New players, same Rays: TB's camp has high hopes amid roster battles

February 19th, 2024

PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. -- In many ways, the Rays’ first full-squad workout of Spring Training on Monday morning felt normal.

The whole team spread across the back fields at Charlotte Sports Park to stretch, run, throw, play defense and take batting practice, a welcome return to their spring home after the significant damage done by Hurricane Ian forced them to improvise across multiple locations last year.

Manager Kevin Cash addressed the team with a brief, understated speech focused on the staff’s desire to win games, help each player perform at their best and create a positive culture. Randy Arozarena signed autographs and entertained fans. Players caught up privately and spoke publicly about their desire to get back to the postseason.

“I think we have a good team,” Arozarena said through communications director Elvis Martinez. “We're just going to support each other. … That's all we can do to be able to get to the playoffs. And then after that, I know we are capable to win games and move forward.”

One difference this spring? The Rays will spend the next five weeks working through a few more roster decisions than usual. Certainly more than last year, when the Opening Day club was almost entirely set from the moment they first took the field at Disney’s ESPN Wide World of Sports complex.

At some point before they line up at Tropicana Field on March 28, the Rays need to officially nail down their starting shortstop, back-end starters and the last few jobs in the bullpen as well as their backup catcher, infield and outfield spots, plus whatever other opportunities might open up in the event of injuries.

“This spring is a little different than what maybe we've seen in the past. There's more opportunities,” Cash said. “I don't like to say question marks. We're going to get to evaluate a bunch of good players, whether it's bullpen roles, whether it's starting options, and then certainly our position player group.

“It's exciting in the fact that there are more new faces this year, whether they've come through our system, in their first opportunities at big league camp or first real opportunity to maybe make a club out of spring.”

Some of those players are returning Rays looking to parlay part-time roles or previous stints into regular playing time. Starter Taj Bradley and infielders Jonathan Aranda, Curtis Mead, Junior Caminero and Osleivis Basabe are among the players hoping to crack the club and stay for the long haul. Catcher René Pinto will be trusted with the starting job and given a chance to run with it.

Others were brought in over the past year and now have an opportunity to carve out a niche with Tampa Bay.

Starter Ryan Pepiot and outfielders Jonny DeLuca and Richie Palacios, each acquired for a key contributor during the offseason, will compete for spots on the Opening Day roster. Reliever Manuel Rodríguez and non-roster catcher Alex Jackson were acquired at the Trade Deadline, didn’t get called up down the stretch but could claim important roles this season. Chris Devenski and Tyler Alexander will get stretched out to start but could play a variety of parts for the pitching staff.

Their names may not be as familiar as the ones they’re replacing, and the preseason predictions and projection systems might underrate Tampa Bay’s chances. But that’s as much a part of a typical Rays Spring Training as pitchers’ fielding drills and live batting practice.

“People want to gravitate towards your bigger names, your bigger teams, etc. That's kind of how it's been as long as I can remember here, so that is what it is,” top reliever Pete Fairbanks said recently. “That's not something that we've ever really concerned ourselves with. … We've won a lot of games over the past five years, and hopefully we can keep winning some more.”

After three straight years of frustrating exits early in the postseason, the Rays want to do more than just secure a sixth straight postseason appearance. They want to win in October, too. Some things may have changed this spring, but the expectations are the same.

“It's a very Rays roster. There's some turnover. There's some people that you've seen before. There's some people we haven't seen before,” Fairbanks said. “I'm excited about it. I think we were pretty good last year, and I'd like to be pretty good again this year. I think we have the cast of characters to do it.”