The Rays reported to Spring Training with manager Kevin Cash saying they’ll be “creative” and “open-minded” in putting together a pitching staff that will attempt to navigate the leap from last year’s 60-game schedule to a full, 162-game season.
You also must be creative and open-minded when trying to project the Rays’ Opening Day roster for this season this early in Spring Training. For as many sure things as the defending American League champions seem to have on their roster, a lot can change between mid-February and Opening Day.
Assuming 26-man rosters, here’s an early guess at what the Rays’ team could look like when they line up at Marlins Park on April 1.
Catcher (2): Mike Zunino, Francisco Mejía
Kevan Smith or another non-roster invitee could step in if there’s an injury, but this one seems pretty straightforward: Zunino and Mejía are the only catchers on the 40-man roster, so the jobs belong to them. The bigger question might be how they divide playing time behind the plate.
First base (1): Ji-Man Choi The Rays have other corner-infield options if he struggles or they want to make this a platoon, but they’re betting on a bounce-back year from Choi.
Second base (1): Brandon Lowe Lowe can obviously move around the field, but there’s no sense in messing with a good thing here for now.
Shortstop (1): Willy Adames
“Wander Watch” is underway with the Rays’ top prospect reporting to Spring Training, but the starting shortstop job in Tampa Bay still belongs to Adames.
Utility (2): Michael Brosseau, Yoshitomo Tsutsugo Considering his lefty-mashing, defensive versatility and well-documented flair for the dramatic, Brosseau has earned a spot. And after about the strangest imaginable introduction to life in the Majors last season, the Rays expect more from Tsutsugo as he gets comfortable in Year 2.
Outfield (4): Randy Arozarena, Kevin Kiermaier, Manuel Margot, Austin Meadows This is where it gets tricky, for one big reason: Can you really imagine the Rays not finding a way to carve out a spot for the out-of-options Brett Phillips? The hometown kid who delivered the dramatic moment in Game 4 of the World Series? The dynamic defender who seems like a natural fit somewhere in the Rays outfield, whether it’s now or in the near future? Tough to imagine him on waivers at the end of March, isn’t it?
Then again, the Rays seem quite set for now with some combination of postseason hero Arozarena, Kiermaier, Margot and Meadows manning the outfield every day, Tsutsugo bouncing out to left and that whole group rotating through the DH spot. Something’s got to give, right?
But for now, we’ll go with these five as Tampa Bay’s top starting/bulk-inning/rotation options. Glasnow and Yarbrough have earned spots, and the Rays brought in Archer, Wacha and Hill to round out the group.
Relief pitchers (8): Nick Anderson, Diego Castillo, Pete Fairbanks, Collin McHugh, Chaz Roe, Ryan Thompson, Cody Reed, Trevor Richards
Frankly, trying to accurately predict the composition of a pitching staff at the start of Spring Training -- especially this Spring Training -- is nearly impossible. There are far more qualified candidates than available spots, and we’re probably going to see a whole bunch of different pitchers in The Stable throughout the season.
Anderson, Castillo, Fairbanks, McHugh and Roe seem like locks given past performance. Thompson opened and got big outs in the postseason, and it’s easy to imagine him opening in front of lefty starters or bridging the gap to the back-end arms. Reed and Richards both fill roles, Reed as a left-hander and Richards as another length option.
Among the many other realistic candidates here are Josh Fleming, Shane McClanahan, Brent Honeywell and Luis Patiño, who could be stretched out in Triple-A to start rather than stashed in the bullpen for sporadic work, along with Ryan Sherriff, Jeffrey Springs, Chris Mazza and non-roster pitchers like David Hess, Andrew Kittredge, Brian Moran and Hunter Strickland. Oliver Drake and Brendan McKay should get involved when they return to full health later in the year.