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Around the Horn: Pham, Choi aim to boost Rays

Duo being counted on to come up big in second season with club
MLB.com

Over the past couple of weeks leading up to Spring Training, MLB.com went around the horn to examine each area of the Rays' 2019 roster. The final installment focuses on Tampa Bay's outfield and designated hitters.

ST. PETERSBURG -- While it may appear that the Rays are losing a lot of the power the lineup generated last season due to the departures of C.J. Cron and Jake Bauers, Tampa Bay believes its offense will have even more power in 2019, and most of that is because of the club's options in the outfield.

Over the past couple of weeks leading up to Spring Training, MLB.com went around the horn to examine each area of the Rays' 2019 roster. The final installment focuses on Tampa Bay's outfield and designated hitters.

ST. PETERSBURG -- While it may appear that the Rays are losing a lot of the power the lineup generated last season due to the departures of C.J. Cron and Jake Bauers, Tampa Bay believes its offense will have even more power in 2019, and most of that is because of the club's options in the outfield.

Projected starters: Tommy Pham (LF), Kevin Kiermaier (CF), Austin Meadows (RF), Ji-Man Choi (DH)
The Rays feel confident in the lineup card that manager Kevin Cash will write every game, but because the roster is so young, they also know that there are still some unknowns. Even with the success the young core had in 2018, Tampa Bay knows that it's probable that there will be some struggles as some of the younger players in the lineup will go through a full season for the first time in their career. One thing that is known, however, is that when Pham is clicking, he has the ability to be one of the best hitters in the big leagues.

Around the Horn: Catcher | First base | Middle infield | Third base

After Pham struggled to begin the 2018 season with the Cardinals, the Rays made a move to acquire the 30-year old outfielder in a non-waiver Trade Deadline deal that sent a trio of prospects to St. Louis. It took some time for Pham to show his new team what he was capable of -- he went 2-for-22 to begin his tenure with the Rays -- but once it clicked, Pham showed flashes of the player that took the league by storm in '17 when he finished eighth in National League MVP Award voting.

In 39 games with the Rays, Pham finished with an impressive .343/.448/.622 slash line. It's probably unrealistic to expect that type of production from Pham over a full season, but when he's healthy and in a zone, he has the ability to carry a lineup.

One of the unknowns in the Rays' lineup is the health of Kiermaier. There's no denying that, when healthy, Kiermaier is one of the best -- if not the best -- defensive outfielders in the Majors. But staying healthy has been an issue for him over the past couple of seasons. Kiermaier played 151 games in 2015, but he hasn't played more than 105 games since that season. The 88 games played last season was a career low for the Platinum Glove Award winner.

Kiermaier struggled to get going at the plate in 2018 and then right thumb surgery took him out of the lineup for two months. The 28-year-old outfielder finished with a .217/.282/.370 slash line, which was also a career low. He did, however, finish with a .968 OPS in September. Spring Training is going to be big for Kiermaier, and if he improves just enough at the plate, he could be hitting leadoff for the Rays on Opening Day.

Video: HOU@TB: Kiermaier robs Marisnick on diving grab

As for Meadows and Choi, they're going to get every opportunity to cement themselves as key pieces of the lineup, but there's also the possibility that they will split time, depending on matchups and hot streaks.

Choi, who mostly plays as a designated hitter, got an opportunity to hit in the middle of the Rays' lineup in 2018 and he ran with the opportunity. In just 49 games with Tampa Bay, Choi established himself as a legit power option for the team. He connected on eight home runs and finished with a 141 OPS+. Choi is expected to get most of his playing time against right-handed pitchers, against whom he had a .908 OPS in 2018. His extended playing time will depend on what he does against left-handed pitching, which saw his OPS drop to .513.

Video: TB@TEX: Choi mashes a solo homer to center field

Meadows, who was acquired in the July 31 deal that sent Chris Archer to the Pirates, made his Major League debut in 2018 and showed flashes of the tools that scouts have been raving about ever since Pittsburgh drafted the left-handed hitter in the first round in '13. In limited time at the big league level, Meadows hit six home runs (five of them with the Bucs) in 191 plate appearances. Meadows was the No. 1 prospect in the Pirates' organization in '17, according to MLB Pipeline. It's not a guarantee, but it looks like Meadows will get the first crack at locking down the right-field spot entering the spring.

Video: TOR@TB: Meadows clubs go-ahead homer in the 7th

Other options: Avisail Garcia, Guillermo Heredia, Brandon Lowe
Garcia was the big signing in January and his playing time will be determined by his level of production. If Garcia is able to get close to the production he compiled in 2017, when he hit .330 and was named an All-Star, then he'll have a chance at plenty of playing time in '19. If he's closer to the production he had in '18, when his batting average dipped to .236, then he'll find his role reduced to playing mostly against left-handed pitchers.

While Garcia's spot on the 25-man roster seems to be locked in, Lowe and Heredia still have some work to do this spring. Lowe's chances appear to be better than Heredia's because of what Lowe showed at the end of the 2018 season and his versatility on defense. It appears that the race for the 25th roster spot could come down to Lowe and Heredia.

Who else is in the Pipeline?
No. 4 Jesus Sanchez
No. 15 Joshua Lowe
No. 16 Nick Schnell
No. 17 Joe McCarthy
No. 18 Garrett Whitley
No. 26 Ryan Boldt

Juan Toribio covers the Rays for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @juanctoribio.