ST. PETERSBURG -- With most of their young core returning in 2020, the Rays won’t have many position battles to sort out when they open camp on Thursday in Port Charlotte, Fla. But with rosters expanding, Tampa Bay will have to make a couple of key decisions to make before Opening Day on March 26 against the Pirates.
Let’s take a look at the position and roster battles Tampa Bay will face during Spring Training.
Who will be the backup catcher?
We know that Mike Zunino will be the team’s primary catcher in 2020, but manager Kevin Cash will have to decide who will back him up. Michael Perez, who was on the Opening Day roster last season, appears to be the front-runner for the job, but the Rays made sure to add depth during the offseason, signing veterans Kevan Smith and Chris Herrmann to Minor League deals with an invite to camp.
Since being acquired from the D-backs in 2018, Perez, 27, has shown flashes of being a quality secondary backstop but has struggled to stay healthy. He hit .284 with one home run in 24 games in ’18, but a left hamstring injury ultimately ended his season. In ‘19, Perez had a .672 OPS in 22 games, but he lost his job to Travis d'Arnaud after suffering a right oblique strain in May.
After d’Arnaud signed with the Braves in free agency, Tampa Bay decided to add Smith and Herrmann to provide depth and competition during Spring Training. Smith, 31, is a four-year veteran who spent the 2019 season with the Angels, during which he hit five home runs and finished with a .710 OPS in 67 games. Herrmann, 32, spent part of last season with the A’s, hitting .202 in 30 games.
With a good spring, either of them could become the team’s primary backup catcher. If that happens, Perez would play regularly at Triple-A Durham and be an option in case of injury. If Perez wins the job out of spring, Herrmann and Smith could choose to accept an assignment to Durham in case the Rays need them later in the season.
Which pitcher rounds out the staff?
After leading the Majors with a 3.65 ERA, the Rays didn’t make any changes to their pitching staff. Blake Snell, Tyler Glasnow, Charlie Morton, Yonny Chirinos and Ryan Yarbrough are the projected starters, barring injury.
In addition, Tampa Bay has six relievers who are safe bets to make the Opening Day roster: Nick Anderson, Diego Castillo, Chaz Roe, Oliver Drake, Colin Poche and José Alvarado. If those 11 pitchers make the Opening Day roster, as expected, the Rays would be left with two more spots.
Tampa Bay could either add another pitcher to the bullpen or start the season with a six-man rotation in order to ease the workload. If the Rays go with relievers, Peter Fairbanks or Andrew Kittredge would be the likely choices. If they go with another starter, it would come down to Brendan McKay, Jalen Beeks, Anthony Banda and Trevor Richards.
“We’re talented,” Cash said. “We have to find a way to keep them healthy. It certainly will be nice to have a good start like we did last year. A lot of that is going to depend on our health.”
Because of those additions, Tampa Bay will have to make some tough decisions as it finalizes the position player group. The Rays have 11 locks to make the Opening Day roster: Willy Adames, Brandon Lowe, Austin Meadows, Yandy Díaz, Ji-Man Choi, Kevin Kiermaier, Martínez, Tsutsugo, Renfroe, Zunino and the winner of the backup catcher job.
But the last two spots on the bench will be up for grabs during Spring Training.
Randy Arozarena, who was acquired from the Cardinals, has an opportunity to fill one of those spots due to his above-average defense at all three outfield positions. Arozarena, however, is still just 24 years old and has only played in 19 big league games. He could serve as a quality backup outfielder, or he could start the season with Triple-A Durham in order to get consistent at-bats. Arozarena's chances to open the season in the Majors were hurt by the acquisition of outfielder Manuel Margot, also a gifted defender who could wind up in a center-field platoon,
The infield situation is a bit more crowded. Nate Lowe, Brian O'Grady, Daniel Robertson and Michael Brosseau all have Major League experience and would be deserving of a place on the roster. Robertson struggled offensively in 2019, finishing with a .607 OPS, but he has the ability to play multiple positions, including the corner outfield. Brosseau is another versatile infielder who can play first, second, third and outfield for Tampa Bay. If Arozarena begins the season in Durham, there’s a chance that both Robertson and Brosseau could take the final two spots. But if Arozarena earns a place on the big league roster, the final spot would likely come down to Brosseau or Robertson, with O’Grady and Lowe serving as depth pieces behind Choi, Tsutsugo and Martínez.