it could backfire given the demands on any pitching staff during a 162-game season.
The news about Eovaldi already hurt the plan that will challenge the staff to keep the bullpen fresh. That will translate to exceptional communication skills between relievers and the coaching staff, and they'll also have to do an efficient job of shuffling pitchers between Triple-A Durham and the Major Leagues when needed.
Who might surprise?
Anything Snell does should not be considered a total surprise given his past. Still, the left-hander's performance in 2018 could surprise many, and it could be the best kind of surprise.
Snell finished 2017 on a roll, going 5-1 with a 2.84 ERA over his final 10 starts. That was after he went 0-6 with a 4.98 ERA in 14 starts in two earlier stints with the Rays last season.
Partial credit for Snell's strong finish goes to a mechanical adjustment that saw him move from the third-base side of the rubber to the middle. He also worked through some unspecified personal problems.
All spring, Snell has resembled the guy who blew through the Rays' farm system in 2015 when he pitched at Class A Advanced Charlotte, Double-A Montgomery and Triple-A Durham, compiling a 15-4 record with a 1.41 ERA. Across all three levels, he struck out 31.3 percent batters he faced.
If that's the guy that shows this season, the Rays will not only have a surprise, they'll also have an impact player.
Bill Chastain has covered the Rays for MLB.com since 2005.