ST. PETERSBURG -- The Rays entered Spring Training with hopes of challenging the Yankees for the American League East crown and making another run at the postseason.
While the spring came to an abrupt stop on Thursday due to the coronavirus pandemic, the Rays showed signs of being a team ready to compete against the Yankees and the rest of the top teams in the Majors.
Let’s take a look at three takeaways from the past four weeks.
Pitching is for real
The Rays' front office felt comfortable not making any key offseason additions to a pitching staff that led the AL in ERA (3.65) in 2019. While standing pat could be risky, given how volatile staffs can be from year to year, through the first four weeks of Spring Training the Rays' pitchers showed exactly why the front office was so confident. Despite Blake Snell receiving a cortisone shot, the Tampa Bay rotation was sharp. Ryan Yarbrough and Yonny Chirinos -- who are both trying to make a case to become full-time starters -- shined in their starts, with Chirinos entering camp 15 pounds lighter and topping out at 96 mph. Charlie Morton and Tyler Glasnow picked up where they left off in '19, and Snell feels healthy, despite missing a start. But while the rotation looked poised to be one of the best in the AL, the bullpen looked just as filthy. Nick Anderson, Diego Castillo and Chaz Roe were lights out, while Oliver Drake, Colin Poche, Peter Fairbanks and Andrew Kittredge showed consistency. Then there’s José Alvarado, who looked primed for a bounceback season, giving the Rays yet another flamethrower out of the bullpen.
A big question heading into Spring Training was how Yoshitomo Tsutsugo would adjust to his first big league season, and how he would look defensively and at the plate. Off the field, Tsutsugo had to adjust to a new culture, clubhouse and a different schedule. On the field, he had to adjust to increased pitching velocity, shorter batting practice distances and a relatively new position.Through four weeks, the Rays are happy with what they’ve seen from the Japanese slugger.
Tsutsugo got off to a hot start in spring, but struggled over his last couple of games. He led the team with 13 strikeouts in 28 at-bats, but he also showed signs of a mature approach at the plate, drawing three walks and hitting one home run. Tsutsugo, who is still adjusting to Major League pitching, could benefit if teams return to another Spring Training-type period whenever play resumes.
Beyond the 26-man roster
If Tampa Bay learned anything in 2019, it’s that a team uses more than the Opening Day roster to get through a full season. The Rays used 57 players last season -- a franchise record -- and that experience led them to stockpile as much talent as possible, even if it means some deserving players start the season in the Minors. Randy Arozarena and Brian O'Grady are perfect examples: Both were acquired via offseason trades, and they will likely start the season at Triple-A Durham, but each made a big impression over the last four weeks. Arozarena, 25, hit .400 in 20 at-bats, with nine walks and three stolen bases, and he likely would be the first to be called up whenever the big league club needs an outfielder. O'Grady, on the other hand, impressed with his ability to play multiple positions -- and play them well. The 27-year-old can play all three outfield spots, as well as third and first. He also showed off some power, launching two home runs in 23 at-bats.