I'm heartbroken about the Rays trading Evan Longoria. I understand a lot about the team's explanation, but that doesn't make it any easier. He was my favorite player and the one constant on a team constantly changing. How do you view the trade?
-- Sally J., Tampa, Fla.
I believe the Rays looked at how they went for it in 2017 and still came up short, then surmised that they'd be better off trying to build a solid foundation for a future run rather than continue treading water in the talented American League East. But I do understand how fans feel. Longoria has been the face of the franchise for many years, and he's given fans some amazing moments, like Game 162. He won't soon be forgotten, and this trade won't be able to be fairly assessed for a number of years.
Do you see Brent Honeywell, Willy Adames, and Jake Bauers all starting on the active roster on Opening Day?
-- Jack M., Sarasota, Fla.
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Based on the business of baseball, where staggering the start of a player's Major League career is clearly beneficial to teams, I would not be surprised if none of them were on the Opening Day roster. However, based on what happens during the offseason with trades and free-agent acquisitions, roster needs may supersede the normal business procedure most teams might follow. I do believe if none are on the Opening Day roster, all three will be with the team shortly thereafter.
Given the number of Minor League players likely to get called up this season, who do you think will impact the team the most? Also, could the Rays decide to bring in Jose Bautista if he came at a friendly price?
-- Samir F., Tampa, Fla.
In regard to Bautista, I haven't heard of Tampa Bay having any interest in the veteran slugger. Having said that, the Rays have historically played their cards close to their chest. Remember when they signed Johnny Damon and Manny Ramirez? Nobody saw that one coming. As for the players who were called up last year, I'd have to go with Jacob Faria. The right-hander has not only shown quality stuff, he also had confidence in his pitches. He didn't try to nibble, he was like, 'Here's my stuff, see what you can do with it." Too often, I've seen a young pitcher get to the Major Leagues and suddenly not trust his stuff. Faria doesn't have that problem, so I think he'll continue to show well in his second Major League season.
I really liked the Rays' bullpen at the end of last season. We seemed to have a lot of weapons with Alex Colome closing, Tommy Hunter, Steve Cishek, Dan Jennings, and Sergio Romo setting him up, and Brad Boxberger being useful when called upon. Now all of those guys save for Jennings and Colome are gone, and everybody seems to have interest in trading for Colome. My question is this: What will the Rays do for a bullpen in 2018?
-- Ed T., Tampa, Fla.
First, I would expect a 2018 bullpen that would include the likes of Jennings, Jose Alvarado, Chih-Wei Hu, Austin Pruitt, Chaz Roe, Andrew Kittredge, Jaime Schultz and Ryne Stanek as the mainstays. I also expect the team to sign a host of veteran relievers to Minor League deals with invites to Spring Training -- they've had success going that route. There are worse things than having a bullpen loaded with young, hard-throwing pitchers. I'm particularly excited to see Schultz. He is a keg of dynamite and would have been an integral part of last year's bullpen had injuries not interrupted that plan.
Is there one player on this team you expect to have a breakout season in 2018?
-- George R., St. Petersburg
George, I'll do you one better by giving you two players I think could have breakout seasons, and I'll tell you why I think so. For starters: Steven Souza Jr. The slugging right fielder hit 30 home runs and stayed healthy in 2017, giving fans a peek at how he's capable of producing. He spent his offseason last year rehabbing from hip surgery. This year, he's been able to concentrate on getting himself in shape for baseball and nothing else. I believe that will pay big dividends. I also think Kevin Kiermaier is headed for a breakout year -- offensively. He's always been a dominant defender and a great athlete. I believe that confidence is starting to spill over to his offense. That could result in a complete Major League player who is just as much of an impact player on offense as he is on defense.
What has been the problem with Stanek? He throws harder than most anybody, but he struggled a lot when he was with the Rays last season. What has to happen for him to become successful?
-- Jim A., Clearwater, Fla.
Manager Kevin Cash recently spoke about Stanek, noting that he has an "elite" fastball which allows for a greater margin of error. However, he added that the main thing that needs to happen is for the right-hander to find a little better control. If Stanek can find that control, watch out.