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Rays' active Meetings bode well for 2019

Tampa Bay signs free-agent righty Morton, adds infielder Diaz in three-way trade
MLB.com @RichardJustice

LAS VEGAS -- The Rays checked two of their most important offseason boxes by agreeing to terms with free-agent right-hander Charlie Morton and acquiring infielder Yandy Diaz from the Indians.

"I think looking at history, I didn't expect to come out of the Winter Meetings with as many things either completed or possible as we have," said senior vice president of baseball operations Chaim Bloom. "There's been many years we've come in here and had a lot of great conversations and come out of here with the exact same roster."

LAS VEGAS -- The Rays checked two of their most important offseason boxes by agreeing to terms with free-agent right-hander Charlie Morton and acquiring infielder Yandy Diaz from the Indians.

"I think looking at history, I didn't expect to come out of the Winter Meetings with as many things either completed or possible as we have," said senior vice president of baseball operations Chaim Bloom. "There's been many years we've come in here and had a lot of great conversations and come out of here with the exact same roster."

The Rays acquired Diaz in a three-team trade that also included the Mariners, and they surrendered highly regarded young first baseman Jake Bauers. In Diaz, though, they saw a player with just 299 Major League plate appearances who hits the ball consistently hard and has a chance to be an impact contributor in the middle of the lineup.

"We're excited about his ability," Bloom said. "He fits in to what we have been doing, in terms of taking a player who we think is really talented, has a lot of ability and giving him a chance to establish himself."

Video: Edwin to Mariners, Santana to Tribe in 3-team deal

The Rays will press on and for more upgrades.

"We're not thinking of this as the end to our offseason, but we feel we have a deep and functional club right now," Bloom said. "We're going to continue to look at other ways to improve. We like where our roster stands right now."

The Rays have reached out to free-agent designated hitter Nelson Cruz, and they had discussed an Encarnacion trade with the Indians. They've also discussed a possible trade for Marlins catcher J.T. Realmuto -- even after acquiring catcher Mike Zunino from the Mariners.

"I think some things are coming into focus," said senior vice president of baseball operations and general manager Erik Neander. "I would expect, over the next week, to have even a greater picture of where things are at before the holidays crank up."

Morton will line up behind America League Cy Young Award winner Blake Snell to give the Rays at least two traditional starting pitchers apart from the opener strategy that worked so well for them in 2018.

Right-hander Tyler Glasnow will also compete for a spot in the rotation, and with Brent Honeywell and Jose De Leon expected back from Tommy John surgery around mid-season, the Rays will have an assortment of options.

Video: Rays add Morton to already strong pitching staff

This does not mean the Rays will use the opener strategy fewer times than they did in 2018. Only the Dodgers and Astros had lower staff ERAs after Tampa Bay began opening a game with a reliever on May 19.

Neander is also mindful of the rookies that contributed to a 90-win team in 2018, and he doesn't want to make an acquisition that blocks their growth -- the Rays were the first team to use at least 23 rookies and finish at least 18 games over .500. On the other hand, Tampa Bay has some rare payroll flexibility, and it is in the AL East with two teams -- the Red Sox and Yankees -- that won 100 games or more.

"I don't think we want to shut off anything," Neander said. "It's hard enough to find the matches. We'll be open-minded."

BIGGEST REMAINING NEEDS

1. Designated hitter
Despite all the progress in 2018, the Rays lost an MLB-high 14 times when their pitching staff allowed two runs or fewer. They were ninth in the American League in runs and next-to-last in home runs. Those numbers improved as the roster got younger. During the final two months, only four AL teams scored more runs than the Rays, but the search for offense is still a priority.

Video: After adding Charlie Morton, what's next for Rays?

2. Pitching
Upon hearing that manager Kevin Cash said his top three priorities were "pitching, pitching and more pitching," Neander joked, "I think Kevin made his preference clear in his session. I hope we can at least check off one of the three." Even after the expected signing of Morton, the Rays will continue to sort through their pitching options.

3. Bench
There are no pressing needs, but with a young roster and in a competitive division, the effort to get better will not end.

RULE 5 DRAFT

The Rays lost right-hander Sam McWilliams to the Royals in the Major League phase of the Rule 5 Draft. They also lost third baseman Peter Maris to the Giants in the Minor League phase. Because it has so many young players, Tampa Bay expected to lose a player or two as it set its 40-man roster.

"Those are hard decisions to make, and there's a lot that comes into play," Neander said. "In many ways, that's where you want to be, but it doesn't make it any easier when you're making some of those decisions and trying to pare things down. You're taking some educated guesses of sorts. You recognize the risk of leaving people exposed and what comes with that. I'm sure we'll look back and see things we should have done differently."

GM'S BOTTOM LINE

"We've got a really good young club, and there's some opportunities out there for us to improve it further. We need young players on the cusp of helping us at the Major League level to be the pieces that drive our team. We're set up well to have that group moving forward." -- Neander

Richard Justice has been a reporter for MLB.com since 2011. Read his columns, listen to his podcast and follow him on Twitter at @RichardJustice.

Tampa Bay Rays

Rays get infielder Diaz, trade Bauers to Tribe

MLB.com @RichardJustice

LAS VEGAS -- First baseman Jake Bauers was one of the young players to help turn the Rays around in 2018, and they believed he could be a cornerstone type of player on their roster for years to come. To trade him here at the beginning of his Major League career is not something the Rays thought would happen in this offseason.

That they sent him to the Indians on Thursday as part of a three-team deal that also included Seattle speaks volumes about what the Rays think of Yandy Diaz, a 27-year-old infielder with just 299 Major League plate appearances for the Indians.

LAS VEGAS -- First baseman Jake Bauers was one of the young players to help turn the Rays around in 2018, and they believed he could be a cornerstone type of player on their roster for years to come. To trade him here at the beginning of his Major League career is not something the Rays thought would happen in this offseason.

That they sent him to the Indians on Thursday as part of a three-team deal that also included Seattle speaks volumes about what the Rays think of Yandy Diaz, a 27-year-old infielder with just 299 Major League plate appearances for the Indians.

"He's a guy we've been on for a while," said Chaim Bloom, the Rays' senior vice president of baseball operations. "We really like his bat. Yandy really hasn't had a chance to establish himself at the Major League level."

To complete the deal:

• Bauers and cash go from the Rays to the Indians.

• Designated hitter Edwin Encarnacion and a Competitive Balance Round B Draft pick go from from the Indians to the Mariners.

• First baseman Carlos Santana and cash go from the Mariners to the Indians.

• Diaz and Minor League righty Cole Sulser go from the Indians to the Rays.

"I was very surprised," Diaz said through an interpreter. "I'd spent my entire few years with the Indians. But I'm excited to have a new opportunity with the Rays."

Tweet from @RaysBaseball: We've completed a three-team trade and acquiried IF Yandy D��az and minor league RHP Cole Sulser from Cleveland in exchange for first baseman Jake Bauers (to Cleveland) and cash considerations (to Seattle). #RaysUp pic.twitter.com/4QARn2EZ3Y

The Rays are sending the Mariners $5 million as part of the deal. Interestingly, the Rays have interest in Encarnacion, who could be dealt by the Mariners. Rays officials say there's no secondary deal in place to acquire Encarnacion.

In Cleveland, Diaz was blocked by veteran stars. Now, the Rays get a full look at a player who hit the baseball hard more consistently than almost anyone, according to Statcast™.

Of 504 players over the last two seasons -- those who've made contact at least 100 times -- Aaron Judge's 54.6-percent hard-hit rate is No. 1. Diaz ranks 19th at 47.6 percent.

So why has Diaz hit one home run in 265 at-bats? Because he has the eighth-lowest launch angle and 25th-highest ground-ball rate. If the Rays can get him to elevate the ball, they could have a star.

"We like him as is," Bloom said, "but any time you get a guy who hits the ball really hard, there's always additional upside, to the extent they can drive the ball a little bit. Even if he doesn't do that, we think he's a very polished hitter."

Here's more from Statcast™ on Diaz's hard-hit rate:

2017: 50.0 percent (MLB average 33.3 percent)

2018: 44.4 percent (MLB average 35.3 percent)

2017-18: 47.6 percent (MLB average 34.3 percent)

And there's this: Of the 504 players with 100-plus batted balls, three of the top 26 have been acquired by the Rays in the last six months:

• Diaz (19th), 47.6 percent

Tommy Pham (23rd), 46.6 percent

Mike Zunino (26th), 45.9 percent

"We're excited about his ability," Bloom said. "He fits in to what we have been doing, in terms of taking a player who we think is really talented, has a lot of ability and giving him a chance to establish himself."

The 2018 Rays were ninth in the American League in runs and lost 14 games in which their pitchers allowed two runs or fewer.

Tweet from @RaysBaseball: Have to relive this one more time. Thank you, @JakeBauers11! pic.twitter.com/5Px1qVWzJa

"Obviously, giving up Jake in this deal is not easy to do," Bloom said. "We love Jake and feel really strongly about him, too. That was just the price we needed to pay to get Yandy. We thought, all things considered, it was the right thing for us to do. It's good for our roster going forward."

Diaz was signed out of Cuba to play third base, but he can also play first and has played the outfield a bit. He could end up at first base for the Rays, depending on which other moves are made. In the end, Bloom said this trade was simply about getting a player the Rays like and one who gives manager Kevin Cash additional roster flexibility.

"I think it's premature to say we know exactly where he's going to play," Bloom said. "We'll have to see how things unfold from here. But the versatility he has does give us more options and more possible paths for our roster to go."

"I'll pretty much play anywhere they put me," Diaz said. "As long as I'm able to play, I'll take advantage of the opportunities. I've always been a hard-working player, and I plan on doing the same thing with the Rays."

Richard Justice has been a reporter for MLB.com since 2011. Read his columns, listen to his podcast and follow him on Twitter at @RichardJustice.

Tampa Bay Rays, Jake Bauers, Yandy Diaz

Rays offering perks with holiday ticket packs

Holiday ticket packs aren't just a great way for baseball fans to ensure that they'll see their favorite team up close next season -- they're also a perfect excuse to add some festive flair to sweeten the deal.

Adames, Bauers are sad they aren't teammates

Thursday saw the hot stove go nuts. Edwin Encarnacion was sent to Seattle, Carlos Santana went to Cleveland, Yandy Diaz went from Cleveland to Tampa Bay and the Rays sent Jake Bauers over to Cleveland. Phew -- catch all that? 

While most people were interested in how this would impact each team's roster or the postseason races, we forgot about the friendships getting split up: Namely, Bauers and Willy Adames, the bestest of best friends.

Rays agree to deal with Morton, per source

Contract is for two years, $30 million
MLB.com @RichardJustice

LAS VEGAS -- Free-agent right-hander Charlie Morton is wrapping up a two-year, $30 million deal with the Rays, according to multiple people familiar with the negotiations. The contract, which has not been confirmed by the club, will be finalized once Morton passes a physical.

Morton, 35, is one of the crown jewels of this offseason's free-agent class after two seasons with the Astros in which he made 55 starts with a 3.36 ERA and 10.4 strikeouts per nine innings.

LAS VEGAS -- Free-agent right-hander Charlie Morton is wrapping up a two-year, $30 million deal with the Rays, according to multiple people familiar with the negotiations. The contract, which has not been confirmed by the club, will be finalized once Morton passes a physical.

Morton, 35, is one of the crown jewels of this offseason's free-agent class after two seasons with the Astros in which he made 55 starts with a 3.36 ERA and 10.4 strikeouts per nine innings.

That 3.36 ERA is 10th lowest among American League starters in that time span. Morton's .220 opponents' batting average is seventh. He struck out 364, tied with James Paxton for eighth among AL starters.

Video: Charlie Morton reportedly close to signing with Rays

Morton's potential deal comes during an offseason in which the Rays, with a payroll of only around $32 million, have aggressively cast a wide net to acquire both pitching and a middle-of-the-order hitter.

Morton would join 2018 AL Cy Young Award winner Blake Snell and right-hander Tyler Glasnow as traditional starters for the Rays, with the "opener strategy" employed in the other two spots.

Video: Cash discusses increasing use of openers in baseball

But with Brent Honeywell and Jose De Leon expected back from Tommy John surgery around midseason, the Rays would have an assortment of options.

Morton had one of the more remarkable career rebirths during his two seasons with the Astros. After injuries limited him to just four starts with the Phillies in 2016, he wasn't even sure if he'd be offered a Major League contract.

However, the Astros saw a possible future ace in Morton, believing that refining his pitch usage along with some mechanical tweaks would turn him around.

Morton did just that, with a fastball that averaged almost 96 mph in 2018 and by throwing a career-high 29.3 percent curveballs. During the '17 postseason, he became the first pitcher in history to win both Game 7 of the AL Championship Series and the World Series.

Video: WS2017 Gm7: Morton goes four innings, earns the win

Morton started Game 7 of the ALCS and pitched five shutout innings for the win against the Yankees. In Game 7 of the World Series, he entered the game in the sixth inning and allowed one earned run in four innings to finish up the Astros' first Series win. 

Morton was a critical piece in helping the Astros win the World Series and did so not just with his great stuff but with a cerebral approach that meshed perfectly with Houston's utilization of data. He would contribute in other ways, too, particularly in priding himself on being a great teammate, part of the clubhouse glue essential to championship teams.

"Everything that's happened in my career, I've learned to appreciate it," Morton said in an interview this past summer. "I've learned to accept failure for what it is. Had I not won, had I not come to the Astros, I still would be extremely grateful for every opportunity that I've had. But I'll cherish that part of it for the rest of my life."

That postseason success made up for a lot of seasons when surgeries -- to both hips, his right elbow, a left hamstring that tore completely off the bone -- made Morton wonder if he'd ever be able to do the things he believed he was capable of doing. The hamstring injury limited him in 2016, and he entered free agency unsure of what the interest would be.

"I mean, I didn't think I was going to be out of baseball or anything like that," Morton said. "I just didn't know if there was a team out there that would believe I could stay healthy enough to be worth the investment."

The Astros saw it differently. They pursued Morton aggressively the moment he became a free agent. As Astros director of baseball operations Brandon Taubman said last summer, "He was the single most underappreciated free agent on the market. He's got amazing stuff. You can't ask for anything more."

The Astros were so clear about how much they wanted to get a deal done that Morton quickly told his agent to stop negotiating with other clubs.

"There was a lot of faith from the organization in me," Morton said. "It wasn't just, 'Hey, we're signing a guy and hoping he does good.' It was a real belief that I could contribute at a high level."

As the wild celebration began on the infield at Dodger Stadium after Game 7 of the World Series in 2017, Astros manager AJ Hinch noticed that the first thing Morton did was make eye contact with his wife Cindy and their son and daughter, Charles V and Grace. To Hinch, that gesture spoke volumes.

"He gets along well with teammates in every corner of the clubhouse," Hinch said this past summer. "He cares about people and has a great sense of humor and a way of connecting with them."

To which Morton said: "It's the most rewarding thing for me, when people talk about me as a person. Baseball is secondary. I'm going to be a normal, everyday guy, hanging out with my kids and my wife a lot longer than I'm going to be a baseball player. So, to me, how I leave my mark on the planet is going to be from something else, not baseball. Right now, I'm just a guy playing baseball."

After the 2017 World Series ended, Morton said it had a dreamlike quality, but he understood its larger meaning. He'd worked so hard and so long to be in this spot, and he would not let it slip through his fingers. He knew, too, what it would mean. After the seventh inning of Game 7, he asked Mike Acosta, the Astros' authentication manager, to save him a World Series baseball. "It's at the house, in a sock," Morton said.

Richard Justice has been a reporter for MLB.com since 2011. Read his columns, listen to his podcast and follow him on Twitter at @RichardJustice.

Tampa Bay Rays, Charlie Morton

Nelson Cruz, Edwin Encarnacion on Rays' radar

After 90-win season, Tampa Bay has payroll flexibility to make splash
MLB.com @RichardJustice

LAS VEGAS -- Nelson Cruz? Yep, the Rays have checked in on him, gauging what his price would be. At 38, Cruz remains one of baseball's most productive hitters. Indians designated hitter Edwin Encarnacion is another option. He's being shopped, and the Rays have the Minor League depth to get a deal done.

Right-hander Charlie Morton would be a nice fit as well -- and according to a source, the club was close to a deal with the free agent on Wednesday. So would Marlins catcher J.T. Realmuto, even after the acquisition of Mike Zunino from the Mariners. In a nutshell, this is the Rays' strategy: To cast a wide net, consider a bunch of options and see if there's anything that makes sense.

LAS VEGAS -- Nelson Cruz? Yep, the Rays have checked in on him, gauging what his price would be. At 38, Cruz remains one of baseball's most productive hitters. Indians designated hitter Edwin Encarnacion is another option. He's being shopped, and the Rays have the Minor League depth to get a deal done.

Right-hander Charlie Morton would be a nice fit as well -- and according to a source, the club was close to a deal with the free agent on Wednesday. So would Marlins catcher J.T. Realmuto, even after the acquisition of Mike Zunino from the Mariners. In a nutshell, this is the Rays' strategy: To cast a wide net, consider a bunch of options and see if there's anything that makes sense.

Video: MLB Tonight: Rays rumored to be targeting Nelson Cruz

Unlike previous offseasons, the Rays have some money to spend. But they also have a young roster that just won 90 games and seems to be trending upward. So, their strategy is to shop for upgrades regardless of position. They don't have a pressing need, but would like to get better.

Rays to reopen search for ballpark site 

"I think the advantage of having the array of young players that we have and having the depth we feel we have is that we're not seeking one specific upgrade," said Chaim Bloom, Rays senior vice president of baseball operations. "We have enough flexibility that there's a number of different ways we can get better.

"At the same time, we got in this position by being willing to give opportunities to young players and give them room to grow. They took that. They ran with that. We don't want to turn our backs on that because that's really how we got in this position."

Ask Rays manager Kevin Cash about all of this, and he is focused on one area.

"You know what, I'm pretty consistent," Cash said. "It's all about pitching. Pitching, pitching, pitching. I don't think you can ever have enough."

Cash on opener in 2019: 'We're going to do it'

The Rays have an ambitious offseason plan, thanks to a payroll projected to be only around $32 million. An impact bat is high on the list. And then there's pitching.

Tampa Bay's 3.74 team ERA was the second-lowest in the American League, and the Rays will begin Spring Training with as much pitching depth as almost any team, including 2018 AL Cy Young Award winner Blake Snell.

Video: Cash discusses increasing use of openers in baseball

Cash would like more.

"Obviously the bats are nice, but we won a lot of games last year because we pitched well and we caught the ball behind our pitchers," Cash said. "And I know that's not going to change. The more pitching that we can add and allow these guys to continue to get good, the better we'll be."

Tampa Bay won 90 games in 2018 despite using 54 players, including 23 rookies. Of the 35 players on the season-ending active roster, 17 were rookies.

Video: Cash discusses Rays' youth, Pham at Winter Meetings

Cash knows he has a very good core group going forward. And now a chance to get better from outside.

"Yeah, it's very exciting," Cash said. "The potential to have that, whether it's payroll flexibility, roster flexibility, to go and be in the market, whether it's acquiring through a trade or free agent."

Richard Justice has been a reporter for MLB.com since 2011. Read his columns, listen to his podcast and follow him on Twitter at @RichardJustice.

Tampa Bay Rays, Nelson Cruz

Rays to reopen search for ballpark site

Sternberg reaffirms commitment to Tampa area despite issues with proposed Ybor City location
MLB.com @RichardJustice

LAS VEGAS -- Rays principal owner Stuart Sternberg said Tuesday he's reopening his team's long search for a new ballpark site after being unable to reach a deal with Hillsborough County on a proposed Ybor City location near downtown Tampa, Fla.

Sternberg said the Rays would not ask St. Petersburg officials for an extension of a three-year window to explore alternative sites to Tropicana Field. That window expires Dec. 31.

LAS VEGAS -- Rays principal owner Stuart Sternberg said Tuesday he's reopening his team's long search for a new ballpark site after being unable to reach a deal with Hillsborough County on a proposed Ybor City location near downtown Tampa, Fla.

Sternberg said the Rays would not ask St. Petersburg officials for an extension of a three-year window to explore alternative sites to Tropicana Field. That window expires Dec. 31.

Instead, the team will begin anew. Sternberg emphasized that his sole focus is on keeping the Rays in the Tampa area. But the Rays' lease at Tropicana Field expires after the 2027 season.

"We'll continue to look in Tampa Bay," Sternberg said at a news conference at the Winter Meetings, "and we'll put our efforts to that. One way or another, we need to figure out a where the team is going to be in 2028, if not sooner. Ideally sooner, but absolutely by 2028."

The Rays had already pushed the proposed opening of the Ybor City site to the 2024 baseball season as negotiations aimed at reaching a financing plan dragged on. Now, with no site and no funding specifics, that timeline is off the table.

Sternberg's news conference came in the wake of Commissioner Rob Manfred writing to the Tampa Bay Sports Authority in response to a letter which outlined the $900-million Ybor City plan.

Manfred wrote that the proposal included so few specifics about financing that "it is very difficult for me to take any position at this time."

"I am puzzled by the decision to inject me publicly into the process with only 20 days remaining in the three-year negotiating period before the Rays have to provide a response to the City of St. Petersburg."

Sternberg and Rays president Brian Auld said all possibilities -- both in terms of site and financing -- are on the table. St. Petersburg mayor Rick Kriseman has mentioned the Rays building a new ballpark at the Tropicana Field location.

Sternberg said progress had been made on the Ybor City plan, but it wasn't close to enough.

"While the momentum and progress are real, we are not close at all to a workable framework," Sternberg said. "I'm not discouraged. We don't have necessarily Plan B right now. But we're committed to getting at it, and we'll regroup right now, go back to the drawing board and, I would imagine, come the new year, try to figure things out.

"We're a pretty resourceful group and determined group, and we'll try to use all those powers we have and all the intuition and everything else you might think of to get something done in Tampa Bay."

Sternberg previously said the Rays were willing to commit around $150 million of the approximately $900 million total to the Ybor City project. He said that number was fluid depending on revenues produced by land development, ticket commitments, suites, etc. But negotiations never got that far.

The Rays had encouraged Tampa officials to see what ballpark construction had done for the surrounding neighborhoods in Washington, Denver, San Diego and other areas.

"The important thing is that I am convinced and still am convinced that it could be a great thing for the area," he said, "and I'm committed to getting something done. But obviously I can't do this alone. It's going to be a group of people on whichever side of the bay and the whole reason to get it done."

Richard Justice has been a reporter for MLB.com since 2011. Read his columns, listen to his podcast and follow him on Twitter at @RichardJustice.

Tampa Bay Rays

Cash on opener in 2019: 'We're going to do it'

Rays plan to make unique starting strategy part of DNA
MLB.com @RichardJustice

LAS VEGAS -- The use of the opener, which began as a great experiment in how to utilize pitchers, is now a core belief in the Rays organization's planning for 2019.

"I know we're going to do it," Rays manager Kevin Cash said Monday morning at the Winter Meetings. "We are convinced that different looks through an order, challenging lineups, gives us a good chance. We are confident that this is going to help us win games."

LAS VEGAS -- The use of the opener, which began as a great experiment in how to utilize pitchers, is now a core belief in the Rays organization's planning for 2019.

"I know we're going to do it," Rays manager Kevin Cash said Monday morning at the Winter Meetings. "We are convinced that different looks through an order, challenging lineups, gives us a good chance. We are confident that this is going to help us win games."

It did just that in 2018. After the Rays lost 13 of their first 17 games, they became one of the best teams in the Major Leagues and finished 90-72. Along the way, they changed baseball.

On May 19, beset by injuries, Cash started closer Sergio Romo against the Angels. He went just one inning. Lefty Ryan Yarbrough followed and allowed one earned run in 6 1/3 innings. Three relievers got the final five outs, and the Rays won, 5-3.

The next day, Cash started Romo again. He got the first four outs in a game that Tampa Bay lost, 5-2. In doing so, Romo allowed the second pitcher to face the heart of the Angels' lineup only twice, which is when most pitchers are the most effective.

Sure, some eyes rolled. In the end, though, other teams began trying it. Hitters, who normally prepare for one pitcher for the first five-plus innings, suddenly had to prepare for multiple pitchers.

"If we can do something better for the team and give different looks on a consistent basis," Cash said, "we found it was more challenging for the opposition, the lineup."

Video: TB@BOS: Castillo induces a flyout to end the 1st

In the beginning, injuries forced the Rays into the strategy. However, front offices had discussed such a strategy for years. Now, it will be a part of Tampa Bay's DNA. Whether that's true for other teams remains to be seen.

"I think it's going to come down to what clubs, organizations, feel the strength of their staff is, and how it's aligned," Cash said. "If they're a bunch of young guys that they can mix and match, they might go that way. If they're traditional, if they've got a bunch of guys that have logged innings and have a wealth of experience similar to maybe the Red Sox or the Astros, you're going to see them stay pat."

For instance, the Astros had five veteran starters lined up. They weren't about to change how they used Justin Verlander or Gerrit Cole. For many other teams, the data says it will work.

"I'm very confident we're going to do it definitely two, potentially three times through the rotation to start the season," Cash said.

Cash's initial concerns about how his bullpen would handle the workload have mostly been answered. There's still pressure on some of his regular starters, including American League Cy Young Award winner Blake Snell, to not have short starts.

The 2018 Rays used 17 starting pitchers, which was the most in the Majors. Tampa Bay starters lasted three innings or fewer 71 times, the most in at least a century.

The Rays had a 3.50 team ERA after May 19 -- third best in the Majors -- and their 3.61 first-inning ERA was the best in the Majors. In a 28-game span from June 11 through July 12, they didn't allow a first-inning run.

"Now, ultimately, the players give you the buy-in," Cash said. "And we had success with it. They embraced it, enjoyed it and it's a big credit to them."

Richard Justice has been a reporter for MLB.com since 2011. Read his columns, listen to his podcast and follow him on Twitter at @RichardJustice.

Tampa Bay Rays

Rays mourn field coordinator Jim Hoff

MLB.com

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- Longtime Tampa Bay Rays field coordinator Jim Hoff passed away unexpectedly in Tampa, Fla., on Monday. He was 73.

"With heavy hearts, we mourn the untimely death of Jim Hoff," said senior vice president of baseball operations and general manager Erik Neander. "Hoffy spent more than 50 years in professional baseball, and served as our field coordinator for the last 17. During his long career, he made a profound impact on countless players, coaches and staff. He cared deeply for all of them, for the organizations in which he worked, and for the game of baseball. Hoffy was a great teacher and an even better person, beloved by all who knew him, and we will miss him terribly. The entire Rays organization sends our thoughts and sympathies to his family."

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- Longtime Tampa Bay Rays field coordinator Jim Hoff passed away unexpectedly in Tampa, Fla., on Monday. He was 73.

"With heavy hearts, we mourn the untimely death of Jim Hoff," said senior vice president of baseball operations and general manager Erik Neander. "Hoffy spent more than 50 years in professional baseball, and served as our field coordinator for the last 17. During his long career, he made a profound impact on countless players, coaches and staff. He cared deeply for all of them, for the organizations in which he worked, and for the game of baseball. Hoffy was a great teacher and an even better person, beloved by all who knew him, and we will miss him terribly. The entire Rays organization sends our thoughts and sympathies to his family."

Tweet from @RaysBaseball: We're deeply saddened to learn of the passing of longtime Rays field coordinator Jim Hoff. He joined our organization entering 2002 and spent more than 50 years in professional baseball. pic.twitter.com/RaX8WJqGDy

Hoff totaled 51 seasons in professional baseball, and he joined the Rays organization as field coordinator entering 2002. Prior to that, he served the Toronto Blue Jays for four seasons, as field coordinator and director of Minor League development. He also was field coordinator for the Cincinnati Reds from 1984-90. He managed in the Reds organization for 11 seasons (1973-83).

A former infielder, Hoff played in the Reds farm system from 1967-72. He graduated from University of Detroit High School in 1963 and from Xavier University in 1967, and later attended Notre Dame Law School. He is survived by his two sons, Brian and Matthew, and grandson, Hunter.

Tampa Bay Rays

Model manager: Cash's evolution impressive

MLB.com @RichardJustice

LAS VEGAS -- Two of his coaches just got managing gigs. Rays manager Kevin Cash takes no credit for this. On the other hand, why not? He has become the prototype for what every team is seeking in a manager.

He's comfortable in the data-driven world in which the Rays operate and understands its importance to the franchise's success. He also knows the importance of building relationships with players.

LAS VEGAS -- Two of his coaches just got managing gigs. Rays manager Kevin Cash takes no credit for this. On the other hand, why not? He has become the prototype for what every team is seeking in a manager.

He's comfortable in the data-driven world in which the Rays operate and understands its importance to the franchise's success. He also knows the importance of building relationships with players.

In a season during which Tampa Bay reinvented how to utilize pitching staffs while using 54 players -- including 35 rookies -- Cash made it all work seamlessly on the way to 90 wins.

Now, he'll enter the 2019 season -- his fifth -- as the sixth-longest-tenured active manager.

Seems like only yesterday…

"That's amazing to me," he said Monday at the Winter Meetings. "There's a lot of good managers. I know the transition in this game, especially this offseason, with all the jobs that came about, but that's a little odd."

His hiring four years ago raised some eyebrows since he was 36 years old and four years removed from playing his last game. His coaching career was brief.

But the Rays saw him as a perfect fit because of his people skills, smarts and ability to collaborate with analysts. In four years since, everything the Rays hoped he was has been confirmed.

"The person that he is, that we felt so strongly about, that's still the person he is today," said Chaim Bloom, the Rays' senior vice president of baseball operations. "[This job is] so much more than the X's and O's. The tactical part of the job is really important, but so much more of it is about leading the group and learning how to handle people, and really put everybody in position to succeed, especially when you want to do different things tactically."

Video: Cash discusses increasing use of openers in baseball

It was the highest kind of compliment to the Rays and their manager when the Twins (Rocco Baldelli) and Blue Jays (Charlie Montoyo) hired Tampa Bay coaches to be their new managers.

When Cash attended his first Winter Meetings in 2014, he didn't even know what he didn't know.

"It's different. It's different," Cash said. "There's no doubt there's more comfort. I think comfort comes with experience. And this thing here at the Winter Meetings in Vegas, you're going to be more comfortable just because of the atmosphere I think that's created.

"But just the years of managing, the experience, getting to be around so many educated people in the game. You find that balance to where you continue learning, but you also kind of keep in the back of your mind all the stuff that you've learned along the way, and I think gives you some confidence going forward."

The Rangers just hired Dodgers third-base coach Chris Woodward to be their new manager. He and Cash are former workout buddies and teammates.

Video: Woodward excited to be named new Rangers manager

When asked what he saw in Woodward that indicated he might someday be a manager, Cash remembered an incident in Spring Training when he had not run hard to first base on a pop fly.

"Chris kind of took me in the dugout afterward in a very quiet way and said, 'That's not you. That's not the type of player that you're going to be,'" Cash said. "For a guy to do that with three years' experience, I think you've got a pretty good sense. He knows how to communicate with all players, whether it's a veteran guy or the young player. It had a big impact."

One thing Cash understands is how to embrace baseball's information age and to recognize that the walls that once existed between the front office and clubhouse never made sense.

"We just hired a process and analytics coach in Jonathan Erlichman," Cash said. "All teams are looking for an edge right now. And the traditional way of thought is a great way, but if you can bring that thought with maybe those innovative, out-of-the-box thoughts, I think you're getting the best of both worlds.

"There's a tech conference here [at the Winter Meetings]. We have five, six guys going to that to get more knowledge. Whatever we can do, whatever we can look at, whatever information we can utilize to help our players perform on the field, help them get rest, help them with just the grind of the season, we're going to do it."

Richard Justice has been a reporter for MLB.com since 2011. Read his columns, listen to his podcast and follow him on Twitter at @RichardJustice.

Tampa Bay Rays

Wainwright surprises former teammate Pham

Rays outfielder Tommy Pham is keeping himself busy in the offseason by spending some time on the Leones del Escogido in the Dominican Winter League. Even though he finished 2018 with an outstanding 1.071 OPS in 39 games following his trade from the Cardinals, he's not resting on his laurels.

Moving on from St. Louis in July was a change of pace for Pham, who had been with the organization since they drafted him out of high school back in 2006. He made close connections with several Cardinals, and one of them decided to surprise him in the Dominican Republic: Adam Wainwright.

Fox makes AFL's Top Prospects team

MLB.com @wboor

Braxton Davidson's dramatic walk-off homer in the 10th inning back on Nov. 17th lifted the Peoria Javelinas to back-to-back Arizona Fall League titles and signified the end of the AFL season.

However, here at MLB Pipeline, coverage of the AFL is constant. Following the on-the-field play, we have released our top 10 breakout prospects, the top 25 prospects of the AFL and our All-Arizona Fall League Team.

Braxton Davidson's dramatic walk-off homer in the 10th inning back on Nov. 17th lifted the Peoria Javelinas to back-to-back Arizona Fall League titles and signified the end of the AFL season.

However, here at MLB Pipeline, coverage of the AFL is constant. Following the on-the-field play, we have released our top 10 breakout prospects, the top 25 prospects of the AFL and our All-Arizona Fall League Team.

Of course, there's always room for more accolades and that's just what we have below as the Arizona Fall League announced its 2018 Top Prospects team on Monday morning.

The team, selected by league managers and coaches, recognizes players who distinguished themselves against other top prospects throughout the AFL. Voters were asked to consider not only a player's AFL performance, but also their Major League projectability.

Catchers

Daulton Varsho, D-backs No. 5 prospect: Varsho, who put together four multihit efforts over a five-game span, hit .262 and drove in nine runs in 18 games.

Keibert Ruiz, Dodgers No. 2 prospect (No. 39 on Top 100): Ruiz played in just 13 games, but left a strong impression on the league's managers and coaches. The 20-year-old hit .286 with six RBIs and also drew six walks while striking out just twice.

Video: Top Prospects: Keibert Ruiz, C, Dodgers

First Base

Tyler Nevin, Rockies No. 11 prospect: Nevin hit a career-best .328 over 100 games during the regular season and carried that momentum with him into Arizona. Nevin got off to a fast start in the AFL, opening play with a 10-game hitting streak. From there, it was more of the same. The 21-year-old was the AFL's only .400 hitter and ran away with the batting title, slashing .426/.535/.593 and also finished third in the league with 20 RBIs.

Video: SRR@PEJ: Nevin recovers nicely to end the 3rd

Evan White, Mariners No. 5 prospectWhite, who collected 14 RBIs over 18 games, hit .257 with a pair of homers in the AFL. White put together a nine-game hitting streak from late October to early November and also stole two bases after stealing just four during the regular season.

Second Base:

Keston Hiura, Brewers No. 1 prospect (No. 30 on the Top 100): Hiura's ability to hit was no secret -- something his 70-grade hit tool clearly indicated. However, just because it was known that Hiura can hit doesn't mean that watching him do so was any less impressive. The Brewers top prospect went to Arizona to work on his defense and while he made strides in that department, it was his offense that led to him MVP honors. Hiura, who hit .323, led the league in hits (31), RBIs (33) and total bases (54). He also hit the only grand slam of the AFL, put together 11 multihit games and turned in two five-RBI performances.

Jahmai Jones, Angels No. 4 prospect: Jones, coming off a season during which he hit just .239 over 123 games, hit .321 with two homers and 11 RBI in 19 AFL contests.

Third Base:

Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Blue Jays No. 1 prospect (No. 1 on Top 100): Guerrero entered the AFL as the most talked-about prospect and certainly didn't disappoint. Guerrero picked up a trio of hits on Opening Day and kept the hits coming as he began the season with a 13-game hitting streak. The 19-year-old also impressed on the league's biggest stage, hitting a 117 mph double in the Fall Stars Game and concluded his stint in Arizona with a .351 batting average.

Video: Chisholm on Vlad Jr.'s Fall League performance

Yu Chang, Indians No. 6 prospect: Chang, who also played in the 2017 Fall League, put together a strong offensive showing. The shortstop hit .337, thanks in large part to a stretch where he strung together eight multihit efforts over 12 games. Chang also finished tied for third in total bases (45) and fourth in hits (29).

Shortstops:

Cole Tucker, Pirates No. 5 prospect: Tucker's .370 average certainly jumps off the page, but the 22-year-old impressed defensively as well. Tucker's 11 multihit games tied for the league lead (Hiura) and his 30 hits left him tied for second. Tucker also impressed off the field, reguarily staying after the game to take photos and sign autographs and was honored with the league's sportsmanship award.

Video: Cole Tucker talks about his Fall League experience

 Lucius Fox, Rays No. 9 prospect: Fox, who hit .326 over 21 games, put together an eight-game hitting streak in mid-October and tied for second in the league with 10 multihit games. Fox also drew 16 walks and stole seven bases.

Outfielders:

Luis Robert, White Sox No. 4 prospect (No. 44 on Top 100): Robert missed a little bit of time with a minor injury during the AFL, but still hit .324 over 18 games. The winner of the week five Player of the Week Award, Robert put up a 14-game hitting streak from Oc. 9 to Nov. 9. The hitting streak was the longest in the AFL since 2014.

Cristian Pache, Braves No. 6 prospect (No. 68 on the Top 100): Pache hit .279 and turned in four straight multihit games in late October, but the 20-year-old may have been even more impressive defensively. Pache showed off his 60-grade arm and his 70-grade speed on numerous occasions in the outfield and also used that speed to steal three bases.

Ryan McKenna, Orioles No. 12 prospect: McKenna hit .315/.410/.457 over 127 games during the regular season, his best season since the Orioles picked him in the fourth-round of the 2015 Draft, and continued the breakout campaign in Arizona, where he hit .344/.474/.590.

Sam Hilliard, Rockies No. 9 prospectHilliard played in just 16 games, but the small sample size didn't keep him from producing. Hilliard had multiple hits in nearly half (seven) of the games he played and finished with two homers and a .328 average.

Daz Cameron, Tigers No. 8 prospectCameron stole 24 bases in the regular season and then swiped nine bases, which tied him for fourth, during the AFL. The son of former Major Leaguer Mike Cameron hit .342 over 20 games.

Nick Heath, Royals: Heath posted a .427 on-base percentage and once he got on base, he made the most of the opportunities. The Royals prospect led the AFL in stolen bases (13) and runs scored (21), while batting .338 over 21 games.

Designated Hitters:

Peter Alonso, Mets No. 2 prospect (No. 58 on the Top 100): Alonso tied for the Minor League home run lead with 36 during the regular season and then tied for the AFL lead with six. In addition to his six homers, Alonso also hit seven doubles and often showed off his power with eye-popping exit velocities.

Video: EAST@WEST: Alonso lays out for impressive diving stop

Will Craig, Pirates No. 16 prospectCraig tied with Alonso and Davidson for the home run title, while also hitting .304 over 21 games.

Starting Pitchers

Nate Pearson, Blue Jays No. 4 prospect (No. 90 on the Top 100): Pearson racked up 23 strikeouts in 20 1/3 innings and although his ERA sat at 6.20, he did spin three scoreless outings. What's more, Pearson garnered plenty of attention during the Fall Stars Game when his fastball was clocked at 104 mph.

Video: EAST@WEST: Pearson flashes 101 mph+ with regularity

Erick Leal, Cubs: Leal nearly finished the AFL with a perfect 0.00 ERA, but gave up seven runs (six earned) in his final start. The right-hander began the AFL with a 19 1/3-inning scoreless streak and finished 2-1 with a 2.66 ERA over six starts.

Relief Pitchers:

Melvin Adon, Giants No. 19 prospect: Adon, a hard-throwing right-hander, was consistently missing bats out in Arizona. Adon notched 21 strikeouts in 12 1/3 innings and limited opponents to a .163 batting average against. He was particuarily tough on right-handers as they managed to hit just .091 against him.

Justin Lawrence, Rockies No. 16 prospect: Lawrence tied for the AFL lead with three saves and used a nasty fastball-slider combo to strike out 13 batters in 10 2/3 innings.

William Boor is a reporter for MLB Pipeline. Follow him on Twitter at @wboor.